The Internet: Worse for Students than Alcohol?
> 9/19/2006 12:27:33 PM

So clearly we're being facetious with that headline, but data cited in a recent AP article from the Detroit Free Press should give pause to many college students, parents and administrators around the country. According to researchers at Michigan State University, the Internet has caused more scholastic problems than other, more well known problems.

In a health survey conducted this year, 18.5 percent of Michigan State University students reported that spending time using the Internet and playing computer games had caused them to get a low grades or to drop a class altogether. In comparison, 8.5 percent of students said drinking had hurt their academics; while 17 percent said it was depression.

What's more, the study showed men seem to be drawn more to the Internet. Only 13 percent of women reported harmful effects on their schoolwork; for men, it was 25.2 percent.

There are a number of possible explanations that could explain these results, but the bottomline is that Internet addiction should be taken more seriously at the university level. It is there that many people have their first taste of life without a parent's watchful eye keeping track of them. It is also at college that many students get their first taste of the unfettered freedoms of the Internet. These two circumstances can combine to create a situation wherein students may develop unhealthy or unproductive habits.

One counselor quoted in the story calls Internet addiction a "socially approved problem." Since it very rarely affects anyone else's life, a person's Internet addiction can go unnoticed and unchecked. This "socially approved" status might also account for a large part of the discrepancy in self-reporting, i.e. students are very willing to say they did poorly because they were surfing the Internet, an activity not nearly as socially stigmatized as waking up with a hangover on a Wednesday.

If social approval is the problem, and only further research will determine if that is the case, then an equal focus must be placed on shaping students' perceptions of the Internet as a useful and fun tool, but also something that can be overused. Just as public perception has been changed to make excessive TV viewing socially unacceptable, so too can we make excessive Internet usage less socially acceptable.

Obviously, this will not prevent or ease the most severe cases. Students who play World of Warcraft to the exclusion of everything else will require therapy and treatments. But we should be able to cut down on more of the casual but harmful use. Instant messenger is convenient, but unnecessary if you're talking to your neighbor. Facebook stalking is fun, but why not actually speak to your friend. Snood or Bejeweled are great diversions (and can certainly be addictive), use them as a reward for a task completed or a good grade on a test.

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