When Bryant College Professor Janet Morahan-Martin conducted her first study of Internet use two years ago, she found that one finding lingered in her mind most.
Of the about 300 Bryant students she surveyed, 18 percent of those whose use of the Web was deemed pathological said that most of their friends were online – people they had never met in person.
”I was really stunned that almost one out of five said that; it was a number that just stayed with me,” Morahan-Martin said. She is now preparing for another round of tests on the issue that has commonly become known as “Internet addiction.”
The first study, conducted with Bryant math professor Phyllis Schumacher, was revealing in and of itself. Morahan-Martin, a psychology professor, was looking to study how much time students spent online, their purpose for using it, how they communicated in cyberspace compared to their other forms of communications, and to what extent users of the Internet suffer from loneliness.
The lengthy survey had about 100 questions and took 20 minutes to complete. By looking at the reasons people used the Internet, Morahan-Martin was able to distinguish between the more casual users and those whose use was replacing real-life experience.
But determining when Internet use actually becomes a problem can be difficult, she admitted. Indeed, the issue as to whether overuse of the Internet is ever a problem is heatedly discussed among researchers, she said.
As for her own research, Morahan-Martin found that using the Web to form friendships can be both good and bad, depending on the person.
“I think it’s a mixed bag. They’re friendships without the demands of everyday friendships; there’s an artificiality about it,” she said. But she added: “It may be wonderful for them to find people who are just like them when they think they’re the only one who has (a given) problem.”
For people who are socially withdrawn, she said, the Internet seems to be the made-to-order medium. They can disguise themselves, role play, swap genders, and form a new identity for themselves. “For some people it allows (them) to work through issues and change themselves in a positive way – that’s the double-edged sword,” she said.
To some extent, Morahan-Martin agrees with critics who charge that people today are characterizing too many bad habits as “addictions.” To some extent, she agrees with people who say that using the Internet too much is no worse than reading too much or playing too much golf.
But she is quick to temper her remarks by saying that the dynamics of compulsive Internet use seem to be different from other bad traits. Generally, use of the Internet becomes a problem when it interferes with the rest of your life: If you have stopped going to meet friends, sleeping, or suffered other fatigue-related physical problems because of the Web, than there may be a problem, she said.
One of the problems with the knowledge about compulsive Internet use in general, she and other researchers said, is that many of the studies have been done online – which creates problems with the statistical samples – and most of the in-person surveys have been done at college campuses.
To do a credible study of the adult population, Morahan-Martin said, it would take a survey of 2,000 to 3,000 adults – which is very expensive. For now, since the issue is new, and because there seems to be paucity of funding sources for studies on Internet use, solid studies of adults do not exist.
She also added that no one has studied the time variable in which the symptoms of over-use persist. It may be possible that teenagers – especially boys, who she has found are particularly attracted to Internet games called Multi-User Domains – may go through a stage of heavy use that subsides over time.
Morahan-Martin said she hopes to conduct a second round of tests on Internet use this fall. She said this study will be different from her first survey in that she will concentrate more on the social anxiety and loneliness issues associated with Internet use.