Are Online Students Addicted to Technology?
March 2nd, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
We can’t escape it. Technology is integrated into many aspects of our lives. College students, especially those attending online schools, will likely have a greater use of technology than the general public, especially if social media use is factored in. Is it possible that you can become too dependent on technology? The term Internet addiction is becoming popular and though it is not officially recognized as a medical condition, it is becoming a problem for many people. Are online students at greater risk for this addiction? There are recognizable symptoms and sources available to address this potential issue before it interferes with your performance in class.
An Internet addiction is viewed as a compulsive behavior and “the person with an Internet addiction may feel a similar ‘rush’ from booting up their computer and going to their favorite web sites.” Dr. Tyger Latham in a Psychology Today blog noted the following about compulsive behaviors: “like other potentially compulsive behaviors such as gambling, exercising, and eating, people who engage in addictive behaviors initially derive pleasure from them, only later to develop a dependence that can become all-consuming and potentially self-destructive.”
Current discussions about Internet addiction and college students often refer to a 2010 international study called Unplugged. Participants for this study were 1,000 college students at 12 campuses, asked to avoid the use of technological devices for 24 hours. Interviews were conducted onsite in 10 countries, including Britain, America, and China. Students’ addiction to technology was compared to drug cravings and “researchers found nearly four in five students had significant mental and physical distress, panic, confusion and extreme isolation when forced to unplug from technology for an entire day.” A majority of the students interviewed admitted they were addicted to multiple forms of technology, including cell phones, laptops, and social networking websites. The technology addiction was evident through the withdrawal symptoms that were “similar to those seen in drug addicts trying to go cold turkey.”
A similar study was conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland in 2010 to address the issue of U.S. college students addicted to technology. The participants consisted of 200 students who were asked to “give up all media for one full day.” The results indicated that “after 24 hours many showed signs of withdrawal, craving, and anxiety, along with an inability to function well without their media and social links.” These results were in line with the findings of the Unplugged international study.
It should be noted that the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize Internet addiction as a disorder, which means there isn’t an official psychiatric diagnosis for this potentially addictive behavior and there aren’t medically recommended treatment plans.
Impact for Online Students
As I considered the potential for online students to be at greater risk for Internet addiction, I found an Internet Addiction Guide by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. This guide presents Internet addiction as a theorized disorder, again confirming that it is not a medical diagnosis. Dr. Grohol posed a question: Do You Spend Too Much Time Online? The answer provided insight that you may also find helpful: “In relation to what or whom? Time alone cannot be an indicator of being addicted or engaging in compulsive behavior. Time must be taken in context with other factors, such as whether you’re a college student (who, as a whole, proportionally spend a greater amount of time online). So talking about whether you spend too much time online without this important context is useless.”
What can be concluded from Dr. Grohol’s perspective is that maintaining an active presence within the online classroom in and of itself does not create an addiction. Your active engagement in the class leads to productive interactions and discussions that allow you to work through the course concepts. What I’ve noticed from my students is that the “always on” aspect of the online classroom is a factor for creating addiction. In other words, if students are used to actively checking Facebook for status updates, they may find themselves constantly checking the discussion boards for new responses – and if there isn’t anything new to read or review they may become agitated or lose interest.
Another aspect of active use of technology and social media websites is that it may cause unrealistic expectations. If students are used to quick responses from social media sites, they may expect this from classmates and their instructors – when others may not have the same usage or response level. Some students schedule a specific time of the day to participate in discussions or work online in the classroom.
Alternate Views of the Problem
Dr. Grohol also provided an alternative view of Internet addiction that is worth considering: “Would we ever characterize any time spent in the real world with friends as ‘addicting?’ Of course not. Teenagers talk on the phone for hours on end, with people they see every day! Do we say they are addicted to the telephone? Of course not. People lose hours at a time, immersed in a book, ignoring friends and family, and often not even picking up the phone when it rings. Do we say they are addicted to the book? Of course not. If some clinicians and researchers are now going to start defining addiction as social interactions, then every real-world social relationship I have is an addictive one.”
Dr. Miller, a psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, believes that there is no need to give it a label and that “computers are such an integral part of our life that in a certain sense we’re all addicted to the technology;” and “we’re ‘addicted’ in the same way that we’re ‘addicted’ to automobiles. We all have to struggle with putting aside things that are gratifying, but aren’t satisfying over the long term.”
Both clinicians offer a valid perspective about categorizing Internet users. Just because you are an online student does not mean you are or will be addicted. It can become an issue if active involvement becomes compulsive in nature and you are unable to schedule time to be away from the class.
Addressing the Problem
If you want to assess your current level of Internet usage, you can take an Internet Addiction Quiz, which was developed by the Center for Online Addiction. There are 20 questions and a score calculated at the end. The most significant result you can receive is described as follows: “Your Internet usage is causing significant problems in your life. You should evaluate the impact of the Internet on your life and address the problems directly caused by your Internet usage.” If you find that your Internet usage is becoming excessive and/or it begins to feel compulsive, what can you do if there aren’t medical guidelines or treatment plans?
Dr. Jose Calderon, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, LA, offers advice in Overcoming Technology Addiction:
• Set a certain time of day for using electronic devices.
• Limit the amount of time spent.
• Define your objective. If you are surfing the Web, determine exactly what you are searching for, such as the stock reports or information about elections.
• Set other restrictions, such as limiting the number of times you check your e-mail, or putting a ban on text messaging.
Your work as an online student requires more Internet usage because of a requirement to be actively involved and present in your class. Keep an eye on how frequently you find yourself checking the class and establish a schedule or fixed routine for the required learning activities – so that you can maximize your study time and minimize the potential for your Internet usage to become a compulsive behavior. If you find that this is becoming an issue, try some of the suggestions provided. You can also check with your school for available resources and counseling services.
Could you live without your technological devices for 24 hours? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.
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