I’ve been following the evolution of “Internet addiction” from its early days when originally proposed (first, as a joke — then for real) in the mid-1990s, to the time it transmorphed into “problematic Internet use” disorder, to now. It is fun to look back on that early research that discussed how people were either “online” or “offline,” because getting online was a conscious behavior you had to initiate, much like a phone call (well, because, that’s how we accessed the Internet back in those days, through telephone lines).
Fast-forward to 2018 and two decades’ worth of research. The Internet is a normal and usual part of most people’s everyday lives because of the computing devices we carry in our pockets and handbags we call smartphones. We literally have hundreds, maybe even thousands of studies that have examined the impact of the Internet on human behavior — everything from online porn addiction to online gaming addiction.
You’d think we’ve come a long way in two decades. You would be wrong.
The Mess of Internet Addiction Research
Instead, as Scott E. Caplan, Ph.D., convincingly demonstrates in his new book, The Changing Face of Problematic Internet Use, all of this research has given us very little reliable data to work with. Worse, many researchers have been pursuing the wrong path in seeking to define and study Internet-related problematic behaviors because they’ve framed the problem as dealing with a behavioral addiction.
In a first-of-its-kind book, Caplan seeks to explain where researchers went wrong in trying to understand problematic Internet use, then cogently pulls together competing theories to explain their strengths and weaknesses and offers a path forward that puts the problem into a thoughtful, theoretical framework. Combining an in-depth look at previous research and theory, the narrative Caplan puts forth is an easy one to follow. It is also well annotated, with hundreds of supporting references at the end of every chapter.
The book starts off reminding us how much the online world has changed over the past two decades, and therefore a lot of the concepts used in the original research — such as the distinction of being online or offline — have little relevance today. I remember some of the original research specifically tried to track the amount of time a person spent online and correlated specific time units (like more than X number of hours) with being “addicted” to the Internet. It’s quaint to remember a time when society was ever offline.
A Conceptual Approach That Works: Problematic Online Habits
Caplan dives into examining two competing conceptual approaches to understanding problematic Internet use in the second chapter. Specifically, he looks at the more commonly known “Internet addiction” and “problematic Internet use” paradigms. For Internet addiction, he notes how it was always fairly atheoretical — that is, it had very little theoretical foundation on which to base its data. Gathering data with no theoretical framework on which to build is like building a house with no architectural plans. You can do it, certainly, but you’ll likely wind up with a mess of inconsistencies and no obvious conclusions.
Caplan rightfully suggests that’s exactly what’s happened with the Internet addiction paradigm. There have been documented problems with the validity of online addiction measures, relying almost solely on self-reported survey data versus objective clinical assessment. He also notes that unlike other addictions, where the negative consequences of continuing the addiction can be quite high (life-threatening, even), most people with “Internet addiction” have suffered mild consequences in comparison.
Instead, Caplan convincingly argues that looking at problematic online behavior patterns is best conceptualized as “problematic online habits” (also known as “problematic Internet use”). He suggests this model is supported by the research out of the past decade or more because it shows:
- “Problematic outcomes arise from the compulsive or habitual aspect of online behavior, rather than due to excessive activity or overuse” — how much time you spend online isn’t as important as what you’re doing there and how that activity has been unconsciously reinforced;
- “Problematic online habits are motivated by the desire for mood alteration” — people expend more and more time online to help alleviate their depressive feelings or feelings of loneliness;
- “Problematic online habits are related to online social behavior and offline interpersonal problems” — people are taking their real-life interpersonal problems online, which causes even more problems.
The author delves into exquisite detail to support this model, bringing in the wealth of interpersonal and communication research knowledge we have. I found this to be unique and valuable, as sometimes researchers fail to synthesize or recognize the value of such data when talking about online behaviors. As he concludes in Chapter 2, “problematic online habits are, to a significant extent, interpersonal communication problems.” Once you understand that, a lot of things fall into place in better understanding such behaviors and helping the people who have them.
Putting the Model to Work in Relationships, Cyberbullying, Cyberstalking, and Co-Present Device Use
Once established that problematic online habits should be the focus and a good theoretical framework on which to build, the next four chapters delve into how those habits emerge in different areas of concern: relationships, cyberbullying and related aggressions, cyberstalking and unwanted pursuit, and co-present device use (using your smartphone when interacting with others face-to-face).
Both friends and romantic partners have had a lot to deal with since the advent of being always online and social networks. As the author reminds us, things like friendships and romantic relationships have always had rules that govern boundaries and expectations. One set of researchers even suggest that no relationship is more rule-bound than marriage (Argyle and Henderson, 1985). So it’s not surprising that navigating the new world order of these relationships when a third component — online technologies — is brought into them can be tricky. But Caplan dutifully reminds us that even though the technology component is new, the rules and understandings upon which strong friendships and relationships are founded upon remain the same. We just need to update those understandings to incorporate the use of technology.
Technology has also provided us with tools that may be used for intentional harm toward others. Cyberbulling, covered in Chapter 4, has gained new momentum in recent years as a subject of research, with no fewer than 1,000 journal articles published on the topic since 2001. Cyberbullying, according to researchers who study it all day long, is defined as “an aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself.” Importantly, Caplan debunks a number of common media-reinforced myths about cyberbullying, including:
- That it is more common and prevalent than empirical research suggests;
- That it is more common than face-to-face bullying (it’s not — face-to-face bullying is still far more common and occurs at twice the rate of cyberbullying);
Like earlier “Internet addiction” research, the author notes that the cyberbullying research also lacks “organizational and methodological consistency,” which results in a muddled understanding of the problem. With no theory to tie the data together, the public is often left with little understanding of how to make a positive impact in addressing this concern.
But bad behavior doesn’t stop with cyberbullying. Cyberstalking, unwanted pursuit and relational intrusion, are covered in Chapter 5, which notes that these kinds of topics are often confused with a form of cyberbullying. Cyberstalking, however, is conceptually different and has an independent set of behaviors and motivations behind it. Like the chapters before it, this chapter delves into the definition of the problem, prevalence rates, characteristics of both the stalker and the victim, and outcomes. Beyond agreeing upon a common definition, Caplan notes that one of the greatest challenges in the research is distinguishing between traditional stalking and cyberstalking (and, separately, cyberstalking and cyberbullying).
The final topical chapter examines the challenges that are presented when using mobile devices during in-person interactions. You may know it as, “Hey, why are you checking your smartphone when we’re having a pleasant dinner together? Can’t we just be together for an hour or two without the outside world intruding?” Pre-2000, this wasn’t even a thing. Now, it’s become so prevalent, it’s a topic of research, theory, and even treatment interventions.
I’ll give you a clue as to the author’s findings:
Although the literature on how people react to copresent device use is sparse, empirical studies have consistently documented negative interpersonal effects of copresent device use on in-person conversation. The data also indicate that the negative effects are due to more than just a distracted device user struggling to multitask. Rather, they suggest that how the receiver interprets the behaviors mediates the behavior’s effects.
That means it’s usually not a good idea to pull out your smartphone during a face-to-face conversation. Not unless you and the other person have an existing understanding that such use is warranted or okay during lulls or breaks in the conversation.
Caplan also notes this area is one of the newest areas of research, and therefore, there’s still not a lot of data on how co-present device use impacts different kinds of relationships (romantic, friendships, co-workers, boss, etc.).
The final chapter offers advice on how to move forward researching this important topic, with three important questions to guide future research:
- How does technology-mediated communication affect interpersonal and relational processes?
- How do interpersonal and relational resource deficits contribute to problematic online behavior?
- How do mediated interpersonal behaviors threaten in-person conversational and relational outcomes?
Every field in psychology needs a book like this at least once a decade to help all researchers working in the field understand where we’ve come from, where we’re at today, and where we should be in the future. This is just such a book. Make no mistake about it, this is not a light, consumer-oriented read, but rather a dense, well-researched reference that will be the foundation for future research in this area for years to come. If you’re an academic working in this area of research or have more than a passing interest in this topic, this is a must-read.
The Changing Face of Problematic Internet Use
Peter Lang, Inc., May 2018
Paperback, 250 pages