By Delia Cotoros-Goodall

The last two decades have seen the Internet become an essential medium for occupational, academic, and personal purposes. As our culture becomes more dependent on the Internet, it is no surprise that we are starting to hear reports of people displaying problematic behaviour in relation to compulsive use of such technology.

In 1996 Dr. Kimberly Young was the first to publish a detailed case report of one of her patients who described problems due to her Internet use. The patient was a 43-year-old housewife, non-technologically orientated, and with no previous psychiatric or addiction history and a “content home life”. Within three months of coming in contact with chat rooms the patient was spending up to 60 hours online per week. She described feeling happy and excited when using a computer, while irritable, depressed, and anxious when she was not. She began ignoring her chores, abandoned the social activities she used to enjoy and engage in, and became alienated from her husband and daughters.

In the same year the phrase “Internet Addiction” was widely circulated by Dr. Ivan Goldberg, who created a website in jest, describing the criteria for a condition he called “Internet Addiction Disorder” (IAD). Although Dr. Goldberg admitted that he was not serious when he created the site, the seriousness with which others perceived this, and the number of responses from those who believed they fit the proposed criteria for IAD, indicated the existence of a real and potentially significant problem.

The media rapidly made use of the term and started reporting on stories where people divorced their spouses as a result of online affairs, people who were fired because they used the Internet while on company time, people who spent their life-savings on Internet-related cost, and people who have collapsed or died from long periods of uninterrupted Internet use. Due to the increasing accessibility and widespread use of the Internet, and the potential for negative consequences, an increasing number of researchers are turning their attention to exploring our use of the Internet and the effects that this has on our daily lives as well as our mental and social wellbeing.

There certainly is agreement that some people experience negative consequences as a result of their Internet use. However, in order to develop a plan for helping people, we must first understand what it is exactly that we are dealing with. Since 1996 academics have developed measures aimed at assessing whether someone’s use of the Internet is problematic or not. However, there has not been any agreement as to where to draw the line between what is okay and what is not. Some older measures considered someone as being “addicted” or having a problem if they spend 20 or more hours per week online. Given how our society has evolved so much that we have entire jobs dependent on the Internet, and that we are constantly connected to the Internet in some way, 20 hours total per week seems to be a very outdated number.

Furthermore, researchers that have attempted to develop a scale or questionnaire for this issue have often adopted a top-down approach, where the researchers developed the scale based on their observations of people’s pathological use of the Internet. As a result, the content of existing measures often reflects what the researcher believes to be “a problem”, and many of the scales are rapidly becoming out-dated given the rapid expansion of the Internet and what we use it for. Previous measures included questions such as, “I often leave my computer connected to the Internet so I won’t have trouble getting on again later”, “I ask questions on the Internet that I could easily find the answers to in the library”, and “How often do you feel that there is always exciting information on the Internet?”. Given the easy access we have via our phones and the colossal amount of information available on the internet, how would questions such as these be useful at distinguishing people who have a problem with their Internet use from those who do not?

In an attempt to address this literature gap, I have dedicated my PhD to developing a new measure aimed at assessing Problematic Internet Use in New Zealand. First, I approach the issue differently from the previous ideas of addiction, and steer away from using such terminology. Part of the reason for that is the belief that people’s use of the Internet is not dichotomous in nature (addicted vs. non-addicted), but rather on a continuum ranging from “normal” to “problematic”.

Secondly, in order to differentiate between what is “normal” and “problematic”, I have adopted a more participatory approach. Unlike previous researchers who decided for themselves what classifies as a “problem”, I have conducted focus groups with over 70 Internet users and discussed extensively what behaviours would be indicative of someone who has a problem in this day and age. The next step of the study is to validate my preliminary measure on a large sample of New Zealanders and explore the appropriateness of the measure in a New Zealand context. Although there have been some studies exploring New Zealanders’ use of the Internet (how do we connect, how much time we spend online, what do we do online, etc.), no study has attempted to assess “problematic use”. As a result, in addition to creating a validated measure of Problematic Internet Use, it is hoped that my study will also provide a picture of the issue in New Zealand in terms of how common this is, who are those affected, and the effects it has on them.

Delia is a PhD candidate in Health Science at the University of Auckland. Her research is the first study in New Zealand with the goal of exploring the issue of Problematic Internet Use (PIU) and its relationship between existing psychopathology such as depression, social anxiety and substance abuse. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.