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The changing face of problematic Internet use : an interpersonal approach
Caplan S., Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, New York, NY, 2018. 250 pp.  Type: Book (978-1-433130-50-2)
Date Reviewed: Oct 8 2019

In this age of explosion with regards to Internet use and the derived social networks, as well as online media access, voices start to identify drawbacks and risks, as with any groundbreaking technology. These risks include breaches in privacy, disintermediation in business processes, electromagnetic emissions, excessive screen time, and so on; however, “Internet addiction,” with its many modalities, makes less front pages. When researchers first began studying this topic in the early 2000s, Internet addiction referred to online behaviors that created offline problems, and not just overuse.

Shortly thereafter, some other researchers wanted to corner the notion of problematic Internet use (PUI) as that which “creates psychological, social, school, and/or work difficulties in a person’s life” [1]. Since then, some researchers and policymakers have focused on contextual instances, such as compulsive smartphone checking, compulsive gaming, cyberbullying, cybersex, online infidelity, and so on. Even if psychiatrists and other specialists still pursue this definition of PUI from a narrow angle, it no longer holds, as Internet addiction “can no longer be limited to compulsive or habitual use.”

This volume recognizes this evolution, and argues that fundamental theories of interpersonal communication processes, including their dynamics, are at the core of the subject. Doing so connects the established theories in order to better devise response policies and changes to Internet service implementations, thus avoiding a myopic focus on a single discipline.

The book is brilliantly prefaced by Professor Spitzberg, of San Diego State University, who writes about Internet-based communication in general. Chapter 1 explains the key concepts and identifies the most relevant theoretical models. Chapter 2 focuses on known interpersonal problems arising from addictive or compulsive behavior. Using a compensation metaphor, it argues that people who lack in-person social skills will prefer the affordances of mediated interaction, which may help compensate for their deficits. Chapter 3 examines relational transgressions, especially sexual and romantic activity. Chapter 4 is mostly on cyberbullying, where victims are often also perpetrators and the literature is very confusing. Likewise, chapter 5 is mostly on cyberstalking (or harassment) and emerging theories thereof, as a process running in parallel with other interpersonal modalities while also looking into legal approaches.

Chapter 6 focuses on the now dominant use of mobile devices, viewed as co-present ubiquitous units with their own everyday conversational modalities. This chapter, however, eludes entirely the implications of differentiated freedom of access to the Internet (and the eventual restrictions to it as some societies are experiencing) on the interpersonal communication processes and equivalent processes implemented by some Internet service providers. Finally, chapter 7, “An Agenda for Future Research,” raises three questions:

  • How does technology[-mediated communication] affect interpersonal and relational processes?
  • How do interpersonal and relational resource deficits contribute to problematic online behavior?
  • How do online interpersonal behaviors threaten [in-person] conversational and relational ... outcomes?

Throughout the volume, some theories are pushed forward: emotional intelligence, social anxiety, self-presentation, social skills, uncertainty reduction, attribution theory, and nonverbal behaviors. Whereas the book clearly targets an academic audience, it cannot be denied that the proposed approaches will interest policymakers confronted with requests for solutions.

From a generalized therapeutic angle, causal links are not highlighted, although methods for this have been developed. However, the book is an exciting and very interesting clarification on helping to eradicate (in most causes) neurology, tariffing, and pure technological solutions.

The different parts are extremely well written and structured in a pleasant style, mostly with extensive and current American references (most from psychology or social studies), though missing Asian and European work. The author and subject indexes are very useful. A second edition could include an aggregated list of data collections supplementing some of the referenced research.

Nobody knows for sure what the subject as treated will be called in the future, but this book certainly qualifies as a milestone in it, of interest not only to academics but to all stakeholders involved in Internet-based communication and its effects, including policymakers. It is also relevant in some public debates.

Reviewer:  L.-F. Pau Review #: CR146718 (1912-0411)
1) Beard, K. W.; Wolf, E. M. Modification in the proposed diagnostic criteria for Internet addiction. CyberPsychology & Behavior 4, 3(2001), 377–383.
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