Problematic Internet use” is now considered to be a behavioral addiction with characteristics that are similar to substance use disorders.
Individuals with PIU may have difficulty reducing their Internet use, may be preoccupied with the Internet, or may lie to conceal their use.
A recent study that I co-authored with University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill doctoral students Wen Li and Jennifer O’Brien and UNC professor Matthew O. Howard examines this new behavioral addiction.
Perhaps not surprisingly, individuals with PIU have been found to experience several negative mental health problems that could include depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, hostility, social phobias, problematic alcohol use, self-injurious behavior, and trouble sleeping (e.g. sleep apnea, nightmares, insomnia, and struggling to stay awake during the daytime).
Our study is the first to look at how PIU affects family relationships among U.S. university students. Intriguingly, we found that college students with PIU report effects that are both negative and positive.
To better understand PIU, we focused on students whose Internet use was excessive and created problems in their lives.
Study participants were undergraduate or graduate students enrolled at UNC Chapel Hill. We required that participants be individuals who were spending more than 25 hours a week on the Internet (time that was not related to school or work). Additionally, participants had to report experiencing at least one health, relationship, or emotional problem due to PIU.
To recruit our participants, our team sent out an email on a Friday evening. We were not sure if this would be a good time to reach students, but we were surprised that within two hours, 39 students responded. Of those who responded to our email, 27 students attended our four focus groups and completed our questionnaires.
Roughly half (48.1 percent) of our participants were considered “Internet addicts.” These participants answered yes to five or more of our eight questions (e.g. preoccupation, inability to control use, lying about use, depressed or moody when trying to stop).
Another 40.7 percent were considered to be “potential Internet addicts.” These participants answered yes to three or four items. All of the participants met the criteria for PIU using the Compulsive Internet Use Scale, a 14-item scale that included items such as difficulty stopping; sleep deprivation; neglect obligations; feelings of restlessness, frustration, or irritation when Internet is unavailable.
We used focus groups, which are group conversations guided by a facilitator, to discuss shared experiences or knowledge regarding PIU. Each focus group had six to eight participants.
Three key themes emerged in the conversations: family connectedness, family conflict/family disconnection, and Internet overuse among other family members.
We had examples of positive connections. Some participants reported that the Internet connected them to their families. For example, participants discussed using Skype, Facebook, or email to maintain relationships with family while they were away at college.