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Some Internet ­se Compensates for Other Interpersonal Issues

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The Changing Face of Problematic Internet Use, cover image

Scott Caplan is a big fan of face time.

Not FaceTime, the video calling app, but actual in-person social interaction in which people talk directly with one another the way they have for thousands of years.

"The iPhone was introduced in 2007, and that's when things really started changing because people could be online through their mobile device all the time," says Caplan, an associate professor of communication at the University of Delaware, who conducts research on problematic Internet use. "I'm certainly not saying that technology is bad, but technology can be used in ways that magnify a lot of social problems."

Caplan says he became interested in the connection between Internet use and well-being by reading early research on the subject that began in the late 1990s. He was especially intrigued by reports that people who said their Internet use had negative effects on their lives also said they particularly used interpersonal features such as chat rooms and instant messaging.

He began studying the issue after earning his doctorate in 2000 and has written a new book on the subject, The Changing Face of Problematic Internet Use, published by Peter Lang International Academic Publishers.

One finding that Caplan wanted to explore was why people who were lonely, depressed, and socially anxious were more likely to have problems with their Internet use. Did overuse of the Internet lead to these problems, or was it a symptom of them?

"People's social skills do predict their problems with these devices," he says. "They use technology to compensate for other interpersonal communication problems."

Although some observers have called various types of problematic Internet use addictions—the World Health Organization recently defined a new type of addiction called "gaming disorder"—Caplan thinks that's the wrong approach.

"Throughout my research, I've tried to view problematic Internet use, not as a disease but as a condition related to people's interpersonal skills," he says. "I do have a chapter in my book on addiction, but there's a bigger picture."

Problems that result from the way the Internet and mobile devices are used can include difficulties in relationships of all types, Caplan says. More extreme examples occur when people are victimized by such online behavior as cyberbullying or cyberstalking.

But even in everyday life, Caplan says, the use of smartphones and other mobile devices that allow people to be online wherever they are has created new and different problems with interpersonal communication.

For example, he says, it wasn't long ago that professors would walk into a classroom, announce the start of class, and wait for the chatting to die down. Today, he notices that most classrooms are silent even before the instructor arrives: Students are on their phones, not interacting with their classmates.

"They're very connected to people, but not to the people they're physically with," Caplan says. "They not really with each other; they're with someone else, the person on their phone."

He notes that some experts believe this reliance, especially on texting, will inhibit teenagers' conversational skills over time.

Another example of new types of problematic Internet use can be termed "distracted parenting." Caplan cites studies in which observers note the large number of parents accompanying their children to a playground who spend the time on their phones rather than interacting with the youngsters.

Children need face time and social interaction with their parents in order to develop in a healthy way, he says. They also need to learn interpersonal skills that they will use throughout life in making friends.

People naturally like to do things that are fun, and video games are no exception, Caplan says. And people in an earlier generation worried that television would distract people from more useful pursuits.

"But the problems we have with technology and our social problems have changed," he says. "One thing that's different is that with 'old tech' like TV, you can watch together and you can talk about what you're watching.

"With new tech, your phone takes you into your own world. If everybody is on his phone, everybody is in his own silo."


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