From My Perspective – Internet Use and Mental Health Problems

Some members of the AU community have speculated on whether a higher proportion of students with mental illness choose the distance learning option. It seems intuitive that individuals with mental illness may have difficulty functioning well in a traditional classroom setting, and would therefore find an online learning format attractive. Certainly it is likely that AU would be a good alternative for many students with disabilities who find the challenges of physical attendance in a classroom prohibitive, and this would include individuals with psychological disorders. I found it interesting, therefore, to read that researchers now suggest there may well be a relationship between mental illness and Internet use, although the proposition is somewhat chicken-and-egg.

The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry has published a study in support of a growing body of evidence that the “interactive and dynamic nature of the Internet… is associated with serious handicaps to the personalities of people who overuse it” (MacLeod, 2005). In referencing Internet addiction, researchers at Korea’s Dong-A University College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School list adverse psychiatric symptoms that include hostility, obsessive-compulsiveness, paranoia, depression, irritability, anxiety, phobias, and somatization.

The researchers conclude that the Internet may be a “tonic for people with inner conflicts. Students with such traits may use the Internet to counteract psychological distress rooted in their personality” (MacLeod, 2005). A previous study also suggested that high Internet use is associated with individuals who have poor coping skills, poor social relationships and poor self-image.

The question remains, of course, whether these adverse psychiatric conditions are a consequence of excessive Internet use, or whether the reverse is true.

Of course, Internet addiction is much different than the heavy Internet use required by Athabasca University students, and the study was focused on the relationship between addiction personality and virtual gaming, chat rooms, news groups and music downloading components of the Internet rather than academia. It is interesting to speculate, nonetheless, on what the relationship may entail and whether there is some relevance for AU students. If students with mental illness are attracted to this form of learning, university counsellors, course developers and administrators need to be aware of the implications and be prepared to support the special needs of these students. On the other hand, if heavy Internet use is contributing to mental health problems among our university students, a different solution is merited.

There has been a defined need for some time at AU to provide greater support for students with disabilities, particularly those who are dealing with debilitating mental illness. Part of the difficulty lies with the continued stigma attached to mental illness, as the university relies on self-report and many students hesitate to admit to a problem. But there continues to be a gap between understanding the needs of this population and being able and willing to accommodate them. It might be a simple thing like allowing a student who is housebound because of agoraphobia to write an exam in his or her home, or helping a student with panic disorder get through an exam without being obligated to sit in a large classroom of other students, or allowing a medical exception for a course extension for a student who is undergoing a severe depressive episode — yet often the logistics of doing so are prohibitive. AU does try to accommodate these students, but there is a great need for improvement. There may even be implications that are yet to be considered. For example, if AU does have a higher proportion of students with mental illness, how does this impact the advisor-student or tutor-student relationship? What if a student has an anti-social personality disorder, exhibiting symptoms like hostility and paranoia, and this leads to confrontational episodes with someone at the university? Would a charge of non-academic misconduct be viewed as less serious if the student’s mental illness was a contributing factor? What about a student with obsessive-compulsive disorder who submits a 100-page detailed paper – do the tutors have sufficient understanding to see the underlying cause, or is a failing mark the first order of the day? A student with somatization disorder may complain of numerous physical ailments with no obvious physical cause — what happens if this student is repeatedly seeking extensions or giving excuses for late assignments? Do the course advisor or learning services staff lose patience with this student, or do they have sufficient knowledge of the disorder to be able to understand and help? It seems apparent that students with poor coping skills and psychological problems could run afoul of the university system in multiple ways.

The question of whether Internet use may contribute to mental health problems is a different one. Aside from the obvious one — stress of studies — AU students may well be susceptible to developing all kinds of the Internet-use related psychological disorders listed in the research study. I’ve certainly encountered a version of obsessive-compulsiveness in my studies. How often do you start out researching one course topic and end up still surfing the Internet hours later, caught up in a totally unrelated topic? Or get a particular idea or course concept in your head and can’t stop trying to find just one more piece of information or research that might help you with that one paragraph in your assignment?

What about the anti-social personality traits? At Convocation I heard many comments from students who said they had given up their social life for the duration of their studies. I wonder what happens to our social selves year after year, as we remain locked away inside our computer room, focused on the screen… it seems likely that development of symptoms of “paranoia, depression, irritability, impulsiveness, anxiety, phobias and self-centeredness” (MacLeod, 2005) could easily be the outcome. Would this occur if our study focus was in a classroom among other people? Possibly; if an individual was already predisposed in that direction. It does seem likely, however, that the isolation of distance studies may be a catalyst, and if this is combined with other anti-social aspects of the Internet, AU students may well be susceptible to developing these types of mental health problems.

Too, there is the danger of developing Internet addiction. The researchers posed the question whether “adverse psychiatric conditions are a consequence of excessive Internet use or do they precede it, and does a person’s personality predispose them to Internet addiction?” (MacLeod, 2005). If students with adverse psychiatric conditions are attracted to the online learning environment, does this also mean they have a personality that may predispose them to Internet addiction? I’ve heard some stories about both students and staff who have become involved in potentially damaging activities on the Internet. This happens in all organizations, of course, but I can’t help but wonder if we at AU have a higher incidence of Internet addiction by nature of our mandated higher use.

I have far more questions than answers at this point, but I think it’s an area that bears watching. At the very least, it re-emphasizes the need for students to find a balance, and to not neglect the social aspects of their lives outside the computer room.

MacLeod, I (2005). High Internet use linked to mental health problems: Researchers ponder whether web draws people in distress. Ottawa Citizen, June 15, 2005. CanWest news service:
http://www.canada.com/edmonton/edmontonjournal/news/story.html?id=5952f40e-b5fe-4803-8141-0e700fa67e60

Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 50, no.7, June, 2005. http://www.cpa-apc.org/Publications/cjpHome.asp

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