What makes the Internet attractive?

Broken marriages, lost jobs, failing school grades and forgetting to eat are just some of the consequences being reported in media articles as the experience of people who feel they have become addicted to Internet interpersonal communicating (Jabs, 96; DeLoughry, 96; Suryaraman 96). It is the social aspect of computer assisted communication, the interpersonal exchange with others, that is so stimulating, rewarding and reinforcing that some people are finding it hard to know when to stop (Suler 96, Young 96). Cyberspace communications (email discussion groups, chat rooms, bulletin boards and MOO’s) offer people an opportunity to experience a form of social contact, with no real social presence. The significant difference between cyberspace relationships and ones maintained by other existing technologies (telephones, mail, fax’s) is that the new culture values of Internet virtual communities have as social norms ones that allow for, and even encourage, contact with relative strangers. “As Rheingold (94) notes, one might think the Net a cold place, and yet it need not be. In the impersonal isolation of our large cities, where people often live separated from kin or lonely amid the multitudes, the Net can become a surrogate social-life-a vital source of interpersonal contact despite its non-physical nature. ” (North, 96).

Because cyberspace does not offer a means to monitor others non-verbal responses to one’s communications, several unconscious, firmly held expectations about communications protocols are challenged (Huang, 96). A critical factor in understanding how text based interpersonal relationships can lead some people to experience pathological consequences is the dis-inhibiting effect inherent in on-line interactivity. The improbability of any local, real life repercussions for on-line social activity produces a new and poorly understood psychological phenomena; people feel free to express themselves in an unrestrained manner. “If all computer-mediated communication systems can be said to have one single unifying effect upon human behavior it is that usage tends to cause the user to become less inhibited.” (Reid, 94). Judgments of others in this virtual social setting, made without the normal sensual clues, can consist of distorted, emotionally laden projections (King, 95), and can be communicated without the normal constraints imposed by the need to maintain social order. This is a naturally exciting, stimulating and reinforcing aspect of Internet communications, one that contributes to the occurrence of Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD).

“An on-line community is one of the easiest ways to meet new people. Certainly it is very low-risk. I think this is mainly due to the essential informality of on-line conversation.

Rather than being required to sustain a single conversation with one or more people, relationships usually form out of numerous, often short exchanges. In a way, it reminds me of commuters who take the bus or ferry. They see each other frequently but each encounter is of a fairly short duration. In situations like this the pressure is minimal. If you’d rather read the paper than chat then you just do it and don’t worry about it. But, over time, many people form enduring relationships this way. In the on-line environment, just like any other social situation, the basic currency is human attention. In the public forums, you communicate with groups that may have as many as several hundred people involved - even if they don’t all make comments.” (Coate, 92)

Internet communication increases the range of possible social networks that a person can connect to, and adds elements of diversity that are very appealing to some (Wellman, 96). There is a “hyperpersonal aspect” to Internet communications, a way to be more selective about how one presents ones self. The kinds of differences between people that might inhibit relationship formation are hidden. This promotes a sense of group membership, one that is solely depended on the perceptions of the receiver. Control over impression formation is enhanced in written mediums. “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.” (Walther, 96). This magnification factor of the hyperpersonal model is a theoretical formulation that could help account for the high rates of flame wars (arguments) and love affairs that happen on the net.  There is as yet no empirical evidence supporting the observation that flame wars and love affairs occure in open, interactive virtual communities at a rate higher than what one would expect, but there is a growing body of anecdotal reports of this and a widespread awareness of a high frequency of these extreme interpersonal cyberspace exchanges.

There can be a voyeuristic aspect to cyberspace participation, which may be more salient to some that others. People that “lurk”, participate in a read only mode, in chat rooms or email groups, are surreptitiously witnessing the ideas, feelings and interactions of the active participants. In the more academic discussion forums, where the social norm is the exchange of research ideas and the philosophic debate of social abstraction, this voyeuristic component is not a significant attraction. This is in contrast to some chat rooms where the suggested topics often invite flirtations, or the forums set up to provide emotional support for difficult personal problems. In these forums, lurking is a means of gaining access to very personal information in a manner that no real life forum can offer. This electronic eavesdropping is one possible source for the positive reinforcement that the nature of the Internet provides to those for whom it’s use has become pathological. This emotional stimulation is on a schedule of reinforcement called variable-ratio, as one can never predict just when some “juicy tid-bit” of self-revelation will come across one’s screen, and the actual exposure rate to this is dependent on the amount of time spent on-line.

The attributes of Internet communications that stand out as offering the potential for rewarding, stimulating emotional involvement’s include; it’s ease of access and 24 hour availability, the wide range of diverse personal connections possible, the hyperpersonal nature of interpersonal relationships, the ability to witness others interacting (with no risk) and the uninhibited nature of no risk relating. It is reasonable to assume that many people will find one or more of these factors reinforcing enough to become passionate about their Internet activities, at least for the initial period of time when they are still discovering the capabilities of new Internet social connections. These factors are necessary, but not sufficient, to explain true pathologic computer use. Some additional qualities inherent in the user must be present that differentiate those for whom Internet communications are a passionate past-time from those for whom this activity becomes a compulsion resulting in loss. The passion possible is understandable, as virtual community involvement’s dissolve geographic boundaries and expand the ability of people with common interests to share ideas important to them. However, the nature of addiction is to continue to pursue the initial excitement one received, at the risk of other social involvement’s and responsibilities.

Treatment suggestions

Treatment of any behavioral addiction is facilitated by a thorough assessment of the unique behavioral reinforcement patterns contained in any individual case. This process is complicated for IAD due to the newness of this phenomena. Anyone seeking help for themselves, or concerned about a loved one, faces several real obstacles. One is finding a psychologist or mental health professional that will acknowledge the existence of this problem, and not just attribute it to other pathology that may or may not be present. Secondly, there is a serious lack of psychologists that are familiar enough with the specific types of Internet social interactions to be qualified to formulate a treatment plan to address IAD (Young, 96).

Following the general caveat that what causes a problem is a problem, it might seem that total abstinence is a reasonable “cure”. Most cases will not be amenable to that solution, because so many of the reported cases are from student and worker populations where use of the Internet to accomplish research or business goals is a requirement, not an option. It is prudent then to offer the client with IAD a program of recovery resembles going on a diet (Orzack, 96). Overeaters Anonymous, a twelve step group that addresses eating disorders, is a valid model from which examples of dealing with the reduction of a behavior can be drawn.

There may be ways to engage the very activity itself as a deterrent. Since someone suffering IAD is already computer literate, and oriented towards computers as a resource, it makes sense to incorporate a computer assisted recovery. Many people already have calendar schedules they keep current and check often, on their computer. Using such a program to log one’s on-line time, and what that time was specifically spent on, would be a means of both establishing a base line for the behavior and tracking recovery progress. Also, a client could set such a program to flash a message at regular intervals, reminding the user to stop momentarily and evaluate if their current Internet interactivity is warranted or not.

Dr. Maressa Orzack is currently treating IAD, and other pathological computer use, with cognitive behavioral therapy at the psychiatric outpatient clinic of McLean Hospital in Boston, MA. Presently, only individual treatment is offered, but plans exist for group treatment. Dr. Orzack states that this disorder should not be treated on-line, and a psychopharmacological consultation is recommended in some cases (Orzack, 96).

Effective treatment programs can be developed for IAD, but they must incorporate an understanding of the specific aspects on on-line use that is at the core of any individuals problem. If someone is “hooked” on hanging out in a chat channel with their close net friends, the reinforcement pattern will be different from someone involved in maintaining an alternate persona in a role playing MOO. Assessing someone with IAD for the exact nature of their on-line social activity is crucial, because the available range is so large.  Each modality (email, real time chat, MOO’s) has a different pattern of reinforcements it supplies. One approach that might work across such sub-types of IAD is an effort by the client to limit their Internet use to a regular set time each day. This would help counter the highly reinforcing variable ratio aspect, where one is never sure when something exciting is going to appear, but the total amount of excitation is dependent upon the amount of time on-line. For example, if someone knew that the were only going to check their email at 9 am, this would put the reinforcement back on a variable fixed schedule, where the reinforcement value is less. The desire to log on to see what might have transpired will be confronted, as a first step in a recovery program.


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Rheingold, Howard “A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community”

By Storm A. King
Cite as:
King, S. A. (1996).  Is the Internet Addictive, or Are Addicts Using the Internet?

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