MAXWELL:  Riding a Web wave right out of school

2/15/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Last year, I wrote a column, titled Wired but disconnected, suggesting that, because the Internet is the most radical communication system to emerge in a century, we should pull back occasionally to give ourselves a reality check, to see if we like where we are headed.

I quoted Yale University computer science Professor David Gelernter, who asked some troubling questions: “Everyone knows what you do with the Web: You surf, sliding from site to site at the click of a mouse button. Exactly which problem will Web-surfing attack? Our children’s insufficient shallowness? Excessive attention spans? Unhealthy fixation on in-depth analysis? Stubborn unwillingness to push on to the next topic until they have mastered the last? We need less surfing, not more.”

Now, in an article in a new quarterly journal called CyberPsychology and Behavior, Jonathan Kandell offers evidence that Gelernter and others have good reason to worry about the relationship between the Internet and real learning among public school and university students.

Kandell, assistant director of the Counseling Center at the University of Maryland at College Park, found that students from 18 to 22 may be unusually vulnerable to “Internet addiction.”

He defines Internet addiction as “a psychological dependence on the Internet, regardless of the type of activity once “logged on.”‘

Students in this age group are at high risk because they are immature, facing scary developmental hurdles as they leave home. They must try, for example, to cast aside dependence on their parents, establish their own identities and form intimate relationships, Kandell writes. The problem, he argues, is that the free, high-speed network access given to students seems to make them, more than other groups, turn to the Internet as an escape.

So what is wrong with Internet addiction anyway?

A lot, Kandell writes. His study, conducted at several colleges and universities, suggests a strong correlation between dropout rates and Internet addiction. Students addicted to the Net drop out at a higher rate than those in other groups.

University of Pittsburgh psychology professor Kimberly Young, who has studied Internet addiction, agrees. “I have consulted with several academic administrators regarding attrition rates due to Internet addiction,” she said in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “It is a serious problem for college campuses.”

A prime example is New York’s Alfred University, where officials report the dropout rate among addicted students is twice that of the non-addicted. Several Florida universities also report an increase in dropouts among addicted surfers.

The problem is becoming so serious that many campuses, such as the University of Washington, are curtailing the amount of Internet time available to students to slow down excessive use, according to the Chronicle. Still other schools are establishing support groups to aid those hooked on the Web.

In his writing, Gelernter shows, in signature sarcasm, that he is not surprised at this new trend. But he seems to be more concerned about the effect the Web is having on younger children.

“The Web is a great source of pictures _ are we trying to cure our children of excessive interest in the written word?” he writes. “Depraved indifference to glitz and snazzy photos? Our children are barely able to handle the data they already have. . . . Couldn’t we teach them to use what they’ve got before favoring them with three orders of magnitude more?”

The Internet is here to stay, of course, and it helps me to do my job better. But Gelernter, Kandell and Young are on to something. Just think, today’s grade school pupils, who are already being wired, may be hopelessly addicted to the Net when they are ready to enter college.

Administrators will need to keep their eyes on attrition rates.