Posted by drmarkgriffiths
The following article is a much extended version of an article that was originally published by The Conversation under the title ‘Tweets and cybersex: Workplace web use is a minefield’
A number of market research reports have indicated that many office employees in the UK spend at least one hour of their day at work on various non-work activities (e.g., booking holidays, shopping online, posting messages on social networking sites, playing online games, etc.) and costs businesses millions of pounds a year. These findings highlight that internet abuse is a serious cause for concern – particularly to employers. Furthermore, the long-term effects of internet abuse may have more far-reaching effects for the company that internet abusers work for than the individuals themselves. Abuse also suggests that there may not necessarily be any negative effects for the user other than a decrease in work productivity.
Back in the early 2000s (and using some of Kimberley Young’s work on types of internet addiction) I developed a typology of internet abusers. This included cybersexual Internet abuse, online friendship/relationship abuse, internet activity abuse, online information abuse, criminal internet abuse, and miscellaneous Internet abuse:
- Cybersexual Internet abuse: This involves the abuse of adult websites for cybersex and cyberporn during work hours. Such behaviours include the reading of online pornographic magazines, the watching of pornographic videos and/or webcams, or the participating in online sexual discussion groups, forums or instant chat facilities
- Online friendship/relationship abuse: This involves the conducting of an online friendship and/or relationship during work hours. Such a category could also include the use of e-mailing friends, posting messages to friends on social networking sites (e.g., on Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and/or engaging in discussion groups, as well as maintenance of online emotional relationships. Such people may also abuse the Internet by using it to explore gender and identity roles by swapping gender or creating other personas and forming online relationships or engaging in cybersex.
- Internet activity abuse: This involves the use of the internet during work hours in which other non-work related activities are done (e.g., online gambling, online shopping, online travel booking, online video gaming in massively multiplier games, online day-trading, online casual gaming via social network sites, etc.). This appears to be one of the most common forms of Internet abuse in the workplace.
- Online information abuse: This involves the abuse of internet search engines and databases (e.g., Googling online for hours, constantly checking Twitter account, etc.). Typically, this involves individuals who search for work-related information on databases etc. but who end up wasting hours of time with little relevant information gathered. This may be deliberate work-avoidance but may also be accidental and/or non-intentional. It may also involve people who seek out general educational information, information for self-help/diagnosis (including online therapy) and/or scientific research for non-work purposes.
- Criminal Internet abuse: This involves the seeking out individuals who then become victims of sexually-related Internet crime (e.g., online sexual harassment, online trolling, cyberstalking, paedophilic “grooming” of children). The fact that these types of abuse involve criminal acts may have severe implications for employers.
- Miscellaneous Internet abuse: This involves any activity not found in the above categories such as the digital manipulation of images on the Internet for entertainment and/or masturbatory purposes (e.g., creating celebrity fake photographs where heads of famous people are superimposed onto someone else’s naked body).
There are many factors that make Internet abuse in the workplace seductive. It is clear from research in the area of computer-mediated communication that virtual environments have the potential to provide short-term comfort, excitement, and/or distraction. These provide compelling reasons as to why employees may engage in non-work related internet use. There are also other reasons (opportunity, access, affordability, anonymity, convenience, escape, disinhibition, social acceptance, and longer working hours):
- Opportunity and access: Obvious pre-cursors to potential Internet abuse includes both opportunity and access to the Internet. Clearly, the internet is now commonplace and widespread, and is almost integral to almost all office workplace environments. Given that prevalence of undesirable behaviours is strongly correlated with increased access to the activity, it is not surprising that the development of internet abuse appears to be increasing across the population. Research into other socially acceptable but potentially problematic behaviours (drinking alcohol, gambling etc.) has demonstrated that increased accessibility leads to increased uptake (i.e., regular use) and that this eventually leads to an increase in problems – although the increase may not be proportional.
- Affordability: Given the wide accessibility of the internet, it is now becoming cheaper and cheaper to use the online services on offer. Furthermore, for almost all employees, Internet access is totally free of charge and the only costs will be time and the financial costs of some particular activities (e.g., online sexual services, online gambling etc.).
- Anonymity: The anonymity of the Internet allows users to privately engage in their behaviours of choice in the belief that the fear of being caught by their employer is minimal. This anonymity may also provide the user with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and nature of their online experiences. The anonymity of the Internet often facilitates more honest and open communication with other users and can be an important factor in the development of online relationships that may begin in the workplace. Anonymity may also increase feelings of comfort since there is a decreased ability to look for, and thus detect, signs of insincerity, disapproval, or judgment in facial expression, as would be typical in face-to-face interactions.
- Convenience: Interactive online applications such as e-mail, social media, chat rooms, online forums, or role-playing games provide convenient mediums to meet others without having to leave one’s work desk. Online abuse will usually occur in the familiar and comfortable environment of home or workplace thus reducing the feeling of risk and allowing even more adventurous behaviours.
- Escape: For some, the primary reinforcement of particular kinds of internet abuse (e.g., to engage in an online affair and/or cybersex) is the sexual gratification they experience online. In the case of behaviours like cybersex and online gambling, the experiences online may be reinforced through a subjectively and/or objectively experienced ‘high’. The pursuit of mood-modifying experiences is characteristic of addictions. The mood-modifying experience has the potential to provide an emotional or mental escape and further serves to reinforce the behaviour. Abusive and/or excessive involvement in this escapist activity may lead to problems (e.g., online addictions). Online behaviour can provide a potent escape from the stresses and strains of real life. These activities fall on the continuum from life enhancing to pathological and addictive.
- Disinhibition: Disinhibition is clearly one of the internet’s key appeals as there is little doubt that the Internet makes people less inhibited. Online users appear to open up more quickly online and reveal themselves emotionally much faster than in the offline world. What might take months or years in an offline relationship may only takes days or weeks online. As a number of researchers have pointed out, the perception of trust, intimacy and acceptance has the potential to encourage online users to use these relationships as a primary source of companionship and comfort.
- Social acceptability:The social acceptability of online interaction is another factor to consider in this context. What is really interesting is how the perception of online activity has changed over the last 15 years (e.g., the ‘nerdish’ image of the Internet is almost obsolete). It may also be a sign of increased acceptance as young children and adolescents are exposed to technology earlier and so become used to socializing using computers as tools. For instance, laying the foundations for an online relationship in this way has become far more socially acceptable and will continue to be so. Most of these people are not societal misfits as is often claimed – they are simply using the technology as another tool in their social armory.
- Longer working hours: All over the world, people are working longer hours and it is perhaps unsurprising that many of life’s activities can be performed from the workplace Internet. Take, for example, the case of a single individual looking for a relationship. For these people, the Internet at work may be ideal. Dating via the desktop may be a sensible option for workaholic professionals. It is effectively a whole new electronic “singles bar” which because of its text-based nature breaks down physical prejudices. For others, internet interaction takes away the social isolation that we can all sometimes feel. There are no boundaries of geography, class or nationality. It opens up a whole new sphere of relationship-forming.
Being able to spot someone who is an Internet abuser can be very difficult. However, there are some practical steps that employers can be taken to help minimize the potential problem.
- Take the issue of internet abuse seriously. Internet abuse and addiction in all their varieties are only just being considered as potentially serious occupational issues. Managers, in conjunction with Personnel Departments need to ensure they are aware of the issues involved and the potential risks it can bring to both their employees and the whole organization. They also need to be aware that for employees who deal with finances, some forms of Internet abuse (e.g., Internet gambling), the consequences for the company can be very great.
- Raise awareness of internet abuse issues at work. This can be done through e-mail circulation, leaflets, and posters on general notice boards. Some countries will have national and/or local agencies (e.g., technology councils, health and safety organizations etc.) that can supply useful educational literature (including posters). Telephone numbers for these organizations can usually be found in most telephone directories.
- Ask employees to be vigilant. Internet abuse at work can have serious repercussions not only for the individual but also for those employees who befriend Internet abusers, and the organization itself. Fellow staff members need to know the basic signs and symptoms of Internet abuse. Employee behaviours such as continual use the Internet for non-work purposes might be indicative of an Internet abuse problem.
- Monitor internet use of staff that may be having problems. Those staff members with an internet-related problem are likely to spend great amounts of time engaged in non-work activities on the Internet. Should an employer suspect such a person, they should get the company’s I.T. specialists to look at their Internet surfing history as the computer’s hard disc will have information about everything they have ever accessed.
- Check internet “bookmarks” of staff. In some jurisdictions across the world, employers can legally access the e-mails and Internet content of their employees. One of the simplest checks is to simply look at an employee’s list of “bookmarked” websites. If they are spending a lot of employment time engaged in non-work activities, many bookmarks will be completely non-work related (e.g., online dating agencies, gambling sites).
- Develop an “Internet Abuse At Work” policy. Many organizations have policies for behaviours such as smoking or drinking alcohol. Employers should develop their own internet abuse policies via liaison between Personnel Services and local technology councils and/or health and safety executives.
- Give support to identified problem users. Most large organizations have counselling services and other forms of support for employees who find themselves in difficulties. In some (but not all) situations, problems associated with internet use need to be treated sympathetically (and like other more bona fide problems such as alcoholism). Employee support services must also be educated about the potential problems of internet abuse in the workplace.
Internet abuse can clearly be a hidden activity and the growing availability of internet facilities in the workplace is making it easier for abuse to occur in lots of different forms. Thankfully, it would appear that for most people internet abuse is not a serious individual problem although for large companies, small levels of internet abuse multiplied across the workforce raises serious issues about work productivity. For those whose internet abuse starts to become more of a problem, it can affect many levels including the individual, their work colleagues, and the organization itself.
Managers clearly need to have their awareness of this issue raised, and once this has happened, they need to raise awareness of the issue among the work force. Furthermore, employers need to let employees know exactly which behaviours on the Internet are reasonable (e.g., the occasional e-mail to a friend) and those that are unacceptable (e.g., online gaming, cybersex etc.). Internet abuse has the potential to be a social issue, a health issue and an occupational issue and needs to be taken seriously by all those employers who utilize the Internet in their day-to-day business.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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