Bob Affonso
December 1, 1999
University of Nevada, Reno

Is the Internet Affecting the Social Skills of Our Children?

      While in its relative infancy, technology-driven school reform has engulfed education, and advocates hail the multitude of advantages to reap. It comes with promises to propel us into the future and cause dramatic improvement in student proficiency and worldwide understanding. Our computer-driven society demands that students develop the ability to operate in a technological environment, acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to be productive. In addition, so much of our planet is rapidly becoming connected via the Internet that online protocol has become an intrinsic part of technology-based curriculum. But increasing reports connecting psychologically addictive characteristics to Internet use, along with speculation of its negative influence on social functioning has brought to question the enduring effects of this reform. Educators and psychologists are beginning to wonder about the impact of the Internet on the social skills and psychological well-being of our children.

Just the Facts
      Online computer use is widespread and growing. Current estimates indicate that 149 million people are online worldwide, and that number is increasing at the rate of 12% a month (Suler, 1996, 1999b). According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, 22.2% of the 76 million American computer users aged 3 and above use the Internet, and one fifth of children with home computers use them to access the Internet (U.S. Census Bureau, 1997). It was also reported that 55 million enrolled children used a computer at school, and school was the most common place for children to access the Internet. With these staggering numbers, there is little doubt as to the proliferation and popularity of Internet use.

Questions Arise
      While our culture heralds the Internet as a technological wonder, there are suggestions that Internet use has a negative influence on individuals and their social skills. A recent study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University concludes that Internet use leads to small but statistically significant increases in misery and loneliness and a decline in overall psychological well-being (American Psychological Association, 1998). The appropriately named HomeNetproject studied a sample of 169 people in Pittsburg during their first year or two online. Data showed that as people in this sample used the Internet more, they reported keeping up with fewer friends. They also reported spending less time talking with their families, experiencing more daily stress, and feeling more lonely and depressed. These results occurred even though interpersonal communication was their most important reason for using the Internet.

      A national survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Washington found that a majority of parents in computer households fear the Internet's influence on children, due particularly to its wide-open nature and interactivity (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 1999). However, they still believe that their children need the Internet. They cited as benefits the ability to discover useful things and the advantages in helping with schoolwork. But the suggestive ill effects of Internet use do not stop at the secondary school level. At a large university in New York, the dropout rate among freshmen newcomers rose dramatically as their investment in computers and Internet access increased. The reason? Administrators learned that 43% of the dropouts were staying up all night on the Internet (Wallace, 1999). In response to a college listserv survey regarding the effect of technology on interpersonal relationships and communication, by far the most frequently mentioned potential problem dealt with electronic communication in the forms of e-mail, discussion groups, and chat rooms. Many respondents spoke of the sense of isolation inherent in this medium and the lack of face to face contact as a contributing factor to feelings of alienation and loneliness (Wade, 1999). Taking another twist, further findings suggest a small but significant number of people blame excessive online use for the break-up of their marriage (Eykyn, 1999).

Is It Addictive?
      With this increasing information, there is a debate among psychologists as to the prevalence of a psychological disorder associated with online use. Labeled by some as "Internet Addiction Disorder" (Goldberg, 1997), studies suggest the existence of addictive behavior patterns among heavy Internet users (Greenfield, 1999; Young, 1998). Based on criteria that psychologists often use in defining types of addiction, online surveys estimate the incidence of addictive patterns of behavior among heavy Internet users ranges from 6% (Greenfield, 1999) to as high as 80% (Young, 1998). Identified symptoms of the disorder include: (a) using the computer for pleasure, gratification, or relief from stress; (b) feeling irritable and out of control or depressed when not using it; (c) spending increasing amounts of time and money on hardware, software, magazines, and computer-related activities; and (d) neglecting work, school, or family obligations (Gawel, 1998). Relating to the online encounter, some users have also described experiencing a cocaine-like "rush" when using the Internet (Egger, 1996). In disagreement, some psychologists argue that the list of symptoms seems more oriented toward general personality disorders rather than real computer addiction (Dvorak, 1997; Grohol, 1999; Davis, 1999). Others challenged the findings of the online survey studies to be inaccurate due to sampling problems and demographic inequalities (Suler, 1999a; Wallace, 1999). According to Maressa Hecht Orzack, director of computer-addiction services at McLean Hospital of the Harvard Medical School, the problem centers around the people who work the computer rather than the computer itself. She asserts that they use the computer "as a tool to evade, procrastinate and escape," and that "among the most vulnerable are children who are lonely and bored or from families where nobody is at home to relate to after school." (Valenza, 1999). In a lighter view, some have taken a humorous approach to identifying the characteristics of Internet addicts. In a site entitled You Know You're Addicted When, the viewer is greeted with a seemingly endless list of warning signs. Still others have come up with audible approaches to the subject. Click on the following sound files for samples of this type of expression: addicted.wav and gilligan.wav

      As yet, there is no official psychological or psychiatric diagnosis of an "Internet" or "Computer" addiction. The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) -- which sets the standards for classifying types of mental illness -- does not include any such category (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Those who have conducted research on the subject agree that heavy Internet users share many characteristics in common with general addiction disorders. In his online document The Psychology of Cyberspace, Dr. John Suler lists many of these characteristics. There are several more Web sites that are specifically devoted to the study and diagnosis of the disorder. Among them is Dr. David Greenfield's Center for Internet Studies, which offers a free virtual addiction survey for self-appraisal. In addition, Dr. Kimberly Young founded the Center for On-Line Addiction which consults to educational institutions, mental health clinics, and corporations dealing with Internet misuse. The growing evidence of addiction among heavy Internet users has created a growing need for more information about the psychological characteristics of these individuals. Such information would serve an important role in the identification and development of effective intervention and prevention programs.

Effects On Our Children
      Referring to the HomeNetstudy, it was found that teenagers are much heavier Internet users than their parents. While adults tend to use the Internet as part of their jobs and to get employment-related information, teenagers were more likely to use the Internet to play games, to listen to music, and to meet new people. This particular appeal has caused further concern among educators such as Michael A. Weinstein, professor of Political Science at Purdue University. In a somewhat Archie Bunkerian way of expression, he believes Internet users will "lose the savvy and skills and patience to conduct social relations in the corporeal world," and that the Internet will intensify the negative effect television has already had on our social skills (Weinstein, 1995). Taking his view then, it is assumed that we are encouraging our children to become social nitwits!

      In their dealings with technology, today's youths are often portrayed as either victims or criminals. The press releases warning of Internet "stalkers," coupled with the recent tragedies of Columbine H.S. and elsewhere, have raised issues of safety and concern when dealing with the Internet. Like Weinstein, many have taken the view that media and technology -- including television, motion pictures, and CD recordings -- have deteriorated the values and social functioning of our youth. In their view, the Internet is a prime culprit for this affliction with its innate game-playing capabilities (Fainaru, 1998), suspected addictive tendencies, and beckoning sexually-explicit temptations. Debate as to the detrimental effects of technology on youth will perhaps linger due to the tentative nature of the research on this subject.

Encouraging Trends
      Contrary to this line of thinking, reports indicate that our youth may not be destined for such a decline. Overall, youth crime statistics have shown a stable or declining trend for five years (Tapscott, 1998). In his article For Adults, 'Today's Youth' Are Always the Worst, reporter Mike Males of the L.A.Times reports that over the past two decades in California teenage rates of felony and misdemeanor arrest are down 40%, suicide and self-destructive deaths have dropped 60% and drug-abuse deaths have declined 90%. He also reports that "students display higher school enrollments, test scores, college preparatory work and volunteerism than their forebears," and that "only California's poorest youth, confronted by the poverty and joblessness of a selective economic depression ... have shown increases in violence and alienation." (Males,1998).

Some also praise the benefits of the Internet in actually grooming the social skills of youth. Student author Matt Simon (1997), in an issue of The Vocal Point, offers the following view: "While the educational pros of the technology of computers cannot be forgotten, what about the social aspects? When we think of children and computers, the image of endless hours of playing games comes to mind. There are however many opportunities for children and youth to interact on-line in productive and positive ways. Spank Magazine is an interactive on-line magazine with new issues monthly. On-line magazines are virtual forums in which youth can write and communicate their ideas. This on-line format is free, accessible to anyone and eliminates the need for print publication and distribution ... An on-line magazine like Spank is a good way for youth to express themselves." Accounts such as this can only aid technology proponents in countering the views of their adversaries.

Awareness Is The Key
      There is little doubt that children can at times become captivated by the intrinsic opportunities afforded by the technology of computers and the Internet. This may sometimes come at the expense of other healthy activities such as homework or normal social interchange. Although most children seem to innately correct the problem, parents and educators must be watchful for signs of misuse. Dr. Kimberly Young of the Center for On-Line Addiction offers an online survey, the Parent-Child Internet Addiction Test to help identify habits and characteristics that may indicate overuse. The HomeNetstudy recommends that parents limit and monitor their children's use and encourage family interaction by putting the computer in the living room, rather than the basement or a child's room. Whatever the action, parents and children should work together to identify a problem. It is also the responsibility of educators to effectively incorporate technology into their lesson plans. They must view the computer as a valuable supplemental tool in education rather than an end-all solution. When incorporating the Internet, online research activities should be integral with in-class social exchange to assure a necessary balance.

      Despite the alarm, research indicates most children are doing fine. Computers are certainly intriguing and captivating, and the Internet is most assuredly alluring with its research and communicative capacities. But overall, technology can be considered a positive enhancement to growth. This feature is eloquently affirmed by author Don Tapscott (1999):
"... when kids are online, they're reading, thinking, analyzing, criticizing and authenticating - composing their thoughts. Kids use computers for activities that go hand-in-hand with our understanding of what constitutes a traditional childhood. They use the technology to play, learn, communicate and form relationships as children always have. Development is enhanced in an interactive world."


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Copyright 1999 by Bob Affonso