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When is our Internet use a problem instead of a pleasure?

We are all dependent on the internet in our daily lives, but do our levels of surfing the net sometimes get too high, to the detriment of our daily lives?

University of Auckland PhD candidate Delia Cotoros-Goodall is about to embark on that very question for her doctorate in Health Science.

“My PhD is the first study in New Zealand with the goal of exploring the issue of Problematic Internet Use (PIU) and its relationship between existing psychopathology such as depression, social anxiety and substance abuse,” Delia says.

In her PhD, Delia will take into account that PIU can manifest in several ways, spanning General PIU (characterized by aimlessly spending time online surfing from website to website without a specific purpose) and Specific PIU (using the Internet for a particular purpose such as gambling, shopping, social networking, etc). As a result, her measure of PIU includes a General PIU scale and three Specific PIU scales addressing three particular behaviours (online shopping, online gambling and watching pornography online).

Delia is looking for as many people as possible to fill out an online anonymous survey. The participants have to be over 18 years of age but can be from anywhere in New Zealand. People participating in the study will go in the draw to win one of 20 vouchers worth between $30 and $250. People interested in participating can complete the online survey (goo.gl/BVSVKX) or email the researcher at d.cotoros@auckland.ac.nz

Delia was drawn to this topic after discovering there is little literature available to measure PIU or any appropriate tools for assessing a person’s use of the Internet.

“There has not been any agreement in terms of where to draw the line between what’s ok and what’s not. That’s one of the issues that I have with previous research done overseas. Some older measures considered someone as ‘addicted’ if they spent 20 or more hours per week online but that was including work and/or school purposes. Our society has evolved so much that we have entire jobs dependant on the Internet, so 20 hours total per week seems to be a very outdated number.”

Previous overseas researchers have attempted to develop a scale or questionnaire for this issue, but they have often adopted a top-down approach, where the researchers developed the scale based on observations of people’s pathological use of the Internet. As a result, the content of existing measures often reflects what the researcher believes to be “a problem”, and many of the scales are rapidly becoming out-dated given the rapid expansion of the Internet and what we use it for.

“For example, a question from a previously developed measure designed to assess PIU is ‘I ask questions on the Internet that I could easily find the answers to in the library’. Given the speed and wealth of information that the Internet can offer us, why should this behaviour be considered problematic?

“Unlike previous research, I developed my PIU measure with the use of qualitative focus groups conducted with Internet users.”

She carried out focus groups with a random sample of 70 Internet users and discussed extensively what behaviours would be indicative of someone who has a problem.
“This was the first study to ask the Internet users what they consider to be problematic use in this day and age,” she says.

The next step of the study is to validate the measure in a New Zealand context and explore the relationship between Internet use and various psychopathology scales (depression, anxiety, substance use and social isolation).

In addition to creating a validated measure of PIU, it is hoped that the study will provide a picture of the issue in New Zealand, in terms of how common this is, who are affected, and the effects it has on them.

People interested in participating can complete the online survey (goo.gl/BVSVKX)

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