This study explored the influence that personal relations and communications within Internet chat rooms has on a user's Internet Predisposition - a concept developed to refer to what psychologists have vicariously termed as Internet addiction. Two measures of Internet Predisposition were utilized: a quantitative measurement based upon time spent in chat rooms and the Internet, and a four item Internet Predisposition Scale (IPS) developed by the authors. Results of the study indicate that the IPS is significantly correlated with certain personal relations and communication variables. It further revealed stronger correlation between these factors and the IPS in comparison to the quantitative measurement of Internet addiction. The study also examined the moderator influence of gender, locus of control, and sociability on the relationship between Internet addiction and chat room personal relationships and communications. Gender was shown to have the strongest moderator influence upon these relationships.
The concept of Internet addiction has recently entered the social problem lexicon. Inordinate amounts of time spent engaging in various types of Internet activities such as muds, chat rooms, and discussion groups have been cited as having a negative impact on social relationships, marriages, school achievement, work performance, health, and other vital life functions (Young, 1998; King, 1996). Given the prediction that 80 percent of American households will be connected to the Internet by 2000 (Young, 1998), Internet addiction is perceived as a possible societal epidemic. To address this increasing concern, The Center for On-Line Addiction (1998) has classified Internet addiction into five specific types:
Cybersexual Addiction – Addictions to adult chat rooms or cyberporn.
Cyber-relationship Addiction – On-line friendships made in chat rooms, MUDS, or newsgroups that replace real-life friends and family.
Net Compulsions – Compulsive online gambling, online auction addiction, and obsessive online trading.
Information Overload – Compulsive web surfing or database searches
Computer Addiction – Obsessive computer game-playing or to programming aspects of computer science.
The study reported within this paper is related specifically to the second type, Cyber-relationship Addiction, and focuses primarily on attitudes toward and conduct in electronic chat room communication. This type of interchange is a group and mass communication system, in which users send and receive text-based messages. The time delay of these computer-mediated messages can be nearly instantaneous or “real time” text interchange (December, 1996). The social aspects of chat room communication make the subject of addiction amenable to sociological investigation. Currently, the vast majority of the empirical and theoretical inquiry into this phenomenon has utilized psychological frameworks.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the extent to which social factors, delineated in terms of interpersonal communication variables, are associated with what is referred to as Internet addiction among college students at a large Midwestern University. We also want to determine if gender, locus of control, and individual sociability moderate the relationships between communication variables and Internet utilization. This type of analysis makes the current study more systematic in its approach for understanding the dynamics underlying the so-called Internet addiction phenomena. Previous studies on this topic have been more descriptive in their methodological approach and have not systematically attempted to empirically describe the manner in which the variation in Internet utilization is explained by selected social or social psychological factors. We contend that such an analysis will offer a different viewpoint of the so-called Internet addiction phenomena that has been presented by the psychological frameworks that currently predominate the discussion and analyses on this topic.
The paper will proceed with the following format:
Psychologists have labeled Internet addiction as Internet Addiction Disorder – IAD, a term first used by Goldberg (1996). According to Goldberg, IAD exists when the individual experiences “decreased occupational, academic, social, work-related, family-related, financial, psychological, or physiological functioning”. He suggests that a parallel of IAD would be pathological gambling.
In an online survey of 496 web users, Young (1998) categorized 80 percent of the respondents as being addicted to the Internet. She concludes that the most salient factors contributing to IAD are the capabilities of an individual to take on different roles, the anonymous nature of computer-mediated communications, and the prospects for developing meaningful interpersonal relationships. She used the following criteria (similar to that of compulsive gambling and alcoholism) in determining Internet addiction:
In another online survey conducted by Brenner (1996) of 185 Internet users it was reported that 17 percent may be addicted to the Internet, which included spending 40 or more hours per week online. The survey indicated that nearly half of the respondents experienced adverse effects in their work as a result of online usage. Ten percent reported problems with employment and school due to online activity.
Cojac, (1996) reports that there is an inverse relationship between the number of hours spent per day on the Internet and the average number of sleep hours per night. It appears from this particular research that Internet utilization affects sleep patterns, an outcome that is common to other addictions such as alcohol and drug addictions.
A common idea that is reported within the majority of these studies is that Internet addiction is affected by social interactions. However, none of the studies have empirically examined the ways in which IAD correlates with social factors. Furthermore, none of the studies have utilized conceptual frameworks that would explain the sociological nature of their findings.
Our objective within the next section of this paper is to discuss some sociological aspects of computer mediated communication that could serve as a context for exploring heavy Internet utilization from a sociological perspective.
Contrary to earlier propositions that the cueless structure of the Internet, and chat rooms in particular, would create a normless context in which individuals would be less constrained to exhibit deviant type behavior, and where interpersonal relations would be tenuous and superficial (Dubrovsky, Kiesler, and Sethna, 1991; Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler and McGuire, 1986; Rice, 1993; Rice and Love, 1987; Short, Williams, and Christie, 1976; Sproull and Kiesler, 1991), recent research has shown that electronic communication mediums such as chat rooms are organized according to social standards (Bellamy and Hanewicz, 1998) and that altruistic friendship relations are common (Parks, 1996). Indeed, it is the social characteristics of chat rooms that may be the primary antecedents and reinforcements generating the so-called addictive behavior (Young, 1996; Suler 1996; King, 1998).
Attributes of Internet communications that enhance its social appeal are:
These as well as other factors may make Internet communication very attractive for some individuals, individuals who have been labeled as Internet Addicts within current psychological literature. The Internet, where conventional information symbols are absent, represents a radically different situational platform for interpersonal electronic communication. It allows the individual to more freely engage in reciprocal communication in comparison to traditional face-to-face environments.
Given the nascent state of empirical and theoretical knowledge on Internet communications within sociology, it is indeed helpful to refer to extant theoretical frameworks that can be utilized to engender a sociological imagination towards Internet research. While the major objective of the present paper is to explore the correlational structure of Internet communication factors, we will reference tenets of symbolic interaction theory (Mead, 1934) and Stryker’s identity theory (1980). and utilize them as “sensitizing” concepts” (Giddens, 1996) while analyzing our data.
From a sociological perspective, identity emerges from the recursive interplay between taking the role of others in a given situation (where the process of taking-the-role of the other is influenced by the symbols present within a given social situation) and the social interactions that occur from
a situational context that has been symbolically defined by the individual. (Mead, 1934). The Internet, where conventional information symbols are absent, represents a radically different situational platform for self-presentation, which in turn may have an influence on identity formation.
Within sociology, identity is considered a subset of “self”. That is, self consists of several identities, wherein the manifestation of a specific identity is contingent upon the exigencies of a social situation. Stryker, (1980) suggests that identities are arranged according to a “salience hierarchy”, whereas the dynamics of a social situation determine the identity or identities that will be evoked. “The salience hierarchy determines those identities that respond as people orchestrate their roles and interpret the role behaviors of others......when an interaction situation is isolated from structural constraints, or these structural constraints are ambiguous, individuals will have more options in their choice of an identity” (Turner, 1998).
The point that we are attempting to make here with Stryker’s concept of the saliency hierarchy of identity is this: When simultaneously taking into consideration the factors that we have delineated that enhances the appeal of the Internet, and the idea that the Internet is a situation having few
structural constraints as described by Stryker, the Internet can be conceived as a viable context in which identity can be more readily manipulated by the individual (This may be particularly relevant for presenting one’s “ideal” self). Fewer symbolic props are needed in order to present self (Goffman, 1959) to others in this type of social environment than in FTF conditions. This is a very important and significant sociological characteristic of electronic communication. The individual may effectively present not just one or two identities, but as many that are contained within one’s compendium of self. In other words, “self” can be more systematically and comprehensively presented within this environment than in FTF situations. Furthermore, the saliency attached to each identity is more in the control of the individual, rather than the social context, which may give the person a heightened sense of “self control” and /or personal life satisfaction. However, the processes underlying these factors are social, for the identities that are being projected by the individual are yet still attached and nourished by the expectations of others (with similar self objectives and methods of defining the situation) within the electronic communication environment. This idea is supported by Walther (1996) in his statement regarding communication feedback on the Internet:
“Another component of the model, feedback, suggests that these heightened self-presentations and idealized perceptions magnify each other to a superordinal level, as users reciprocate each other’s partial and selective presentations.”
Once again, the theoretical ideas presented above are not directly tested within this literature.
However, it does provide conceptual legitimacy to a study of Internet addiction from a sociological perspective.
Men and women have different cultural orientations that may influence the way in which they define electronic communication situations. “Gender characteristics are a primary means by which we sort and define self and others. Sex attributes provide basic information about how to conduct interactions with others and how to organize social reality” (Obrien, 1999). Gender, as a “social” construct has not been systematically examined within Internet addiction research. Our objective is to measure the extent to which gender influences the connection between so-called Internet addiction and social communication factors.
This idea is supported by Walther (1996) in his statement regarding communication feedback on the Internet. “Another component of the model, feedback, suggests that these heightened self-presentations and idealized perceptions magnify each other to a superordinal level, as users reciprocate each other’s partial and selective presentations.”
Taken altogether, these structural characteristics of chat rooms may function as very powerful enticements for human beings. From a sociological perspective, heavy chat room users may be people who attach a higher degree of saliency (Stryker and Serpe, 1982) to communication related factors such as establishing friendships in chat rooms than individuals who utilize it less frequently. They may be more oriented towards defining chat rooms as places where feelings can be expressed and where personal relationships are important, where people are good listeners and so on. Since the appeal of the Internet has a lot to do with interpersonal communication, we would expect heavy users to be relatively sociable people. We will test this proposition within the current report by testing for the moderator influence of an individual’s sociability orientation on the relationships between our Internet Predisposition scale (a term that will be used in place of Internet Addiction) and various factors related to social communications.
The freedom that the Internet allows for self-presentation would also suggest that a heavy user would possibly be a person of moderate to high self-esteem and confidence. This idea will be examined by reviewing the impact that locus of control (Rotter, 1966) has on the correlation between Internet Predisposition and various communication variables.
Based upon the ideas presented within the theoretical discussion, this paper will attempt to examine the correlation between chat room and Internet utilization, and a scale that measures Internet predisposition and the following attributes of individuals:
The extent to which there are differences between individuals categorized as High Internet Predisposition (HIP) and Low Internet Predisposition (LIP) chat room users in terms of why they visit chat rooms.
Men and woman have different cultural orientations that may influence the way in which they define electronic communication environments. Such differences in turn may affect the nature of the correlation between the measurements of Internet addiction and the personal relationship and communication factors delineated above. This paper will examine the extent in which gender moderates these relationships, which has not been conducted in previous Internet addiction studies.
Data for this study was collected from 114 undergraduate and graduate students in a relatively large university in Southeast Michigan during the months of April – June 1998. The undergraduate students were enrolled in a technology and society-type class that satisfies a basic studies requirement at the university. Subsequently, the sample population represents a wide spectrum of undergraduate degree programs and career orientations within the university. A full sample was taken among students who identified themselves as chat room users (for both undergraduate and graduate students). The graduate students were all enrolled in an interdisciplinary technology program. Each student completed a 104-item questionnaire (during class time) that measured a variety of Internet and chat room utilization factors.
The following summarizes the demographic structure of the study:
An underlying theme of this paper is that the term Internet Addiction as delineated by psychologists is a construct that has not been empirically validated. Subsequently, this paper will deploy the term High Internet Predisposition (HIP) to describe individuals who score high on our IP scale. The following four (4) items were used to measure Internet Predisposition:
Each of the above items utilized a five-point, Likert-type scale with response categories ranging from Agree to Disagree. These four items were summed together to form an Internet Predisposition Scale (IPS). The alpha reliability of the scale is .74. The range of scores for this sample is 4 – 19 with a mean average of 7.18 and a median of 6.00.
For the purposes of this study, HIP has been operationalized as being a score of above 11: n=18 or 16% of the sample population. Based upon the concepts presented within the literature on what constitutes Internet Addiction, this scale appears to be high on content validity. In order do conduct a comparison between “addictive” and “non-addictive” chat room users, the IP scale was recoded into two categories. Scores ranging from 4 thru 11 denote low Internet predisposition (LIP). This category contains 96 cases or approximately 84% of the study population. Scores ranging from 12 thru 19 constitute high Internet predisposition. Eighteen (18) cases or approximately 16% of the study population are included within this range of scores.
Another method for measuring IP is the number of hours per week that people spend in chat rooms and the Internet in general. We included both of these variables within our survey. The correlation between the two variables is .75 (p=.00). This very highly correlation indicates that both variables are measuring the same construct. - time spent on the Internet. Nevertheless, this paper will present data for each of these variables. The correlation between time spent in chat rooms and the Internet with the IP scale is .225 (p=.00) and .342 (p=.00) respectively.
The following items were used to measure perceptions regarding personal relations in chat rooms:
Sociability was measured by a 7-item, Likert-type scale consisting of anchor points ranging from Agree to Disagree created by Hanewicz and Bellamy (1998). Scores ranged from 7 to 50 with a mean and median of 26.2 and 27 respectively. The alpha reliability for this scale is .72. (See Appendix A for entire scale.)
Locus of Control (Rotter, 1966) is a personality orientation variable which delineates how individuals attribute outcomes related to their actions. People who see themselves as being able to “control” events of their actions are referred to as internals. Those who are more oriented towards believing that events are outside of their control are characterized as being externals. Locus of control was measured by a 10-item scale developed by Burger (1986) which consisted of 7 scale points ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Scores ranged from 24 to 80 with a mean and median of 49.1 and 51 respectively. Higher scores indicate an internal orientation. The alpha reliability coefficient for this scale is .62. (See Appendix A for the entire scale.)
The correlation between the IP scale and these variables is a way to determine whether individuals with higher levels of IP are attaching higher saliency towards personal relationships. The data revealed in Table 1 indicates that the IP scale is significantly correlated with five out of the seven personal relationship variables and the direction of each of these is positive. Overall, this finding appears to be suggesting that Internet users who report that time spent within chat rooms are negatively affecting their social and personal lives, are more likely to report that they form personal relationships in chat rooms, that they form relationships easily, that they confide in individuals with whom they have formed personal relations, and that such relations are characterized with a degree of closeness and commitment. However, these correlations are somewhat small, thus giving limited (yet, statistically significant) support to our idea that HIP individuals are attaching greater saliency to personal relationships.
The results in Table 1 illustrate that the IP scale is a much better predictor of interpersonal perceptions than either of the quantitative measurements of Internet addiction (at least for this sample). What is interesting is that the IA scale is significantly correlated with both the chathour and nethour variables. This appears to allude to the possibility that our social psychological measurement of IP is measuring a different construct than the quantitative measurements.
If Internet addiction is similar to other addictions such as gambling and alcoholism one would expect that it would be significantly and negatively correlated with variables that measure aspects of self esteem such as Locus of Control. That is, the higher the addiction, the lower the self esteem. Since locus of control is a surrogate measurement of self-esteem and confidence, it is expected that there would be a high correlation between IP and LOC. However, none of the addiction measurements are significantly associated with locus of control. Instead, significant correlations appear between the IP factor and social factors, giving additional support to the idea that much of what has been labeled Internet Addiction might not be, in fact, an addiction. This is not to say that true Internet addiction does not exist, only that it may not take the form of other, more “traditional” addictions, and it may be hasty to apply current addiction doctrine to a new form of social communication.
Demographic Structure of Study
Table 2 illustrates that for the population as a whole, there are fewer significant relationships between the addiction factors and the communications variables when compared to the personal variables within Table 1. The data indicates that there is a fairly strong and statistically significant correlation between the IPS and the perceptions that people in chat rooms are more accepting and that it is easier to communicate with people within chat rooms, both in comparison to ftf relations. This is a very important finding because it suggests that so-called Internet or chat room addiction is a function of social factors. This would tend to support our belief that sociological analysis of Internet utilization is a viable conceptual alternative to psychological frameworks.
By examining the correlations between the variables presented in tables one and two, within male and female categories, we can determine the extent in which gender cultural orientations influence the nature and strength of the associations between the IP measurements and personal relationship and communication factors. Tables 3 and 4 present the correlations between addiction and personal relationships for males and females respectively. In comparing the data within each of these tables, we observe some very notable differences. To begin with, the strength and significance of the relationships between the IAS and personal relationship factors are different within each gender category. For example, females exhibit a relatively stronger (and statistically significant) correlation between IAS and users perception that relationships formed within chat rooms are as important as those formed outside of chat rooms than the male subsample. Males, on the other hand, in comparison to females show a stronger and more statistically significant correlation between IAS and perceptions that it is easier to form relationships in chat rooms than in ftf situations. Secondly, the association between the quantitative measurements of Internet addiction is stronger and there are more statistically significant correlations among the female subpopulation than among males. Thirdly, each of the Internet addiction measurements is correlated significantly with the locus of control factor among females but not among males. In other words, the data indicates that females who are inclined towards computer-mediated communications are also more externally oriented (or in a sense, less confident). However, this statement cannot be made for men. Also, stronger, although not statistically significant, correlations between the quantitative addiction factors and sociability are shown among females in comparison to males. This suggests that women who are sociable are more attracted to electronic communications.
The data within Tables 5 and 6 pertain to correlations between the independent factors and perceptions of chat room communications. Once again, there are notable correlation differences between males and females. The most notable differences are found for the Easycom, Accepting and IP variables. The findings indicate that among males, the higher the IP score, the more they perceive that it is easier to communicate in electronic environments than in ftf situations, and that people are more accepting of them within Internet environments than ftf.
Females, in comparison, reveal very weak associations among these variables. If we can assume that communication comfort reflects communication engagement, then this finding seems to parallel those of Herring (1993), which revealed that women participate less than men within computer mediated discussion groups. Similar to the findings pertaining to personal relationships, females exhibit stronger correlations between the quantitative addiction measurements than males.
As can be observed in Chart 2, individuals within this particular sample reported using Internet chat rooms primarily when they are bored and looking for someone to talk to. Also, slightly more than fifty percent of the respondents indicate that they use chat rooms for meeting people and recreational purposes.
Contrary to previous and current expectations, students within this study are not using chat rooms for sexual purposes as indicated by the low percentage revealed within this chart.
As shown in Charts 3 and 4, individuals who have been categorized as having a high Internet predisposition in comparison to individuals having a low internet predisposition differ most significantly on the following factors: recreation, being lonely, and having someone to talk and listen to them. A large majority of individuals with an HIP orientation report recreation as a reason for visiting chat rooms, while the reverse is shown among non-addictive chat room users. The findings in terms of percentages are completely reversed for the loneliness reason.
A very important finding is that HIP individuals reported that they utilized chat rooms to have someone to listen to them at a much higher percentage than LIP persons. This suggests that the two populations have somewhat different communication objectives. Being listened to is a very important objective among Homo sapiens and is perhaps the most critical communication factors among the others communication factors. Listening helps the individual to gain insights into their personal problems and can be instrumental to self-growth and development (Rogers, 1959). According to the results of this study, HIP individuals appear to have a higher need to be listened to within a chat room environment than LIP persons. Listening is a social process, and the data suggests that it is this social activity that in part, that could be contributing to the so-called Internet addiction phenomena.
Meeti = Meeting people
Pers =A different perspective about
Recre = Recreation
STT = Someone to talk to myself
Sex = Sex
STL =Someone to listen to
Difper =Different perspective about
Lonel = Lonely
To ex =To express how I feel things in general about things
47/52 52/47 11/89 22/77 77/22 55/44 11/87 15/84 8/91 39/60
44/55 44/55 14/85 80/19 78/22 53/47 9/90 13/86 7/92 40/60
39/58 82/15 15/82 37/61 78/18 76/21 28/69 17/70 14/84 39/58
Several significant ideas pertaining to Internet addiction emerge from the results of this study. To begin with, our Internet addiction scale was significantly correlated with important interpersonal and personal variables relevant to chat room interpersonal processes. This indicates that there are certain features of computer-mediated communications that individuals find attractive. Our society is currently undergoing a historical transformation from industrial modes of production to an information form of social order. This transformation, in part, means that new forms of social interaction will be utilized that are significantly different than the symbolically rich context of industrial forms of human communication. Subsequently, what is currently being delineated as Internet addiction may be seen as conventional behavior in the near future. As the results of this study indicate, Internet activities such as chat room communication have characteristics that seem to enhance human communications and individuals who engage in these activities often are attracted to them. In short, this study alludes to the idea that the literature may be too hasty in designating frequent Internet utilization as a pathological disorder. We may be observing the parturition of a new social/technological order. This would have important significance to sociological inquiry. For example, there is a need to reexamine sociological frameworks that focus on the development of self and identity such as symbolic interactionism. Most, if not all symbolic interaction theories, are formulated to address face-to-face social encounters. While these theories are certainly robust enough to explain social dynamics occurring within computer mediated social platforms, the cueless scaffolding of electronic situations require systematic and extensive empirical exploration into the fecundity of existing ftf based conceptual schemes for explaining electronic social processes. As alluded to previously, Stryker’s concept of saliency hierarchy of identity appears to be a salient framework from which to conduct such an analysis.
Based upon the limited findings within this present study, we are inclined to conclude that the concept of Internet addiction should be reexamined within the context of how social factors are interfacing with Internet utilization, and if this merging of man and machine can be researched or labeled in purely traditional ways. Such social factors are curiously missing within psychological conceptual schemes and studies that have boldly proclaimed the emergence of the Internet addiction disorder. From a symbolic interaction perspective, it may be that internet addiction exists in part because there is now a “concept” called “internet addiction” that defines a situational context and behavioral pattern, all of which are being reified by arbitrary statistical data and incomplete conceptual definition.
Finally, the substantial differences in the correlations revealed among males and females attest to the importance of investigating the Internet addiction phenomena from a multidimensional perspective. If such a phenomena as Internet addiction does exist, we need to know if there is a difference between female and male addicts. That is, are males and females addicted to similar or dissimilar aspects of computer-mediated communication? Are there differences in online and offline interpersonal and intrapersonal communication patterns? These and many other social variables must be considered in future research regarding gender differences and computer-mediated communications.
Similar questions should also be raised for other social groupings such as ethnicity, age, and social status. In short, our exploratory analysis of Internet Predisposition has indicated that there is a real need for conducting sociological research on computer-mediated communication issues. It is equally important for future studies to be guided by well-established sociological frameworks yet remain open to new paradigms that may be emerging in the information age. Given the fluid nature of chat-room communication, researchers may need to find new and creative ways to research this amorphous environment called the Internet.
5 - Agree
4 - Slightly agree
3 - Neither agree/nor disagree
2 - Slightly Disagree
1 - Disagree
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