Right off the bat, I am going to throw out two statements that I have recently forced myself to acknowledge as true, though I realize that many people may disagree:
What happens online matters, and
Unlike Vegas, what happens online does not stay online.
Before we delve deeper into those two statements, I want to ask the following questions:
Have you ever logged into Second Life or on Plurk, because you felt like you were “missing something” when you weren’t online?
When you are online in Second Life, have you ever looked at the clock and said wow, where did the time go? I was going to log off an hour ago.
Do you ever feel the need to justify the time you spend online by saying, “Well if I wasn’t doing this, I would just be wasting time watching television.”?
Do you ever feel guilty about being online or lie about how much time you spend there?
Are you logging online out of habit versus actually having a specific reason to log on?
Most of you probably answered no to all of these questions, but I can tell you that I did not. I answered “Yes” to all of them.
Most active online users know of or have heard of Problematic Internet Use (PIU), but many people may believe that “if the time they are spending online is time they would normally be spending doing other “useless” type activities”, or “if the time they spend online is controlled to just a few hours in the evening or perhaps on Sunday afternoons”, then it’s not a problem. But I begin to realize it’s not just the number of hours that I spend actively involved online, it’s also the number of hours I spend thinking about it or reading blog posts or Plurking. Do I spend more time on my virtual life than I do actively engaged in my real life? Can you judge problematic internet use just by looking at time spent online?
I started thinking a lot about PIU in regards to my own online behavior after reading the following study. I was surprised to realize that “problematic internet users were more likely than nonproblematic users to use the Internet for meeting new people, seeking emotional support and playing socially interactive games.” I actually would have associated the social aspect of online interactions as a positive outcome of online activity versus problematic.
According to this study, you are at a higher risk of developing problematic internet use if:
You derive a sense of community from online relationships.
You use voice. Players that use voice are among the most social players and have the strongest social connections.
You feel immersed in your online activities.
You spend real world resources, i.e. money, to support your online social activities.
Ironically, time spent online was the weakest predictor of PIU. It is the quality of your online interactions versus the quantity of the activity that could present a problem.
Compulsive, rather than excessive, Internet use is more likely to result in negative outcomes.
So what sort of online behavior could be seen as compulsive? I begin to look back at my time spent online and think about what sort of behaviors stood out to me as problematic. I identified three possibilities. Two types of problems which I have actually suffered with and seen others suffer with, and one I have just observed.
You can’t talk about problematic online compulsive behavior without discussing online romantic relationships. Online romances can be healthy. I know many people that are able to maintain a healthy and loving online relationship, but it is very difficult to define and maintain boundaries online. Plus, many people online have other issues that may interfere with keeping an online relationship in perspective. When you start letting your imagination run freely, an online relationship can get out of control in just a few days. It can become more of an obsession than a relationship.
Though no matter the duration, you will find that your online dalliances will begin to influence you even offline. You may find that your behavior becomes compulsive, and in turn, your internet use could become problematic unless you begin to set clear defined boundaries and take time to step away from both the relationship and the computer. If you step away from both for a short period, and your online relationship does not survive the break, then you know you made the right decision and kept yourself from experiencing further heartbreak and wasting a lot of valuable time.
Unhealthy online romances are one of the prime examples of problematic internet use.
ADDING VODKA MAKES EVERYTHING BETTER
What happens when you take a person with a possible internet addiction and combine absurd amounts of alcohol? You could potentially take the possible internet addiction and turn it into massive problem.
I like to drink. In fact, I love drinking. Drinking can break down barriers and encourage bonding. But in an online environment, a lot of boundaries are already pretty much nonexistent. People say whatever they want whenever they want. What good can possibly come out of plurking to your 200 plus friends how drunk you are? Everyone does it occasionally, but if every weekend, your online friends look forward to being amused by hearing you slur your words on voice, than you may possibly be combining two problems.
It also leads to other potential problems such as stripping on webcam or saying ridiculous and/or mean things and blaming it on liquor. Even if this type of behavior doesn’t indicate a problem to you, it can be very annoying to those around you.
I know that many will say drinking online is better than going out and getting drunk, which could lead to other more serious and possibly even life threatening problems. Perhaps that’s true. But for those of you that may even remotely think that your online interactions could possibly be having a negative influence, then adding alcohol is not a good idea.
It is also interesting to note that alcohol/substance abuse has also been shown to be present in people who exhibit the signs and symptoms of PIU.
YOU CALL IT E-STALKING, SOME CALL IT LOVE
We tease about it. We laugh about it. We all admit doing it at one point or another, but checking someone’s online profile, memorizing their interests or favorites movies or even knowing their profile well enough to recognize when they delete a pick can be a big sign of compulsive and problematic internet behavior.
Little things like this done in a repeated fashion means you are becoming a bit obsessive and could be crossing into online stalker territory. Yes, the term “stalker” may be harsh. But there is a firm difference between casually glancing at your ex’s MySpace and religiously analyzing every aspect of their Facebook page.
Most people obsessively check profiles, because perhaps they no longer have the same level of friendship with the person that they once had and see it as a way of keeping updated on their activities. Though checking when they log into Second Life, when they Plurk or when they blog is self-damaging behavior. It’s like picking at the scab that is trying to heal, all you are doing is making it worse.
Been there. Done that. It is a problem!
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
I wish I had the magic solution to help solve these compulsive or problematic behaviors. Many experts recommend logging out and off. Though I don’t think completely avoiding any and all social networks is even a feasible solution.
The way I am trying to deal with my problematic behavior is by acknowledging I was having a problem and ending the cycle of denial. I have also decided to remember my two beliefs about online activity. What happens online matters: which means that my online activities have a real impact on my real life, and I can not try to pretend that they don’t. I also have to remember that what happens online does not stay online, so at anytime my online behavior could be exposed for my entire real life to view. I spent way too long trying to pretend that what happens online stays online, because I wanted it to. Pretending that my online activities didn’t matter and that no one would find out was my way of denying I had a problem.
Admit it is an issue. Acknowledge that it matters, and it does affect your real life. Attempt to solve it.