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Internet usage among college students and its impact on depression, social anxiety, and social engagement

Dissertation
Author: Kimberlee D. DeRushia
Abstract:
The Internet provides an opportunity for individuals to interact with friends and family members, to research any topic they can imagine, and to explore the world while sitting in the comfort of their own home. The popular media suggests that Internet usage decreases the amount of social interaction individuals have with the world outside of their computer and may be accompanied by social anxiety, loneliness, lowered self-esteem, or chronic depression, and the psychological literature's mixed findings on these topics have not helped clarify the issue. This study looked at the impact that Internet usage has on an individual's psychological well-being in an effort to clarify and expand on the previous research. Participants in this study were undergraduates at a state university in rural Pennsylvania. Participants were randomly selected through a psychology department subject pool. They completed several psychological questionnaires and tracked their Internet usage and social engagement for a seven-day period. Results indicated that time spent on the Internet was not predictive of depression, social anxiety, or social engagement in face-to-face relationships or online relationships. The type of activity engaged in online was also not predictive of depression, social anxiety, or social engagement in face-to-face relationships or online relationships. However, results indicated that there was a significant difference in the way that participants responded to measures of social anxiety when referencing face-to-face relationships as opposed to online relationships. Limitations included not tracking ethnicity of participants, an unequal distribution of gender across the population, and that the population was restricted to undergraduate students in a rural setting. Based on these results, future research would benefit from exploring differences in individual's perceptions of online relationships compared with face-to-face relationships, and from exploring similar questions in non-college aged, ethnically diverse populations with gender equally distributed across the sample.

TABLE OF CONTENTS Chapter Page 1: INTRODUCTION 1

Statement of the Problem 1 The Purpose of the Study 2

2: REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE 4

The Internet and Related Terms 4 Gender Differences and the Internet 6 Social Engagement and the Internet 7 Social Anxiety and the Internet 12 Depression and the Internet 13 Hypotheses 15 Hypothesis one 16 Hypothesis two 16 Hypothesis three 17

3: METHOD 18

Participants 18 Materials 18 Demographic questionnaire 19 Measure of Internet usage 19 Measures of social engagement 20 Measure of depression 21 Measure of social anxiety 21 Procedures 22 Selecting participants 22 Phase one 22 Phase two 23 Phase three 23

4: RESULTS 25

Descriptive Statistics 25 Internal Consistency of the Social Rhythm Metric 26

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Chapter Page

Internet Use as a Predictor of Social Anxiety, Social Engagement, and Loneliness 26 Social Activity on the Internet as a Predictor of Social Anxiety, Social Engagement, and Loneliness 28 Internet Use and Social Activity on the Internet as a Predictor of Depression 29 Gender Effects on Internet Use, Social Activity and Depression 30 Perception of Loneliness and Social Anxiety with Face-to-Face and Online Relationships 31 Comparison of Estimated Internet Usage with Actual Usage 32 Summary of Results 33

5: DISCUSSION 34

Gender Differences and the Internet 34 Social Engagement and the Internet 35 Social Anxiety and the Internet 36 Depression and the Internet 38

6: CONCLUSION, LIMITATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS 39

REFERENCES 43 APPENDICES 51

A. Informed Consent 51 B. Demographics Questionnaire 53 C. Part One: Internet Usage Tracking Chart 56 Part Two: Internet Usage Follow-up Questions 57 D. Social Rhythmic Metric 58 E. UCLA Loneliness Scale (Version 3) 59 F. Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale 60 G. Brief Fear of Negative Evaluation, Revised 61 H. Debriefing 62 I. Campus and Community Resources 63

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LIST OF TABLES Table Page 1 Time Spent on the Internet and its Influence on Social Engagement, Social Anxiety, and Loneliness with Face-to-Face Relationships 27

2 Time Spent on the Internet and its Influence on Social Anxiety, and Loneliness with Online Relationships 27

3 Social Activity on the Internet and its Influence on Social Engagement, Social Anxiety, and Loneliness with Face-to-Face Relationships 28

4 Social Activity on the Internet and its Influence on Social Anxiety, and Loneliness with Online Relationships 29

5 Depression, Internet Use, and Types of Activities Engaged in Online 30

6 Influence of Gender on Internet Use, Social Activity Online, and Depression 30

7 Means of Responses for Loneliness and Social Anxiety Measures 31

8 Paired Samples T-Tests for Social Anxiety and Loneliness Measures 32

9 Means of Participant Time Spent Online 33

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CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION Statement of the Problem The Internet has become an integral part of Western society, with approximately 72.5% of the population of the United States using the Internet on a regular basis (Internet World Stats, 2008). With only a click of the mouse, the Internet allows individuals to learn information about almost any topic they care to research, and to communicate with or learn about future romantic partners, prospective employees, long-lost friends, or family members (Davis 2007; Kraut et al., 2002; Teske, 2002; White, 2007). The present study investigated the effect of Internet use on social interaction with particular attention to the levels of social anxiety, and depression experienced by college students who engage in frequent, non- academic Internet use. In 2005, the primary researcher noticed a social pattern reported by college freshmen and sophomores presenting for therapy at a rural university counseling center. In particular, these students frequently reported that they were more comfortable talking to their friends using technology such as the Internet or text messaging on their cell phones, than traditional forms of communication such as face- to-face conversations or speaking on the telephone. Anecdotally, a particular client reported that she frequently “froze up” and was unable to have an in-person conversation with her male friends but had no difficulty “talking” with text via a computer instant messaging program.

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There is a paucity of psychological literature concerning college student use of Internet social networking is available and those studies that are available are contradictory in nature (Brignall & Van Valey, 2005; Kraut et al., 1998, 2002; Odell, Korgen, Schumacher & Delucchi, 2000; Ybarra, 2004). The popular media, who are more consistent about the issue, repeatedly infers that Internet use impairs social interaction and that increased use may even lead to chronic depression and clinical levels of social anxiety in traditional social situations (CBS News, 2007; Fox News, 2007; Geldof, 2007; USA Today, 2007). The dissimilarity between these two bodies of literature and the seeming confusion within empirical investigations of the topic was in need of clarification. That is: is the increase in Internet use, particularly among younger individuals for social contact harmful? This is of particular concern as a recent study reported that 89% of individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 residing in the United States engage in Internet use daily (Jones & Fox, 2009, p. 2). However, it is unclear whether accessing one’s social world online negatively impacts one’s face-to-face social relationships and mental health. The Purpose of the Study The purpose of the present study was to clarify these discrepant portrayals of Internet use for social communication by exploring the impact of Internet use on social engagement in a college-aged population with particular attention to symptoms of social anxiety and depression. This study investigated three primary questions in addressing the disparate portrayals of the effect of Internet based social interactions: 1) Can the amount of time spent and the level of social interaction for which a person uses the Internet predict loneliness, level of social interaction, and social anxiety in

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offline settings/face-to-face relationships, and loneliness and social anxiety in online relationships; 2) Can the amount of time spent the Internet, or the amount of social interaction engaged in online predict participants’ reported levels of depression; and 3) Does the gender of the participant make any difference on the amount of time spent on the Internet, their social interaction online, or their reported levels of depression?

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CHAPTER 2 REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE The Internet and Related Terms In 1995, the term Internet was officially defined as “the global information system that is logically linked together by a globally unique address space based on the Internet Protocol (IP), that is able to support communications using Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) and provides, uses or makes accessible, either publicly or privately, high level services layered on the communications and related infrastructure” (Federal Networking Council, 1995, p. 1). However, when individuals talk about the Internet, they are typically referring to more than this technical definition. When individuals access the Internet they typically do it via the World Wide Web (web). The web is actually a collection of electronic documents that are stored on computers throughout the world (World Wide Web, 2002; Howe 2007). Through the use of a web browser these documents can be easily accessed by anyone who knows what to look for and are frequently identified through the use of search engines designed to access these documents based on key words (Search Engine, 2009). This information can then be communicated to others through the use of email or instant messaging/chat programs. Email is an electronic message that is sent and/or received over a system that is designed specifically for the transmission of electronically written messages between computers (Email, 2009; Howe, 2007). Due to its virtually instantaneous delivery, email is a quick and easy form of communication that individuals use for professional and personal reasons throughout their day.

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Communication also happens on the Internet through instant messaging programs and Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Instant messaging programs are designed to allow real time conversation to occur between individuals who access the same service by means of a program installed on their personal computers (Instant messaging, 2009; Howe 2007). Similar to instant messaging, IRC allows real time conversation to occur between groups of individuals in locations typically referred to as “chat rooms” through a worldwide network of computers (IRC, 2009; Howe, 2007). In the last decade with the advent of social networking sites, a new form of communication has emerged on the Internet. Social networking sites, such Facebook or Twitter, are typically websites designed to allow individuals to publish information about themselves, with the intention of sharing that information with others in a way that doesn’t require direct conversation (Howe, 2007). The Internet has expanded in ways that were not foreseeable at its inception. As the tools that are used to access the Internet increase, so do the number of online activities and the amount of time spent engaging in online activities. This is particularly true for younger generations, as represented by the statistics presented in a recent Pew Internet Survey that reported 83% to 87% of individuals ages 18 to 49 use the Internet compared with 65% of individuals age 50 to 64 and 32% of individuals age 65+ (Pew Internet Tracking Survey, 2007a). The types of activities that individuals report engaging in most often online are sending or reading email (56%), searching for information (41%), getting news (37%), looking for information on a hobby or other interest (29%), or browsing websites for fun (28%) (Pew Internet Tracking Survey, 2007b). These statistics are particularly salient for younger

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generations who have grown up with the Internet as part of their daily lives and cannot imagine a time when constant contact to the world via the Internet did not exist. Gender Differences and the Internet Although both genders reported equal use of the Internet in a Pew Internet Tracking Survey (2007a), the psychological research of Internet usage presents mixed results when looking at gender differences. An Odell, Korgen, Schumacher & Delucchi (2000) study measured the responses of 843 students at five public institutions and three private institutions to compare Internet usage and gender. Participants were asked basic demographic questions, including major and year in college, and Internet related questions including amount of access to the Internet while growing up, how much time they currently spent on the Internet, and why they accessed the Internet. The study reported that for public institutions, there were no gender differences in the amount of time spent on the Internet, and that at private institutions males spent significantly more time online than females (p = 0.019). However, Odell and colleagues (2000) reported gender differences when examining the specific activities or services accessed. Females spent significantly more time checking email (p = 0.015), and conducting research for school (p = 0.002), while their male counterparts spent significantly more time researching purchases (p = 0.002), visiting sex sites (p < 0.001), reading news (p < 0.001), playing games (p < 0.001), and listening to or downloading music (p < 0.001). A study by Sabrina Neu (2009) looked at gender and perceptions of boredom, social interaction and social anxiety among 200 college students ranging in age from 18 to 30 who reported

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playing online multiuser games such as World of Warcraft. Participants completed self-report measures online that measured levels of social interaction, social anxiety, and boredom (Neu, 2009). Neu reported that in her study males spent significantly more time playing online games than females (p = 0.05) but were not more likely to report levels of boredom, social anxiety or decreased social interaction when compared with females. Another study by Michele Ybarra (2004) reviewed the information collected by the Youth Internet Safety Survey between September 1999 and February 2000. Out of 1,489 participants 72% of respondents reported experiencing at least one incident of online harassment, defined as feeling threatened or embarrassed by others on the Internet Ybarra, 2004). When Ybarra looked at gender differences within the survey she found a correlation between depression and Internet use among males, especially regarding online harassment but found no correlation between harassment on the Internet and depression for females. Thus, an increase in Internet use may be associated with gender differences in regard to both symptoms of depression and the types of activities for which the Internet is used (Neu, 2009; Ybarra, 2004). Social Engagement and the Internet Social engagement, as defined by this study is the quality and number of interactions that an individual has with others on a regular basis. These interactions can be with family members, peers, and members of their social or personal communities and have the result of forming a cohesive group that makes the individuals feel a sense of belonging (Canadian Council on Social Development, 2006; Fiske, 2004 p. 460; Thibault & Kelley, 1986, p. 60; Watters, 2003 p. 104).

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Over the last six years, social engagement has expanded to include the Internet through the use of social networking (Sellers, 2006, para. 5). Social networking online is typically accomplished through sites that allow individuals to search for others that have the same interests, establish friendships, and reconnect with friends from their past (Luo, 2007, para. 1). The impact of the Internet on social engagement is frequently discussed in both popular media and in the psychological literature in negative light. In the psychological literature one meta-analysis has posited that as individuals become more accustomed to interacting through the Internet there will be negative consequences on their ability to communicate appropriately in face-to-face situations (Brignall & Van Valey, 2005). Additionally, a study that focused on college students asked 649 men and 647 women about their Internet use and found that the students who reported greater levels of Internet use also reported that, in addition to a decrease in their amount of daily sleep (p = 0.05) and lower grades academically (p = 0.05), they also perceived fewer opportunities to interact with individuals in face-to-face situations (Anderson, 2001). Another study that focused on adolescent use of the Internet asked 52 female high school seniors and 37 male high school seniors to complete several self report measures concerning Internet use, quality of relationships, and depression (Sanders, Field, Diego & Kaplan, 2000). Sanders and colleagues (2000) found that higher levels of Internet use were associated with declines in face-to-face relationships with both friends and mothers when compared with adolescents that used the Internet less than one hour per day (p = 0.01). Finally, a recent study that asked 300 participants of an online multiplayer

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role playing game to complete measures of social engagement and social anxiety found that individuals were likely to report that as a result of high levels of Internet use they had missed meals, decreased their amount of sleep, were more likely to argue with friends and/or family members and perceived that their face-to-face social life had suffered as a result (Neu, 2009). In addition to the negative effects of Internet use on social engagement, the psychological literature on this topic has also found both neutral and positive results concerning the impact of Internet usage on social engagement. In 1998, a comprehensive study of the topic occurred at Carnegie Mellon University (Kraut et al, 1998). These researchers conducted a longitudinal study that gave computers and Internet access to 93 families (256 individuals) in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area who had not previously had such access. Participants completed measures of anxiety, depression, and social activity before they were given Internet access and then again after they had been given access. The study authors reported that higher amounts of Internet usage were correlated with declines in communication, and with smaller social networks (Kraut et al, 1998). However, in contrast to this earlier study, a follow-up study conducted in 2002 by the same researchers with 208 of the original participants found that there were no correlations between Internet usage, communication, and social networks and attributed this change in findings potentially to maturation in their participants over time or as a result of the Internet changing to be more socially inclined (Kraut et al. 2002 p. 69). Additionally, a study completed by Eric Weiser (2000) had 140 males and 295 females from a student population (n = 134) and an online population (n = 301) complete several measures of well-being via

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the World Wide Web (Weiser, 2000). Weiser found that when the Internet is used primarily for social activities there was a decline in psychological well-being of the individual and when it was used primarily for non-social activities it resulted in an increase in psychological well-being (Weiser, 2000, p.257). Conversely, other studies investigating the effects of Internet use on communication and levels social interaction reported that college students who chatted anonymously on the Internet over a period of four to eight weeks were more likely to report at the end of the study that their perceptions of social support increased, and that individuals who used chat rooms on a regular basis scored lower on measures of social fearfulness than non-chat users (Campbell, Cumming, & Hughes 2006; Shaw & Gant 2002). A Madell and Muncer (2007) study that focused on the use of communication and social interactions reported that individuals preferred to use email and instant messaging when communicating emotion-laden concerns in particular. Thus, the relational consequences of Internet communication may differ by the type of conversation facilitated. Articles in the popular media frequently focus on the negative interactions that are caused by use of the Internet. An example of this was seen on July 15, 2007 when several articles were written in the popular media about a parenting couple from Reno, Nevada who had neglected their children in order to play online games (CBS News, 2007, para. 1; Fox News, 2007, para. 1; USA Today, 2007, para. 1). The prosecutor in that case stated that the couple was “too distracted by online games … to give their children proper care” (USA Today, 2007, para. 4). The outcome of the prosecution of this case has not been determined at this date. Similarly, a recent

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editorial begins with “MySpace is ruining my social life” and continues to elucidate the opening statement by detailing how the author no longer goes out with friends, preferring instead to stay at home and improve her MySpace page (Geldof, 2007, para. 1). An article in Time magazine in 2008 stated that the social aspects of the Internet, namely the ability to comment on articles that are posted, result in individuals being “cruel” and “loathsome” and posits that this is due to illusion of anonymity online and a general disregard of cultural restraints (Grossman, 2008, para. 2 and 3). In contrast to these media accounts is an editorial in Primary Psychiatry which recommended that social networking sites be used to connect professionals in healthcare fields in order to take advantage of the ways that these sites allow individuals to interact with their peers and exchange information with ease (Luo, 2007). The connection between Internet use and social engagement has received mixed results in both the popular media and the psychological research. Some studies have found that increased use of the Internet leads to a decrease in social engagement (Anderson, 2001; Kraut et al., 1998), while others have found that increased use leads to increased social engagement (Campbell et al., 2006; Kraut et al, 2002; Madell & Muncer, 2007; Sanders et al., 2000; Shaw & Gant, 2002). This mixture of results may be due to the relative lack of research literature and the instinctive response that guides most popular media to suppose that increased use of the Internet would result in decreased social engagement. Such “common sense” may not stand up to scrutiny when compared with stringent research.

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Social Anxiety and the Internet Some writers have suggested that an increase in Internet use is associated with symptomatology consistent with social anxiety (Amichai-Hamburger, Wainapel, & Fox, 2002; Caplan, 2007). Social anxiety is characterized by fear of social situations that could lead to intense social scrutiny if the individual behaves in a manner that is humiliating or embarrassing (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Prevalence rates of social anxiety reportedly range from 3% to 13%, with most individuals reporting social anxiety in situations that require public speaking or meeting new people (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Turk, Heimberg, & Hope, 2001). The popular media frequently implies that the Internet is useful for individuals with social anxiety because it gives individuals experiencing social anxiety a place to practice social skills and increase confidence (Cuncic, 2009, para. 3) and it’s a safe place to form new friendships without the pressure of immediately responding to social cutes (Ayushveda, 2008, para. 6; Sorryforsilence, 2009). The A study that investigated individuals who experience social anxiety symptoms reported that individuals who attained higher scores of social anxiety were less likely to spend time online than those with lower levels of social anxiety (Madell & Muncer, 2006). Similarly, another study reported that the amount of time spent in chat rooms did not have an impact on the levels of anxiety reported by participants, but that those who participated tended overall to be less socially anxious than those who did not spend time in chat rooms on the Internet (Campbell et al., 2006). A similar finding of no significant effect for social anxiety and Internet use was also seen in a study that

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looked at online game playing and the self-reported levels of social anxiety (Neu, 2009). Taken together, these studies suggest that socially anxious individuals do not use the Internet for interpersonal communication as is assumed in the popular media. Conversely, a study investigating participants’ ability to express their “real self in a social environment” reported that high scores on measures of introversion and neuroticism were associated with a greater comfort being their “real self” on the Internet, compared to ratings that were high on extroversion and low on neuroticism being associated with being more comfortable in face-to-face social situations (Amichai-Hamburger et al. 2002). This finding concerning introversion was also reported in a study conducted by Scott Caplan (2007) who reported that high social anxiety was predictive of individual preference for online social interaction to face- to-face social interaction. Intuitively it makes sense that individuals who experience anxiety in social situations would be more comfortable on the Internet where the perception of anonymity allows individuals to present only what they want others to see. However, given the psychological research, it remains to be seen if this intuitive reaction concerning social anxiety is something that can be adequately measured. Depression and the Internet Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders and is diagnosed when individuals experience a depressed mood most of the day, show a diminished interest in pleasurable activities, report changes in appetite, and in levels of concentration, and have feelings of worthlessness or guilt (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Young, Weinberger, & Beck, 2001). The prevalence of Major

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Depressive Disorder (which requires the presence of at least one episode of depression) reportedly ranges from 10% to 25% in females and from 5% to 12% in males (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). A study conducted at Carnegie Mellon in 1998 originally reported that increased Internet use was correlated with an increase in reports of loneliness and depression; however, the follow-up study conducted 4 years later found that there was no correlation between Internet use and depression and is consistent with a study that found no link between adolescent use of the Internet and levels of depression (Kraut et al., 1998, 2002; Sanders et al., 2000). Furthermore, a study on the relationship between Internet communication and depression reported that over the course of four to eight weeks, college students chatting anonymously on the Internet were more likely to report fewer feelings of loneliness and depression than they had before the study began (Shaw & Gant, 2002). Based on the scant psychological literature, it appears that the amount of time spent online does not impact levels of depression but that there are other aspects of Internet use that may play a role. A Morgan and Cotton (2003) study found that the type of activity engaged in on the Internet was implicated in levels of depression among college students, and that when the Internet was utilized for communication, levels of depressive symptoms decreased, particularly for male respondents. However, when the Internet was utilized for non-communication oriented activities such as shopping or research, levels of depressive symptoms increased (Morgan & Cotton, 2003). Another study reported that, rather than the type of activity, or the amount of time spent on the Internet, depressive symptoms were eight times more likely to be reported by males who also reported experiencing

Full document contains 75 pages
Abstract: The Internet provides an opportunity for individuals to interact with friends and family members, to research any topic they can imagine, and to explore the world while sitting in the comfort of their own home. The popular media suggests that Internet usage decreases the amount of social interaction individuals have with the world outside of their computer and may be accompanied by social anxiety, loneliness, lowered self-esteem, or chronic depression, and the psychological literature's mixed findings on these topics have not helped clarify the issue. This study looked at the impact that Internet usage has on an individual's psychological well-being in an effort to clarify and expand on the previous research. Participants in this study were undergraduates at a state university in rural Pennsylvania. Participants were randomly selected through a psychology department subject pool. They completed several psychological questionnaires and tracked their Internet usage and social engagement for a seven-day period. Results indicated that time spent on the Internet was not predictive of depression, social anxiety, or social engagement in face-to-face relationships or online relationships. The type of activity engaged in online was also not predictive of depression, social anxiety, or social engagement in face-to-face relationships or online relationships. However, results indicated that there was a significant difference in the way that participants responded to measures of social anxiety when referencing face-to-face relationships as opposed to online relationships. Limitations included not tracking ethnicity of participants, an unequal distribution of gender across the population, and that the population was restricted to undergraduate students in a rural setting. Based on these results, future research would benefit from exploring differences in individual's perceptions of online relationships compared with face-to-face relationships, and from exploring similar questions in non-college aged, ethnically diverse populations with gender equally distributed across the sample.