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March 15, 1998

College students at risk
of Internet abuse, study finds

By Timothy C. Barmann

Sarah knew things were getting bad when she found herself spending all night connected to America Online and chatting with strangers.

Somehow, the huge bills that came every month -- $200, $300, and sometimes $400 -- weren't enough to curb her on-line time.

And even when a man nearly twice her age whom she befriend in a chat room became "too attached" and started calling her all the time, she still didn't stop. She just changed her on-line identity.

Sarah, which is not her real name, now readily acknowledges that she was addicted to going on-line. She would spend hours at a time, often typing away in AOL's chat rooms from midnight, when she got home from work, until eight the next morning. Her all-night sessions took place four times a week.

Sarah is by no means alone. Internet abuse is now widely a recognized behavioral problem, and some researchers have compared it to drug addiction.

At Bryant College, two professors have been studying Internet abuse for the past 1 1/2 years and presented their findings last August to the annual meeting of the American Psychological Institute, in Chicago.

Janet Morahan-Martin, professor of psychology, and Phyllis Schumacher, professor of mathematics, say their work is different from other studies of Internet abuse because other research has been limited to self-reported Internet addicts.

Conversely, the Bryant professors' work is based on a somewhat broader segment. The pair surveyed 277 undergraduate students who took courses at Bryant that required Internet use. The surveys were taken anonymously in class.

The purpose of their study was to determine how widespread abuse of the Internet was among college students. College students are considered to be at a higher risk because they have ready access to the Internet and they have flexible time schedules, the study said.

They found that nearly three-quarters of all the students reported having at least one symptom that indicated their Internet use was causing problems in their lives.

About 8 percent of the students fell into the "pathological" Internet-use category.

That means those students reported having four or more symptoms usually associated with Internet abuse, Morahan-Martin said in a recent interview. Those include getting into arguments, being told they are on-line too much, using the Internet to make themselves feel better, losing sleep, missing classes, hiding their time on-line and missing social engagements, she said.

About 65 percent of the students reported having one to three of these symptoms, and about 27 percent said that have no symptoms at all.

The study also found that men are much more likely than women to be pathological Internet users (12 percent versus 3 percent).

Contrary to other studies, Morahan-Martin and Schumacher's research found that even the students they classified as pathological Internet users spent only about 8.5 hours on-line a week.

What are they doing on-line?

Going into chat rooms or channels and playing on-line role-playing games such as Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs, are very popular. Many also spend time surfing the Web, connecting to other computers and downloading files.

The study found that many Internet abusers were lonely, were more likely to go on-line to relax and meet new people and find emotional support. They reported they felt more friendly and open on-line.

Morahan-Martin said the Internet itself is not to blame for the problems people have as a result of abusing it. Rather, "it's just a technology that is changing the way to act out problems."

In Sarah's case, she said she and her boyfriend, with whom she lived, were having relationship problems at the time. She said she's not sure whether those problems spurred her obsessive chat-room use, or whether her spending all night on-line was the cause of the problems.

What did she chat about all that time?

"I'd like to play the amateur psychologist," she said. "There was a lot of flirting," she said. "They'd be hitting on me and I'd be jokingly pushing them back."

Looking back, Sarah now says she thinks that the chat rooms were so attractive because she felt she was more articulate with the written word.

"I like to communicate with people, but I've always done it better in writing rather than orally, so it was the perfect medium," she said.

She even popped into the chat room called "AOL Addicts" occasionally.

But it wasn't always fun. Sarah befriended a man who lived in Pennsylvania who she now calls "Psycho." They had a common interest -- a rock band -- and she gave him her work address so he could send her a videotape of the group. He convinced himself that Sarah was interested in more than on-line chatting. He was able to get her work and home telephone number and began calling her.

"It got to the point where he was sending me cards at work. He sent me tapes. He went to England and he was going to buy me an entire wardrobe there," she said. "It came to a point where I said, `I'd rather you not talk to me anymore.' "

"It got really scary for a while," she said. "He kept insisting we had to meet. . . . It was scary because he knew where I worked."

The man continued to send cards, which went unanswered. Finally, he got the message and stopped trying to contact her.

Even that experience wasn't enough to turn her off-line. Sarah said she just changed her screen name so her obsessive admirer wouldn't know when she was on-line anymore.

She eventually saw that her on-line life was eating up too much of her real life. After an all-night session, she would sleep until 2 in the afternoon. Amazingly, she said she was still able to maintain her "A" average at the University of Rhode Island, where she studied English.

Sarah finally gave it up after her boyfriend proposed they get married. He didn't like her going to the chat rooms and he didn't like her flirting with her new cyber-acquaintances. She said she quit out of respect for him.

She is married and has a child now. Though she still has an account with America Online, she said she stays out of the chat rooms.

"I just don't want to get into any personal relationships on-line," she said. "The less I was on there, the more I realized I didn't need it like I thought I did."

And when she thinks about all that money she spent while she was glued to the screen, she wishes that AOL's current "unlimited" pricing plan had been in effect.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.