Is the time you spend online so excessive that it disrupts your social life or causes you physical harm? Are you using the Internet to avoid doing your real work? Do you get so "hooked" that you lose track of the amount of time that you spend online?

These are the questions that preface the "Problematic Internet use Questionnaire" that Andrew Thatcher, Gisela Wretscheko and Peter Fridjhon (University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa) used in their recently published study, Online flow experiences, problematic Internet use and Internet procrastination. Their study has some interesting findings for everyone to consider.

Their Study
Andrew and his colleagues collected data using online questionnaires from 1399 respondents (1065 males), primarily 24-35 years of age. Most had access to the Internet from home and work, and had used the Internet for more than 5 years. It's of interest to note that the Internet penetration rate is modest in South Africa at approximately 10% of the total population (compared to 69% in the U.S. and 75% in Sweden), although the rate certainly varies, and it is much higher for the urban, skilled and employed South Africans. The authors note that their sample may not be representative of all populations, and although this is true for most studies, I think the findings are relevant to anyone who uses the Internet.

The respondents provided information about their Internet use, time spent online, etc., and then completed measures of Problematic Internet Use (PIU), procrastination and "flow." Flow describes a very absorbed state of consciousness that occurs when individuals are engaged in activities where there is a perceived match between their abilities and the challenge of the task. Originally, defined by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, flow consists of a number of characteristics, including a loss of a sense of time passing as the individual is so deeply engaged in the activity. I have written about flow and procrastination previously. If you're not familiar with this concept, you might want to read the previous blog entry, Procrastination and Flow Experiences.

They hypothesized a number of relations among the measures. Obviously, they expected Problematic Internet Use (PIU) to be correlated with procrastination. The interesting twist to their research was including the notion of flow. On the one hand, flow may be a very good experience in the workplace with employees deeply involved in their work. On the other hand, flow might have a negative effect on work performance if the flow experience is not directed at a person's required tasks; they are deeply engaged (a flow experience) in relation to some other Internet activity (gaming, social networking, personal email, twittering, updating status, there's a long list here that you can fill in). Of course, qualities of the World-Wide Web such as control, ease of use, immediate feedback, interactivity and access to entertainment make it likely that a flow experience may well be related to non-work activities.

The results
They conducted a number of analyses, so I'll only provide a brief summary of some of their main findings.

  1. Flow on the Internet was best predicted by the use of online chat followed by blogging.
  2. Internet procrastination was best predicted by online chat and gaming (if online chat was not used).
  3. Most interesting to me was the finding that the relationship between Problematic Internet Use and flow is significantly stronger when a person is using the Internet to procrastinate. As the authors write, "If a person is in a state of flow while avoiding work-related tasks this is more likely to result in PIU [Problematic Internet Use]" (p. 2249).

Finally, the authors note,
"The results give strong support for the contention that the online activities that are most interactive (i.e. online games, online chat, online telephony, and blogging) are the best predictors of PIU, flow on the Internet and Internet procrastination. . . These online activities each have a number of qualities in common including high degrees of social interaction, perceived control, and they are intrinsically motivating, and absorbing" (p. 2250)

Concluding Comments
I like this research a great deal despite some of the limitations that the authors note such as the sample, some of the measures used and limited components of flow that were operationalized. The strength of this paper is in the theoretical understanding of procrastination as the gap between intention and action (not simply delay as so many studies in behavioral economics use).

The authors also focus on deficient self-regulation and a social-cognitive theory of self-regulation. More specifically, they clearly acknowledge the potential for self-regulatory failure when individuals face aversive tasks such as boring activities or activities in which they feel uncertain about their ability to do the task. Drawing on Bandura, they note that when faced with such tasks, individuals may try to relieve these feelings ("give in to feel good") through self-anaesthetisation (e.g., taking drugs or other substances) or other means of escape - Internet procrastination! Yes, procrastination is NOT a simple issue of discounting future utility, it's an issue of escaping current feelings.

It's important to remember how seductive and potentially problematic the Internet can be. Although it's easy to identify cyber-crime (downloading or distributing illegal material, hacking, online sexual harassment or child pornography) as a problem area for the Internet, the more mundane effects on our ability to self-regulate are equally important. Many Web 2.0 applications in particular provide control, ease of use, immediate feedback, interactivity and access to entertainment that make it likely that a flow experience may well be developed in relation to activities that we never really intended to invest our time in. Learning to recognize the features of the problem is a first step to maintaining our self-regulatory ability.

Thatcher, A., Wretschko, G., & Fridjhon, P. (2008). Online flow experiences, problematic Internet use and Internet procrastination. Computers in Human Behavior 24, 2236-2254.

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