Friday, December 10, 2010

No Substitute for IRL Relationships for Adolescents

Credit: Scott Hampson
It's no secret that the Internet is a black hole when it comes to time. Fifteen minutes on Twitter spirals into an hour or two of witty banter. A quick stop on Facebook to read statuses or water crops becomes three hours looking at photos from someone's vacation or wedding. (And email? Fuggedaboutit!) But it's easy to be online—simple and almost instantaneous access to all your friends and connections, and none of them need to know you're in your pajamas. And you can reinvent yourself online, which is handy for those of us with histories of awkwardness (or present awkwardness for that matter). The Internet is always with us. It's in our pockets and bags on our phones, and wherever free WiFi can be found for those with netbooks, tablets, and laptops, which provides us with a handy way to escape uncomfortable situations—how many of your with smart phones have checked (or pretended to check) email, Facebook, or Twitter at a party where the conversation wasn't going quite right? 

For adolescents and teens in particular unmonitored access can quickly lead to problematic Internet use (PIU), which in turn can develop into Internet addiction. In a relatively small study, researchers Milani, Osaualdella, and Di Blasio (2009) discuss the ways online social interactions can help adolescents develop a sense of belonging, particularly in instances of self-imposed or group-driven social isolation. Online social interactions in these cases offer simple ways of restoring a sense of normalcy:
the association between loneliness and the negative consequences of Internet use is effectively mediated by the preference for online social interactions, which allows individuals with particular problems in this are to perceive themselves as more secure and more at ease than in traditional face-to-face interactions [Caplan 2007 by Milani et. al. 2009] (681).
Using a sample of Italian students, Milani and colleagues demonstrated the potential relationship between PIU, quality of interpersonal relationships, coping skills, and capacity to internalize/externalize social norms. To this end, they employed the following tools:
  1. an Italian-version Internet Addiction Test (IAT) (cutoff score for PIU is 50, and effective dependence is 80); 
  2. Test of Interpersonal Relationships (TRI), which measures the quality of relationships;
  3. an Italian-version Children's Coping Strategies Checklist (CCSC), which measures coping skills;
  4. and a Questionnaire for the Recording of Internet Use Habits, which measured participants' browsing habits.
Approximately, 37% (of a sample population of 98) participants had an IAT score of 50 or higher. The small sample size for this study is a bit problematic, but the researchers believe that their data demonstrates that adolescents with PIU have less quality relationships in their lives: These individuals scored higher on sub-tests within the CCSC for avoidance behaviors as a coping strategy. Avoidance behaviors can be a predictor for PIU as the authors report that there is a connection between Internet dependency and certain personality traits, such as preference for solitary activities and low social openness (2009: 681).
This, adolescents with poor interpersonal relationships and a predisposition for adopting an avoidance coping strategy are at a greater risk of developing PIU (683).
The bottom line is that socializing online cannot substitute for real life connections, particularly for adolescents who are still learning and developing strategies for coping with real world situations and relationships. This is not necessarily new news, but as the DSM-V considers whether to include IAD, studies such as this confirm the impact of digital technologies on our lives, and invite a closer look as potential long-term effects.


Cited:
ResearchBlogging.orgMilani, L., Osualdella, D., & Di Blasio, P. (2009). Quality of Interpersonal Relationships and Problematic Internet Use in Adolescence CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12 (6), 681-684 DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2009.0071

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