The Internet as a Time Sink

The internet has become a popular medium - arguably, the most popular medium with certain demographics, who spend more hours online than they do watching television (the previous generations' time sink) or engaging in other activities.

Some people's use of the Internet, devoting so much time to the Internet that it has had negative consequences on their offline lives. Some individuals have lost their jobs, flunked out of school, been divorced by their spouses, and even neglected their children, meanwhile devoting hours on end to the online medium.


One interesting experiment (Young 1996): one researcher modified a questionnaire that was intended to measure compulsive gambling and applied it to the internet. The questions are as follows:

Administered to a random sample of college students, about two-thirds of respondents met the criteria for being considered "dependent."


The differences between dependent and nondependent users seem to suggest that the social aspects of the Net are the most compelling.

The dependent group spent, on average, 38.5 hours per week on the Internet engaged in tasks that are not related to their work or education, as compared to 4.5 hours per week for the non-dependents.

Non-dependents spent the majority of their time (55%) using e-mail, and another 24% of their time using the Web for information gathering; whereas dependents spent far more time in synchronous communication environments, such as chat rooms (35%) and interactive games (28%).

In general, the Internet is very attractive to introverts, who find that the medium provides an escape from problems that are more difficult for them to deal with in real life: boredom, low self-esteem, lack of social support, and unsatisfactory social relationships.


Synchronous spaces are not the only compelling environments provided by the Internet, but they do seem to be the "chief culprit" in instances of excessive use.

An analogy has been used to operant conditioning (B.F. Skinner) - in which a subject takes great interest in an activity that might result in a reward. In the case of online chat, the "reward" is social attention.

In the case of online gaming, the sense of success and accomplishment is a reward for participation. It is especially pernicious because serial games are, in fact, designed to dole out incremental rewards and keep the player engaged for long periods of time.


While the phenomenon of compulsive Internet use has been recognized, it has not been classified. The argument over whether it should be treated as a psychological phenomenon is ongoing.

And so, it has been relegated to the status of self-indulgent habits, though further research into the phenomenon may uncover qualities that would enable it to be classified as a genuine addiction or disorder.