Computer Addictions Entangle Students

More students report they are addicted to their computers, and their studies and social lives are suffering as a result.

It's 4 a.m. and 'Steve' is engulfed in the green glare of his computer screen, one minute pretending he's a ruthless mafia lord masterminding a gambling empire, the next minute imagining he's an evil sorcerer or an alien life form.

Steve, a college student, is playing a Multiple User Dungeon (MUD) game-a fictional game modeled after Dungeons and Dragons that is played by sending online messages to other players. But as he continually logs on hours, Steve finds himself sleeping through classes, forgetting his homework and slipping into 'Internet addiction'-a disorder emerging on college campuses. Affected students spend up to 40 hours to 60 hours a week in MUDs, e-mail and chat rooms, racking up online time unrelated to their school work.

'These people stay on their computers from midnight 'til the sun comes up,' said Jonathan Kandell, PhD, assistant director of the counseling center at the University of Maryland-College Park. 'It becomes a downward spiral they get sucked into.'

Internet addiction can afflict anyone who has easy access to the plethora of online services, but students seem especially prone to it. As universities increasingly give students their own free Internet accounts, psychologists like Kandell and Kimberly Young, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford, have noticed them spending larger amounts of time online, sometimes to the detriment of their social lives and studies.

'For many students this is a very real problem,' says Young. 'Some of them are saying it's destroying their lives.'

Few students seek help for 'Internet addiction' per se. But in intake interviews, many of them say they recognize that they go online to escape, university counseling centers report. Some students say they feel fidgety and nervous during every minute of 'offline' time and claim they go online to avoid life's pressures.


Young likens Internet addiction to any other form of addiction: It becomes a problem when it interferes with other parts of peoples' lives, such as sleep, work, socializing and exercise.

'Some of these people even forget to eat,' she says.

The Internet can be a healthy, helpful tool when used to find information or to communicate with friends, co-workers and professors, she said. But people become dependent on it when they use it mainly to fill their time, and may even lose the ability to control that use.

'Substitute the word 'computer' for 'substance' or 'alcohol,' and you find that Internet obsession fits the classic 'Diagnostic Statistical Manual' definition of addiction,' says Young.

People seek the same escapist, pleasurable feelings from the Internet that they seek from drugs, gambling or alcohol, she believes. Gambling gives them a high, alcohol numbs them and the Internet offers them an alternate reality. Just as people struggle to keep from taking a drink or popping a pill, they struggle to turn their computer off, she said. And the Internet can serve as a tonic for students with underlying social problems, depression or anxiety.

Paradoxically, the Internet's usefulness and social acceptability make it easy to abuse, says psychologist Kathleen Scherer, PhD, of the counseling and mental health center at the University of Texas-Austin.

Students will log on to their computer to check e-mail from a professor or to write a paper for their biology class, and then with a simple push of a button, immerse themselves in Internet banter for hours.

'It becomes so easy for students to move between work time and play time that the line between the two gets blurred,' said Scherer.

Plug-in buddy

Another danger of incessant online surfing, is that Internet social interactions can start to replace real social relationships, Scherer warns.

Although some educators argue that television or reading also cut into peoples' social lives, Scherer claims the Internet is more addictive because it offers interaction with other people that ostensibly fills a social void. Stories abound about Internet addicts who lose mates, families and friends, and about students who would rather ask strangers for dates over e-mail than approach them in person.

Students visiting chat rooms or playing MUD games can assume new, glamorous identities. Some start to believe that they're loved and cared for in their new identities-'an illusion that these online relationships are the same as the real thing,' said Kandell.

'Online you have the freedom to talk to anyone, be anything you want and not be censored for it,' he said. 'It's a sort of unconditional acceptance unusual in flesh-and-blood relationships that makes you less used to dealing with real life.'

Students sometimes attach to their computers emotionally and form a distorted view of social interactions, notes psychologist Linda Tipton, PhD, a colleague of Kandell's at Maryland. They spend the evening with their computer instead of going out and meeting people, she said.

Logging off

Psychologists are looking for ways to help Internet junkies overcome their addiction. Hoping to attract the ones who don't come in for counseling-the majority-Tipton last fall offered a campus-wide workshop called 'Caught in the Net.' Only three students attended because, Tipton says, 'it's hard to break through the denial and admit you have a problem.'

Scherer drew a bigger audience for a workshop she hosted at the University of Texas with her husband, computer scientist Jacob Kornerup. Sixteen people, both faculty and students, attended the session, and learned how to control the amount of time they play online, for instance, by stopping their subscriptions to the online services they find most addictive (see sidebar on page 38).

Attendees informally told Scherer that the workshop helped, and some pursued counseling for their addiction. To determine the extent of the problem at the University of Texas, Scherer and psychologist Jane Morgan Bost, PhD, assistant director of the counseling and mental health center, are conducting a study of 1,000 students, some who use the Internet and some who don't. They want to determine the forms the disorder takes and how best they can help afflicted students.

For example, some students may prefer online support services to counseling or workshops, said Scherer. Already the Internet Addiction Support Group, an Internet service recently established by psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg, MD, has begun attracting subscribers. Users of the service own up to their addiction and swap ways to tackle it.

Once addicts can say 'enough is enough,' and deliberately switch the computer off without regret, they're on the way to recovery, said Scherer.

'There are a lot of valuable and not-so-valuable resources on the Internet,' she said. 'To manage your use, you have to know the difference in value and know yourself.

Source: APA Monitor

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 29). Computer Addictions Entangle Students, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: June 24, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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