Internet. Cyberspace
What is "normal" Internet use?

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150508 - Mental Health - Psychologists have bee studying abnormal Internet use since the late 1990s.  In another article I discussed a presentation on pathological Internet use by Mark Griffiths at the American Psychological Association's 1997 annual convention. Griffiths used a model of addiction to analyze the behavior of several different people who had problems with their Internet use.  What is normal Internet use? Several different answers were presented as a part of a symposium at APA. Victor Brenner studied Internet use through a World Wide Web survey. His preliminary results were published in Psychological Reports in 1997. He presented further results at APA that were consistent with the earlier results.


Brenner's subjects reported an average of 19 hours per week of Internet use. Many reported up to 10 signs of interference in role functioning (primarily failure to manage time, missing sleep, missing meals, etc.) . A surprising result is that 80% of the sample reported at least five of these signs. These numbers suggest that the presence of some level of these problems is normal, and therefore should not be considered as pathological. The Internet seems to be a compelling medium, and some disruption in our lives is normal if we spend much time online.

Other studies have come up with different numbers. Kathleen Scherer studied 531 students at the University of Texas at Austin. 381 students who used the Internet at least once per week were studied further. 49 of these students (13%) were classified as "Internet dependent" because they had at least 3 out of 10 problems which parallel chemical dependencies. 71% of the "dependent" users were men and 29% were women. "Dependent" users averaged only 11 hours per week online while the average for the whole sample was 8 hours. Defining people as "dependent" based on their self-report of three problems seems a bit excessive in light of Brenner's study.

Scherer's numbers are probably lower than Brenner's for several reasons. She used a college sample and recruited from a cross-section of students. Brenner recruited online and his technique would have attracted heavy Net users. The more time you spend online the more likely you are to stumble across the survey.

Janet Morahan-Martin and Phyllis Schumaker presented the results of a study which support Scherer's lower numbers. They surveyed 283 college students in courses which required Internet use. They measured pathological use by administering a 13 item survey which assessed evidence that the Internet was causing personal problems, withdrawal symptoms and mood altering use.

They classified users into three groups. Pathological users averaged 8.5 hours of Internet use per week, persons with limited symptoms averaged 3.2 hours per week, and those with no symptoms averaged 2.4 hours per week.

Pathological users also differed from other users in other ways. They reported significantly more loneliness (as measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale). They used online games more than other users, and they also used more technologically sophisticated aspects of the net (such as FTP, virtual reality, and remote support communication software) more than other students. They did not use Internet Relay Chat more than other students.

What is normal Internet use? We still don't know. For the majority of the population normal Internet use remains zero hours per week. Studies suggest that some college students average 8 hours or so per week, and web surfers can average 20 hours online without having major problems. What you do online may be as important as how long you spend online. Some online activities seem to be more compelling and potentially "addictive" than others. Games and chat have been mentioned in this context, although these studies found limited support for the addictiveness of chat.

When is Internet use pathological? The simple answer: when it gets in the way of the rest of your life. Addictions involve "compulsive use despite harm."  The longer definition of addiction in the previous article illustrates some ways that substances and activities can get in the way. Look for more research in the next few years as we wrestle with these issues.

While Internet use patterns may have changed since 1997, some people still develop problems.  If you are having a problem with excessive Internet use you may want to see a therapist in person. Online help is probably not ideal for pathological Internet use since it contributes to even more time online.

Last updated 3/11/06


  • Brenner, Victor. Parameters of Internet Use, abuse, and addiction. Psychological Reports, 1997, 80, 879-882.

  • Morahan-Martin, Janet and Schumaker, Phyllis. Incidence and Correlates of Pathological Internet Use. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. August 1997.

  • Scherer, Kathleen. College life online: Healthy and unhealthy Internet use. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. August 1997.

Updated: March 12, 2006





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