Concept image of a young redheaded woman overwhelmed in our digital times

Image by Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

As we near the third decade of the 21st century, the average internet user is spending more than a quarter of their life online, according to a 2019 report from HootSuite and We Are Social. That translates to more than 100 days of online time for the average internet user each year, and the numbers are even higher for young people or those in office occupations.

While today’s digital technologies have the potential to expand the user’s knowledge, horizons and experiences far beyond anything previously possible, addiction is a rising concern in developed countries around the world, increasingly gaining attention in psychology and social scientific disciplines.

“Symptoms of the overuse of technology could be anything from expressing frustration when offline to a complete disregard of one’s daily responsibilities,” says Ester Gonzalez, an associate professor of Information Systems and Decision Sciences (ISDS) at Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo College of Business and Economics. Gonzalez is the co-author of the 2019 study, “Internet addiction: When the positive emotions are not so positive,” published in Technology in Society. “Although most of us are guilty of browsing the internet or interacting on social media for what seems like endless hours each day, the consequences of this behavior may be indicative of whether or not someone suffers from some level of addiction.”

With addiction typically conjuring up images of substance abuse, high-risk behaviors such as gambling, or unhealthy or excessive sexual activities, Gonzalez says there is a resistance in society to recognize internet overuse as a true addiction.

“The dependence on the use of the internet is not necessarily as visual as with an addiction to alcohol or drugs,” she says. “The very act of internet browsing and online searching seems innocent enough when work is still achieved and responsibilities are still met even if it means it happened after several hours of being online. Yet, this type of behavior may potentially become the road to self-destruction. Internet addiction may lead to similar outcomes as people with a substance addiction or gambling problem such as loss of jobs, broken relationships, isolation and depression.”

CSUF ISDS Associate Professor Ester Gonzalez

Ester Gonzalez

Identifying – And Avoiding – Digital Addiction

According to Gonzalez, negative consequences of internet addiction include isolation, distancing from others, disconnection in face-to-face social settings, disregard for family or work responsibilities, meaningless use of the internet for long periods of time, and even signs of clinical depression.

Recognizing these potential pitfalls, Gonzales says it is paramount that users pay close attention not only to their internet behavior, but also the consequences it’s having on their lives.

“Internet addicts may begin to disconnect from the real world and disregard important deadlines, meetings, family functions, face-to-face interactions, or work obligations with more consistency in order to remain focused on their internet use,” she says. “They refuse to be offline with more aggressiveness and relationships begin to suffer. It is possible that even personal hygiene becomes an issue.”

In her study, Gonzalez noted that emotions play a major role in understanding internet addiction, since the web may facilitate a “happy” or “feel good” high experience, which can then reinforce the continued use of the system, thus creating a vicious cycle when the high leads to negative emotions when other responsibilities are not met due to internet overuse.

“Over time, this behavior may become an avoidance to a real issue. It may give the user a false sense of belief in that the technology is bringing them a sense of joy, and this will make them less likely to disconnect,” says Gonzalez.

As digital technologies become increasingly integrated into our daily lives, what can a young adult do to minimize their risk of being an addict?

While you might not be able to limit your internet use for work or school purposes, keeping a leash on leisure or entertainment internet use, which may be done through keeping a log of frequency and duration, can be a good start.

And if you are with family, friends or colleagues, disconnect from the digital world for the duration of face-to-face activities.

In a nutshell, use the internet with purpose.

Internet Use as Escapism – The Danger and the Solution

Much of Gonzalez’ study examines internet addiction in a “coping” lens, suggesting that people might use technology as escapism.

“It is important for people to be aware that the emotional satisfaction that is sometimes experienced with internet use is a temporary fill for dealing with a situation,” she says. “In addition, people may use the internet as a way of distraction and/or avoidance, which only delays the acceptance of a situation and taking appropriate actions.”

If you’re experiencing difficulties managing your negative emotions and using the internet as an escape, Gonzalez encourages talking to a trusted family member or friend and finding and joining in non-digital experiences (yes, they do exist even in 2020!). These include engaging in a physical exercise regimen, a class or other hobby-related interest, and opportunities to volunteer in philanthropic events.

Internet Addiction in the Future

According to a poll of technology experts by the Pew Research Center, the rise of the internet of things and ubiquitous device usage will likely make the internet an almost omnipresent force in the lives of most people in Western and East Asian societies.

“The internet would become ‘like electricity’ – almost invisible to users, yet more deeply embedded in their lives,” they report.

In such a future, what is the next chapter in internet addiction?

“I believe there is a high probability that internet addiction will only increase if there are not interventions being enforced at a younger age,” says Gonzalez.

“With so many people, including children as young as one year old, constantly being entertained with tablets and smartphones, we have moved into a generation that views technology as the new TV and gaming console on the go. This means that children are often watching their shows or playing games outside of the home where these types of activities traditionally took place only at home during a specified time period that was either controlled by parents or show times.”

With constantly evolving technology, we can be sure that internet addiction will be a major concern for generations to come.

About Ester Gonzalez

Gonzalez says her motivation in information systems research is her own desire to stay updated on new technology trends and issues, thus best informing her classroom content and lectures.

“I believe it is important to share such research findings with students to not only inform them of such technology trends, but to prepare them for the workforce and enhance their understanding about how technology can affect organizational goals and objectives,” she says.

Originally dropping out of college as a freshman, Gonzalez eventually went on to earn her first degree as a vocational technical student before pursuing her Ph.D. from Baylor University. Today, Gonzalez participates in at least one 13-mile half marathon each year. She also plays the piano and makes tamales each holiday season for her family.

For More on Information Systems

Mihaylo College’s ISDS department is a globally-recognized leader in information systems research and innovative teaching. The department supports both undergraduate and graduate academic programs in the in-demand fields of information technology and systems and decision sciences.

For more information, visit the department online. Or read more of our articles on information systems education and research.