“People’s social skills do predict their problems with these
devices,” he said. “They use technology to compensate for other
interpersonal communication problems.”
Although some observers have called various types of problematic
internet use addictions — the World Health Organization recently defined
a new type of addiction called “gaming disorder” — Caplan said he
thinks that’s the wrong approach.
“Throughout my research, I’ve tried to view problematic internet use,
not as a disease but as a condition related to people’s interpersonal
skills,” he said. “I do have a chapter in my book on addiction, but
there’s a bigger picture.”
Problems that result from the way the internet and mobile devices are
used can include difficulties in relationships of all types, Caplan
said. More extreme examples occur when people are victimized by such
online behavior as cyberbullying or cyberstalking.
But even in everyday life, Caplan said, the use of smartphones and
other mobile devices that allow people to be online wherever they are
has created new and different problems with interpersonal communication.
For example, he said, it wasn’t long ago that professors would walk
into a classroom, announce the start of class and wait for the chatting
to die down. Today, he’s noticed that most classrooms are silent even
before the instructor arrives: Students are on their phones, not
interacting with their classmates.
“They’re very connected to people, but not to the people they’re
physically with,” Caplan said. “They're not really with each other; they’re
with someone else, the person on their phone.”
He noted that some experts believe this reliance, especially on
texting, will inhibit teenagers’ conversational skills over time.
Another example of new types of problematic internet use can be
termed “distracted parenting.” Caplan cites studies in which observers
note the large number of parents accompanying their children to a
playground who spend the time on their phones rather than interacting
with the youngsters.
Children need face time and social interaction with their parents in
order to develop in a healthy way, he said. They also need to learn
interpersonal skills that they will use throughout life in making
People naturally like to do things that are fun, and video games are
no exception, Caplan said. And people in an earlier generation worried
that television would distract people from more useful pursuits.
“But the problems we have with technology and our social problems
have changed,” Caplan said. “One thing that’s different is that with
‘old tech’ like TV, you can watch together and you can talk about what
“With new tech, your phone takes you into your own world. If everybody is on his phone, everybody is in his own silo.”
More about Caplan and his new book
Caplan earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UD and a doctorate in interpersonal communication from Purdue University.
He joined the UD faculty in 1999 and has received the University’s Excellence in Teaching Award.
He is a member of the editorial board for Human Communication Research, Communication Research and the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication.
The Changing Face of Problematic Internet Use: An Interpersonal Approach
provides a “first of its kind” overview of previous research, including
details of where many of those studies were incorrect, reviewer and
clinical psychologist John M. Grohol wrote.
“Every field in psychology needs a book like this at least once a
decade to help all researchers working in the field understand where
we’ve come from, where we’re at today and where we should be in the
future,” Grohol wrote in the psychology network Psych Central.com.
Article by Ann Manser; illustration by Jeffrey Chase with image from iStock