Internet Addiction May Be Form of Stress Management
Mon Aug 26, 1:55 PM ET
By E. J. Mundell

CHICAGO (Reuters Health) - When the going gets tough, many stressed-out Web surfers go "cyberslacking," according to the results of a new study.

Researchers say that a small minority of Internet users may spend hours online in a compulsive effort to avoid life's anxieties.

"Procrastination, low productivity, social withdrawal and relationship difficulties" were common among those spending an unhealthy amount of time on the Web, report researchers led by graduate student Richard Davis of York University in Toronto, Ontario.

He presented the findings here Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

Experts estimate that only about 2% to 3% of all Web users fall into the category of "Internet addicts"--individuals who typically neglect family and friends, lie about how much time they spend online, and mold their daily lives to fit their Internet use.

In their study, Davis and his colleagues sought to determine the psychological role of Web use among individuals at high risk for addiction. He had 60 undergraduate students complete standard questionnaires measuring their amount of daily Web use, perceived stress, and personal coping styles.

The Canadian researchers found that individuals with online habits suggestive of "problematic Internet use" were more apt to rely on "avoidant coping"--reacting to life's stressors by simply turning to a distractor.

Furthermore, individuals in danger of Internet addiction also tended to be nonassertive when faced with problems. For example, "if their boss has reprimanded them, instead of dealing with it head-on they will do it in non-assertive ways" such as complaining to others or simply avoiding thinking about the incident, Davis explained. Excessive, unhealthy Internet use appeared to combine nonassertive coping with avoidance--something Davis described as "withdrawal coping."

Excessive Internet use was also strongly linked to procrastination, suggesting that the Web is fast becoming a more interactive ( news - external web site) alternative to video games or bad TV. In the workplace, especially, this type of online procrastination is commonly known as "cyberslacking," resulting in "significant losses in productivity," according to the researchers. In fact, one 2001 study found 50% of Web surfers admitting that they spent about half of their online time avoiding more productive activities.

And just what are hardcore Web users doing during all those hours online? "We know that the number-one thing people are looking at is online pornography," Davis said. "That's a big distractor. Also engaging in online gaming (gambling), and chat rooms." While some addicts may be focusing on just one "distractor"--pornography or online casinos, for example--others may split their time between these activities, chatting and more generalized surfing, Davis noted.

The researchers found no differences between men and women when it came to the percentage of individuals showing signs of problematic Internet use, or their underlying psychology. Women are increasingly making up a larger percentage of Web users, Davis pointed out. "For young females, it used to be that young teenage girls used to come home and go to their telephone and talk all night to their friends. Now they are coming home and instant-messaging in a big way."

But the Internet can also offer constructive, positive resources for stress relief, he said. For example, teens worried about approaching a member of the opposite sex may find the Web a more congenial space for tension-free conversation. And online support groups have for years been key in helping otherwise isolated individuals cope with sometimes overwhelming issues. According to Davis, "this highlights what the Internet does best--provides information and a medium for like-minded individuals to interact."

"With every scientific advance, we grow closer to unlocking the mysteries of life and creation. But what have we gained if in the process, we lose our humanity. The most powerful thing we pass along to our children may not reside in the genes, but in the soul."
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