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20 May 2019
Watching Web Use: Internet Addiction Among University Undergrads

(Published - 20 May 2019)

It’s undeniable that the web, social media, smartphones and all the associated apps and technologies of the internet have made a huge difference in society. The internet has proven to be a valuable resource in the enhancement of knowledge production and dissemination, helping us learn, share and collaborate more effectively than ever before, and fueling the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

But access to the internet can also come at a cost, as the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Dr Oghenere Salubi discovered when he led a study investigating how excessive non-academic use of the Internet detrimentally affects undergraduate students’ daily lives - a study highlighting the effects of internet addiction.

“The introduction of the Internet into the academic world has greatly improved the advancement of knowledge frontiers,” Dr Salubi says. “It’s an invaluable tool for learning, teaching and research in institutions of learning, and widespread internet availability can substantially benefit people by enhancing their access to a broad range of information, while creating an avenue for social communication and entertainment. But our findings clearly suggest that the uncontrolled use of new media is a hazard and a potential danger to academic productivity - and perhaps other aspects of life.”

The results of the study, a survey of 390 undergraduate students from the Universities of Fort Hare and Nelson Mandela, appeared in a paper titled Digital Media Usage and Prevalence of Internet Addiction among Undergraduate Students in South Africa.

Researchers drafted questions that asked how much, how often and how students used the internet.

Over 70% of the respondents made use of the internet daily (with another 25% using it every other day). And while 14.6% of participants spent less than an hour accessing the Internet daily, 34.8% spent more than 10 hours online every day.

“Just think of how much you spend on your phone; you just keep going and going, six hours minimum,” is how one student described his online activity.

So what are students actually doing with all that time online?

On the academic front, on a daily basis, 40% engaged in information surfing for studying, 26.2% engaged in research, and 20.8% spent time looking up reference materials.

More time was spent communicating, with 71% keeping in touch with friends, 64.4% sending and receiving emails, and 52% making and receiving calls.

But by far the most time was spent on social networking, with 88.2% using instant messaging (WhatsApp, BBM, etc.), and 75.6% using Facebook, Twitter, and the like (and only 4.9% maintaining a personal blog daily).

So, students spend more time being social than studying. That’s not exactly surprising - so where’s the harm in it?

What’s so bad about internet addiction?

Excessive amounts of time spent on the Internet served as a distraction from studies, a situation that put students at a disadvantage as far as academic productivity is concerned.

A total of 40% of respondents spent less time studying due to Internet surfing, and also tried to spend less time on the Internet - and failed. Even in lectures, some undergrads experienced divided attention, with 42% replying to chats or surfing the Internet while attending a lecture, and 78% checking their emails or Facebook before anything else that they needed to do online.

“These findings clearly suggest that the uncontrolled use of new media is both a hazard and a potential danger to academic productivity,” the authors suggests.

And excessive internet use didn’t just affect academic performance - 61% of respondents reported that they often or always have less sleep at night because of time spent using the internet, and 71% noted that they often or always stay online longer than intended - signs associated with Internet Addiction.

As one respondent put it: “Most times you want to read your books, and you log on to social media first; you could just spend the entire time on Facebook and before you know it, you’re tired and want to sleep.”

So, should the fear of Internet dependence, especially among digital natives, result in forcing students to revert to old ways of doing things?

“I don’t think so, because the future will be heavily reliant on networked electronic environments - It is impossible to ask students to stop using the internet,” says Dr Salubi. “And it would be silly to do so: We can’t produce informed and engaged graduates and researchers if we prevent them from accessing the information and resources they need to do so.”

UWC is a signatory to the Berlin Declaration, a commitment to the principles of Open Access, to making information and research freely available to all, no matter where they are, and free of charge, and that is only possible thanks to the Internet.

“These are digital natives. They were born into these technologies. Instead of denying them, universities could provide a form of literacy programmes that offer training on self-control measures while using the Internet and new media, as well as encourage socialised academic interests both on- and offline as a coping mechanism,” says Salubi. “After all, it is what we do with technology that judges us.”