Problematic Internet Use: Is the Person or the Internet the Problem?
The internet has brought many benefits to people’s lives, from allowing interaction over long distances to the delivery of psychotherapy to many who would not otherwise be reached. It has enhanced our education from primary school through to university and has enabled education to continue during the recent pandemic when attendance at school or college was not possible. But what of the impact of the internet on our social and emotional life?
Parents Have Many Concerns About Their Children’s Use of Technology
There is often a focus on the negative effects while ignoring the benefits such as the development of problem-solving and technical skills. While some worry that social withdrawal may result from internet use, these concerns are often offset by the wealth of socially engaging opportunities available in online forums. These digital means to connect, which have proven particularly integral during the pandemic, can prevent loneliness.
Evidence is clear that a balanced use of technology is beneficial for children as long as they do not develop a lifestyle without physical activity or become reluctant to engage socially with peers.
But what about the amount of internet usage? At extremes, this can be an addiction. Certain personality traits, such as neuroticism (being a worrier) and social anxiety (being nervous about anticipated social situations), may lead some individuals to become addicted. On the other hand, those who have a more conscientious and agreeable personality style are less prone.
Addictive internet use and loneliness are also linked, but it’s not clear which is the cause and which is the effect. A person who spends a lot of time on the internet may, over time, become lonelier. But a person who has difficulty in developing friendships may resort to the internet as a source of comfort. So, which is it? Does personality predict the problematic behavior or does the problematic behavior shape one’s personality?
We may assume that personality characteristics are stable, but the evidence is that, particularly during adolescence and early adulthood, personality changes. ”Who we are” as a person becomes more settled as we develop and mature. It is a mistake to assume, then, that when personality traits are linked with problematic internet use, personality is the causal factor.
Both Paths Can Be True
Our study of over 600 emerging adults showed support for both excessive internet use leading to loneliness as well as loneliness predicting excessive internet use. This may help to explain the conflicting nature of research findings in previous studies where some claim it is the personality that leads to the problems and others that the problematic internet usage shapes one’s personality. Simply put, it is both.
Personality traits are a combination of behaviors and emotion that shape and are shaped by how we interact with others in our social world. So behaviors linked to loneliness, like avoiding direct social contact, may lead one to the internet where they may become more socially isolated. Thus maybe the next question for us is to examine which behavioral tendencies linked with personality traits may predispose a person to other behaviors as opposed to focusing on whether personality is the cause.
For Further Reading
Dalton, F., & Cassidy, T. (2020). Problematic internet usage, personality, loneliness and psychological wellbeing in emerging adulthood. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, https://doi.org/10.1111/asap.12224
Koronczai, B., Kökönyei, G., Griffiths, M., & Demetrovics, Z. (2019). The relationship between personality Ttaits, psychopathological symptoms, and problematic internet use: A complex mediation model. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 21(4), e11837. https://doi.org/10.2196/11837
Shi, M., & Du, T. J. (2019). Associations of personality traits with internet addiction in Chinese medical students: the mediating role of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms. BMC Psychiatry 19, 183. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-019-2173-9
Tony Cassidy is Professor of Child and Family Health Psychology at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. He has particular interests in understanding resilience in vulnerable groups of children and in interventions that help build such.