When Scott ambled into the counseling center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he was a 19-year-old sophomore whose grades had tanked.
For three semesters he had been a good student at the Troy, N.Y., school. Now he was depressed, missing classes, and arguing with his parents.
He had also spent 2,000 hours on the Internet that semester.
Case in point: Though he had not been doing much socially on campus, Scott drove 1,900 miles round trip to see a woman he met online. Failing classes and unable to kick his online habit, he left Rensselaer.
Scott's case, though extreme, hints at what some say is a quietly growing "Internet dependence" problem on college campuses.
Almost 10 percent of students at eight colleges and universities were found to be "Internet dependent," according to a new study that surveyed more than 1,000 students in 1998-99.
Those students were found to have difficulty cutting back on their Internet time, and showed other signs of being out of control. Internet dependency was most acute among hard-sciences majors, who averaged nearly four hours a day more on the Internet than needed to fulfill academic and other requirements. Most were men.
Amid the rush to wire campuses and dorms, the threat the Internet may pose to students' academic and social well-being has not been widely examined. Several studies of Internet "addiction" among college students surfaced in the 1990s, along with a host of skepticism that the phenomenon existed. Most universities have paid scant attention to the issue. Yet the new research suggests the problem may be widespread - and can impair, even destroy, some students' academic potential.
"There is a significant percentage of students out there that no one is aware of who are spending a huge amount of time on the Internet," says Keith Anderson, the Rensselaer staff psychologist who authored the study. "These students often fail, but most people don't know why. Even the students themselves often don't realize Internet overuse is ruining them, but over time it is having a negative effect."
About 27 percent of Internet "dependents" said their grades had declined as a result of their Internet use, while 10 percent dropped a class to spend more time on the Internet, according to the Rensselaer study.
Students participating in the study were from Rensselaer; American International College; Black Hawk College in Moline, Ill.; New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark; Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.; State University of New York at Albany and at Buffalo; and the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. But counselors at other colleges have noticed the problem, too.
"We had an honors student who was spending 12 to15 hours a day on the Internet, and essentially flunked out of school," says Jonathan Kandell, a University of Maryland psychologist. "You just can't maintain your work and that kind of online schedule."
Others, like Barbara McMullen, director of e-commerce initiatives at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., are trying to identify and help students she calls "Internet vampires" - wan students who straggle out of the computing center at 5 a.m. after a night of chatting online or playing multi-user dimension games (MUDs) - as Scott was doing to excess at Rensselaer.
"These kids sleep all day, are up all night using the computer to communicate with anybody or everybody," Dr. McMullen says. "In the morning they go home when sun comes out, go to sleep, and miss their classes."
Easier than real life
Reasons why students spend so much time online vary widely. For some, it's the sheer excitement of access to high-speed Internet access. But for others, it's a way to avoid social challenges, fears, and pressures that run deep, says Linda Welsh, a postdoctoral associate at Northeastern University in Boston. She recently conducted a study that surveyed more than 1,000 Northeastern students, and found that 8 percent were dependent.
"People appeared to be using the Internet as a way to relax," Dr. Welsh says of her group. "Many of them said they particularly liked the ability to control their online image and how people saw them, something they could not do in real life."
As one young woman told Welsh: "I can control what I say and how people react to me on the Internet [more] than I can in real life because if I feel emotional, and I'm on the Internet, they're not going to see that I'm crying ... or how I'm feeling. It's only what I convey ... what I put in."
About 6 percent of those surveyed for the Rensselaer study used the Net 400 minutes or more per day beyond what was needed for schoolwork. Students in the dependent category averaged 229 minutes, compared with 73 minutes for nondependents. Common uses included e-mail, surfing the Web, or chatting. MUD games and cybersex were at the lower end of the scale.
To be considered dependent, the students also had to fit the classic profile of a substance-abuser, including requiring more and more time online and having withdrawal problems - difficulty cutting back on their Internet time.
Addiction? I don't think so.
But whether people can be addicted to the Internet is hotly disputed.
"Because the Internet is so useful, naturally there's going to be very high usage," says Michael Conlon, assistant vice president for academic information systems at the University of Florida Health and Science Center in Gainesville. "The fact students are spending a high number of hours a week online is no indication of addiction."
And however rampant the Internet use, it cannot be classified alongside heroin, alcohol, and other classic addictions, he says.
"Using the Internet a lot is not close to being as serious as those things," Dr. Conlon says. "It's just one more place to read, to talk, to do things people do."
He concedes that "a very small number" of students with serious problems pop up on his 40,000-student campus, but he believes the Rensselaer and other studies vastly overstate the percentages.
Not sure how to stop
Still, there's not much doubt that heavy Internet use can cause serious problems for students.
"I'm spending a lot of time online, chatting for hours on IRC [Internet Relay Chat], hunting MP3s, or just surfing," wrote a college student named Marcus in a 1999 message posted to an Internet-addiction message board.
"This is seriously hurting both my schoolwork and my social life, and therefore it must stop," he adds. "But I'm not sure what to do to keep myself off the Net. My self-discipline isn't what it should be."
Spotting those who are spending too much time online is tricky. For one thing, society tends to look favorably on heavy computer use.
And because more Americans than ever are online, it can be hard to distinguish who is Internet dependent among the 97 million Americans - just under 40 percent - who use the Internet. Of those, more than a quarter are college and university students.
"Most people don't see the Internet as something harmful yet," says Dr. Kandell. "They say, 'Oh yeah, I'm spending too much time.' Because it's still so much in infancy, it isn't thought of as a problem."
Colleges, too, have sharply divided concerns when it comes to the Internet. Internet access is a key selling point for colleges trying to woo students. A Yahoo! ranking of how wired schools are, for instance, touts the "Wired League vs. Ivy League."
"Up to now, we [in higher education] have been so enamored of the Internet, that we haven't stopped to think if too much of a good thing can be a problem," Anderson says.
Anderson started his study because of the steady flow of students like Scott who were showing up bleary-eyed in his office. Rarely did they identify Internet overuse as a problem - until asked how much time they were spending online, and its impact on the rest of their lives.
Colleges may also be reluctant to delve too deeply into the issue since it might be less troublesome to just let students quietly fail than to probe and discover that Internet addiction is indeed a campus problem.
Anderson and Mullen both worry that as dorms are wired, the problem will be even less visible as the "Internet vampires" move from the computer lab to the dorm room.
"I'm thrilled about this Rensselaer study," Dr. Mullen says. "It's been very difficult to get this sort of data. One reason is that schools have not been doing formal studies on it. It's not something they want to publicize. If you have a wonderful technology program, why would you want to announce that 10 percent are going to be Internet addicts?"
Anderson suggests schools should grant students a certain amount of time online each month, quickly granting more if the student needs it - and his or her grades are good.
He admits, however, that this is unlikely to be a popular solution with college computer administrators, who tend to see themselves as providing open access for students - not taking it away. Still, some are taking action.
Alfred University in western New York was among the earliest to spot the problem. In 1992, officials there first noticed that many of those being dismissed for academic problems were spending excessive time online.
Of 70 Alfred students dismissed in 1995, 42 percent had misused the online system, a contributing factor in their dismissal, confirms Norm Pollard, director of the counseling and student development center.
The college is watching
Since then, the school has begun systematically correlating for freshmen the amount of time spent online with their grades. Students whose grades begin to slip at the same time that their online time soars get an immediate visit from a resident assistant.
Partly because of this approach, Dr. Pollard says, the school has brought down the total number of students dismissed for academic reasons, though recent figures were unavailable.
"Freshman year can be kind of scary, and the first six to nine weeks is really critical," Pollard says.
"When students feel overwhelmed they look for distractions. If you can spot these [Internet-dependent] kids early and help out, then - instead of downloading Napster or whatever - they can get integrated into the community, join clubs, intramurals, study groups. After that they typically do pretty well."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society