How Will Internet Affect Your Clients?

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

November/December 1998



In a groundbreaking study of the social and psychological effects of Internet use at home reported in an August 30th New York Times article, researchers Robert Kraut, Sara Kiesler and their Carnegie Mellon HomeNet team announced that "people who spend even a few hours a week online experience higher levels of depression and loneliness than they would have if they used the computer network less frequently."

This conclusion came from tracking the behavior and attitudes of 169 adult and teenage family members in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, selected from schools and community groups. Each family was given a computer, Internet access and training, half over a one-year period and the other half across two years.

At beginning and end of the study subjects were asked questions concerning their psychological health (depression and loneliness), the time spent daily with family members and their social interactions. In addition, subjects' use of the Internet was recorded. Results indicated that greater use of the Internet was associated with a decrease in communication with household family members, a decrease in the size of their social circle and an increase in measured loneliness and depression.

Although not as widely covered by the media, two other studies of psychological reactions to the Internet have appeared in the past few months. Nathan Shapira presented a paper at the most recent American Psychiatric Association convention where he followed 14 subjects who exhibited problematic use of the Internet for 6 months and found that each had at least one accompanying psychiatric disorder. Half or more of Shapira’s small group were diagnosed with manic depression, impulse control disorder and substance abuse problems with nearly three-fourths having taken some psychotropic medication.

And, finally, ActivMedia Research published results of their 1998 FutureScapes study which showed that the Internet was in fact expanding long-term friendships and family relationships and increasing social relationships with peers.

Regardless of the research validity of any of these studies, it is undeniable that the Internet is having a profound on our society. Estimates are that currently 50-70 million Americans use the Internet which is about triple the number from just three years. Not only are more people online, but they are spending more time in cyberspace. A recent MediaMatrix study found that people using the Internet at home have increased their time spent online by 15% in the past year. Other studies have shown that Internet users show a decrease in television viewing as they increase their time spent navigating the web.

Experts predict the number of web surfers to triple again in the next three years. The emergence of the Internet has happened extremely rapidly compared with other technologies. For example, in answer to the question "How long does it take to build an audience of 50 million?" the U.S. Commerce Department’s report on "The Emerging Digital Economy" gave the following figures:

Radio 38 years
Television 13 years
Personal Computers 16 years
The Internet 4 years

With such a rapid penetration into the American lifestyle, it is not surprising to believe that Internet usage might lead to both psychological and social changes. Our work over the past 18 years studying peoples' reactions to technology suggests the same. In fact, in our recent book TechnoStress: Coping With Technology @Work @Home @Play (Wiley, 1997) we state: "Too many families are spending 'together time' separately, and technology is playing a large part in this division." In our work, we have found that increased computer use in the home can envelope people in what we call a "TechnoCocoon" - isolating them from others as they spend more time in front of the screen.

These people are your current and future clients. As Internet usage rises, so will it appear more often as an issue in therapy. Here are my thoughts.

People need healthy, well-functioning social systems for support, comfort and nurturing. And now, research is finding that the Internet and other technology can interfere with these needs by upending the power structure and isolating family members from the family system. Several steps are necessary to develop a healthy techno-family system.

First, all family members need to educate themselves on the impact of the technology on other family members.

Second, the family system's standard-bearer needs to supervise others and stay alert for warning signs of potential problems. We provide a list of such warning signs in TechnoStress.

Third, the family needs to develop its own rules for technology use that stress limitations, safety and equal family opportunities.

Fourth, families need to maintain their balance and belonging by having periodic family meetings concerning rules, problems and experiences with technology.

Finally, the family needs, at times, to share technological experiences to promote a sense of togetherness in a potentially isolating world.


Your Internet surfing clients will be communicating and learning. They will likely bring these communications to therapy sessions. Some information they glean from the net will be valuable and helpful while other data may be questionable. One lesson that I have learned is never to trust information gathered on the Internet without checking the validity of the source. If I pick up a study result or an interesting tidbit via the web that I plan to use in my writing or teaching, I try to corroborate it by e-mailing the person whose web site displayed the information and asking for further references. Your clients, who are participating in discussion groups, chat rooms and Usenet discussions, may have to be reminded to check out their information, too.

A recent study of over 7,000 British general medical practitioners found that 81% are online and more than half use e-mail to communicate with patients. I encourage you to think carefully about exchanging e-mail with clients. As I have said before (read my article in the January/February issue of The National Psychologist which is available at my web site at www.technostress.com about taking precautions in establishing and sharing your online identity), there are special concerns when you use electronic mail as an adjunct to the therapeutic process.


For further information on the HomeNet study you can either read the Press Release at http://homenet.andrew.cmu.edu/progress/pressrel.html, a report on the full study at http://homenet.andrew.cmu.edu/progress/HN.impact.10.htm or the article published in the American Psychologist at http://www.apa.org/journals/amp/amp5391017.html.


Copyright, 1998, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.