Nearly 10 percent of Internet-using college students spend enough time online that their usage meets criteria for dependence, finds a recent multi- campus study. While the typical student uses the Internet for about 100 minutes each day, the study identified a small group of students who spend more than 400 minutes online. Compare that with the average Internet user, who spends a mere 15 minutes online each day, according to research by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute staff psychologist Keith J. Anderson, PhD.
Anderson's study, "Internet use among college students: an exploratory study" surveyed more than 1,300 students at eight colleges, seven in the United States and one in Ireland. Overall, students majoring in the hard sciences--chemistry, math, engineering, physics and computer science--spent significantly more time online than other students.
Anderson measured dependency using standards modeled after the DSM-IV criteria for substance dependence. Of the 1,078 Internet users, 9.8 percent fit the criteria for dependence. These dependents reported using the Internet three times longer than the nondependents, while about 6 percent of all Internet users reported using the Internet for more than 400 minutes daily.
Internet dependents were more likely to indicate that Internet use affected their academics, ability to meet new people and sleep patterns. In addition, the study results indicate that dependents were significantly more likely to report spending more than three consecutive hours online twice in the previous week; sleeping for less than four hours more than once due to online activity; looking for alternative ways to access the Internet when away from school; and using online activity to feel better.
When the responses of low-use Internet-using students and high-use students are compared, only one area--sleep patterns--differentiates the two groups; high-use students tended to perceive that Internet use had a larger impact on their sleeping patterns than low-use students. Odds are, says Anderson, that high-use students are not making a connection between Internet use and how that use changes their aca- demic performance or social lives. A change in sleep patterns caused by staying up late to use the Internet is perhaps more identifiable than a change in academic standing because students can attribute poor academic performance to many reasons other than Internet use.
"While in all areas, the respondents did not indicate they felt much negative impact due to their Internet use, the high-use group did report more negative consequences than the low-use group," notes Anderson.
Anderson, who was surprised by the high number of respondents who fit the dependency criteria, supports the idea of using the system to identify these high-use students who may be at risk.
"It doesn't mean we have to spy on what everyone is doing, per se, but we do need to be aware of how much time people are spending online," he says.
College students appear to be particularly susceptible to excessive Internet use not only because the Internet is easily accessible at most institutions, but because "the sense of security afforded by the anonymity of the Internet provides some students with less risky opportunities for developing virtual relationships," explains Anderson.