College Students Are At Risk of Problem Internet Usage

Posted By Eliana Osborn on March 23, 2016 at 5:05 pm
College Students Are At Risk of Problem Internet Usage

If you spend more than 25 hours online during a week, not doing school or work activities, you’re considered an excessive Internet user.  And college students in particular might be more susceptible to this kind of behavior. A recent study published in PLOS ONE looked at college students with problem internet usage in an attempt to figure out ways to intervene.

Problem Internet usage (PIU) is defined by professionals as “use of the Internet that creates psychological, social, school, and/or work difficulties in a person’s life.”  All college students in the U.S. use the internet, but estimates on how many have behavior defined as problematic range from 10 to 15%.

Susan Snyder and her coauthors note that college students are especially at risk for PIU because of unlimited web access, increased freedom from supervision, and schedules with large blocks of free time.  Together, these factors make it easy to go from regular internet usage to compulsive or addictive behavior.

Writing for The Conversation, Snyder explains how the study worked.  Identified students met in groups to talk about the positives and negatives of the Internet – things like staying connected to family came up, but students also discussed ignoring family when together in favor of time online.  “Participants described their parents’ PIU as well. Several participants described their parents as ‘constantly checking email’ for their work. Others described their parents as regularly on computers, phones, or iPads, ‘on Facebook’ or ‘browsing.’”

Another new study on undergraduate students looked at social media usage specifically.  Researchers from Cal State-Fullerton used fMRI imaging to actually see inside students’ minds. According to the study, “Brain scans found that students exposed to images associated with Facebook had patterns of neural activity also seen in people with substance addictions or gambling addictions.”

How can colleges and universities help students displaying addictive behaviors?  Counseling centers are already overwhelmed with students suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, and problem drinking has long been a campus concern.  However, recent research focused on California school mental health spending showed increased spending led to improvements in graduation rates, a situation that seems applicable to PIU issues.

And Internet addiction isn’t just a problem for college students, though they are certainly at risk.  A recent story in The Atlantic discussed treatment programs for this problem — as well as the controversy over whether Internet usage really qualifies as an addictive behavior.  Author Clare Foran notes that “Internet use must significantly and adversely affect daily life—causing relationships, work, or health to suffer—to qualify as an addiction.”  Treatment can involve detox and residential treatment, just like alcohol or drug rehabilitation.

The best protection for today’s college student is prevention.  Using the Internet responsibly and not allowing it to take up ever-increasing amounts of time requires restraint, just like learning how to balance other behaviors.  Foran again explains, “At reSTART [sort of a rehab for technology addiction], participants learn to think of their inclination for the Internet as an addiction much like any other. And to prep for a return to the outside world, they devise a plan to limit their use of the Internet, a sort of road map to avoid potential triggers and implement coping strategies.”

As broadband speeds increase and devices to keep students constantly connected abound, campuses will need to help students make healthy choices.  Teaching strategies for sustainable Internet usage may one day become as common as talking about safe drinking and designated drivers.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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