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Net losses: Internet abuse and addiction in the workplace

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Internet gambling in the workplace. In M. Anandarajan & C. Simmers (Eds.). Managing Web Usage in the Workplace: A Social, Ethical and Legal Perspective (pp. 148-167). Hershey, Pennsylvania: Idea Publishing.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Occupational health issues concerning Internet use in the workplace. Work and Stress, 16, 283-287.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet abuse in the workplace – Issues and concerns for employers and employment counselors. Journal of Employment Counseling, 40, 87-96.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Internet abuse and addiction in the workplace – Issues and concerns for employers. In M. Anandarajan (Eds.). Personal Web Usage in the Workplace: A Guide to Effective Human Resource Management (pp. 230-245).Hershey, Pennsylvania: Idea Publishing.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Internet gambling in the workplace. Journal of Workplace Learning, 21, 658-670.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Internet abuse and internet addiction in the workplace. Journal of Worplace Learning, 7, 463-472.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The hidden addiction: Gambling in the workplace. Counselling at Work, 70, 20-23.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Social networking addiction: An overview of preliminary findings. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.119-141). New York: Elsevier.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., Karila, L. & Billieux, J. (2014).  Internet addiction: A systematic review of epidemiological research for the last decade. Current Pharmaceutical Design, in press.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: Does it really exist? (Revisited). In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Applications (2nd Edition), (pp.141-163). New York: Academic Press.

Young K. (1999). Internet addiction: Evaluation and treatment. Student British Medical Journal, 7, 351-352.

For whom the hell trolls: Harassment in online gaming

Trolling is an online phenomenon that people may witness without necessarily knowing what it is.  The term “troll” appears to have originated from a method of fishing, where one would fish by trailing a baited line behind a boat. However, many internet users often use the description of being a troll as a mythological creature that hides under bridges, waiting for an opportunity to pounce. With the latter definition, one can see the comparison with the modern day world with hiding under bridges being the online world waiting for an opportunity that may warrant a troll to take action. With the first definition, it is clear that casting a baited line as a form of provoking individuals into some form of emotional response.

Trolling appears to be a variably defined concept, with multiple definitions existing. It appears to have been first reported in 1999 by Dr. Judith Donath who argued that “trolling is a game about identity deception”, which suggests that a troll’s personal opinion is often avoided during the act. According to Dr Susan Herring and her colleagues, trolling comprises “luring others into often pointless and time-consuming discussions”. In a 2010 paper, Lochlan Morrissey expanded this even further by saying trolling is an utterer producing an intentionally false or incorrect utterance with high order intention [the plan] to elicit from recipient a particular response, generally negative or violent”. Thus, it appears trolling is an act of intentionally provoking and/or antagonising users in an online environment that creates an often desirable, sometimes predictable, outcome for the troll. Morrissey also states that trolling is a complex intentional act, that some may consider an art. On the other hand, others have included trolling as a form of cyberbullying.

To date, there has been very little empirical research into online trolling, with only two key studies being documented before we carried out our own research (but more of that later). The first of these was published by Dr. Pnina Shachaf and Dr. Norika Hara in the Journal of Information Science, and examined trolling in the context of Wikipedia. The second study by Susan Herring and her colleagues focused on trolling in feminist forums. Despite the lack of research, some key findings have emerged. Firstly, Herring’s study identified three types of messages sent by trolls. These were (i) messages from a sender who appears outwardly sincere, (ii) messages designed to attract predictable responses or flames, and (iii) messages that waste a group’s time by provoking futile argument. From this, it is apparent that trolling often merges with several other online behaviours. They pointed out that a troll is an online user that can be uncooperative, that seeks to confuse and deceive and can be a flamer by using insults.

Shachaf and Hara’s study on trolling within Wikipedia revealed that the main reasons for trolling were boredom, attention seeking, and revenge. Furthermore, they regarded Wikipedia as an entertainment venue, and found pleasure from causing damage to it and the people who used the site. Herring’s paper argued that it is non-mainstream environments that are especially vulnerable (such as forums) as they “provide a new arena for the enactment of power inequities such as those motivated by sexism, racism, and heterosexism”. Due to this, one could suggest that trolling is a behaviour that is facilitated and possibly exacerbated by the anonymity of the internet.

Many authors have argued that relative anonymity facilitates disinhibition, resulting in flaming and harassment. This online disinhibition effect is well established in the literature (particularly in a 2004 paper in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior by Dr. John Suler). As a 2011 paper on internet addiction by Dr. Laura Widyanto myself noted, the internet “might lead to disinhibition, whereby individuals feel more confident as they are protected by their anonymity”. Therefore, internet users have an opportunity to present themselves differently online. From this, the opportunity for trolling is undeniably present as Widyanto and myself make clear, “the internet provides anonymity, which removes the threat of confrontation, rejection and other consequences of behaviour”. This allows individuals to behave online in ways that they would not normally do in the offline world.

Research suggests that anonymity, which is naturally characterised by the internet, may affect a person’s self-esteem. Self-esteem has been consistently associated as an important determinant of adolescent mental health with lower self-esteem being linked to depression and increased levels of anxiety. Therefore, it has been claimed that high self-esteem is psychologically healthy. However, online interactions allow an individual to represent a different self, leading to increased feelings of self-worth and therefore be more psychologically healthy.

However, research into online trolling had not established any association between the effects of trolling and self-esteem, and was one of the main reasons we carried out our own research into the topic. There is quite a lot of research into self-esteem and more general internet use. For instance, research indicates that individuals with low self-esteem prefer to communicate with others through the internet, such as emails, rather than face-to-face. It has also been found that general internet use increases self-esteem, and some research has indicated that video game use decreases self-esteem. This suggests that the internet can be used as a form of social interaction that positively affects self-esteem for those with considerably low self-esteem. However, given the evolution of online gaming in recent years, the effect of self-esteem while playing online video games where social interaction (including trolling) can occur is relatively unknown.

Until recently, trolling had never been studied in an online video game context and there is still little empirically known about it in the most general sense of the term. Trolling often merges other online behaviours such as flaming. Dr. Angela Adrian (in a 2010 issue of Computer Law and Security Review) offers limited, albeit useful, insight into how an individual may troll during online gaming. Adrian names those who enact such behaviour as “griefers”, a term used on those who try to ruin a gaming experience, often by team-killing or obstructing objectives. It could be that griefing is one such behaviour used during trolling in the context of an online video game. Furthermore, given the evolution of online gaming, it is possible that the behaviour of trolling has evolved to fit into the context in which the trolling is being used in (e.g., online forums, Wikipedia, video games), and therefore, contains many other online behaviours that are used to disrupt others’ gaming enjoyment.

Given the little psychological research that had been conducted beyond the fact that it exists Scott Thacker and myself carried out a study to examine the (i) frequency of trolling, (ii) type and reasons for trolling and (iii) the effects trolling may have on self-esteem. Using an online survey, a self-selected sample of 125 gamers participated in our study. Our results showed that trolls tended to play longer gaming sessions. Frequent trolls were significantly younger and male. Types of trolling included griefing, sexism/racism, and faking/intentional fallacy. Reasons for trolling included amusement, boredom, and revenge. Witnessing trolling was positively associated with self-esteem, whereas experiencing trolling was negatively associated. Experience of trolling was positively correlated with frequency of trolling. Although the study used a self-selecting sample, the results appear to provide a tentative benchmark into video game trolling and its potential effects on self-esteem.

Our study has many limitations that need to be taken into account. Firstly, due to the nature of questionnaire design and it being self-report, it may be open to social desirability effects (i.e., participants may answer differently to represent a different self) and any of the other known problems with self-report methods (e.g., unreliable memory and recall biases, etc.). Another major limitation was that the sample was self-selecting and modest in size. This raises questions into its relative generalizability. Despite these limitations, our exploratory study appears to provide several key findings that now provide a preliminary benchmark into video game trolling where there was no previous research. Moreover, it expands the neglected research into online trolling and offers areas and directions for future research.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Additional input: Scott Thacker

Further reading

Adrian, A. (2010). Beyond griefing: Virtual crime. Computer Law and Security Review, 26, 640-648.

Donath, J. S. (1999). Identity and deception in the virtual community. In M. A. Smith and P. Kollock (Eds.), Communities in cyberspace (pp. 29–59). London: Routledge.

Herring, S., Job-Sluder, K., Scheckler, R. & Barab, S. (2002). Searching for safety online: Managing “Trolling” in a feminist forum. The Information Society, 18, 371-384.

Morrissey, L. (2010). Trolling is a art: Towards a schematic classification of intention in internet trolling. Griffith Working Papers in Pragmatics and Intercultural Communications, 3(2), 75-82.

Shachaf, P. & Hara, N. (2010). Beyond vandalism: Wikipedia trolls. Journal of Information Science, 36(3), 357-370.

Suler, J. R. (2004). The online dishibition effect. CyberPsychology and Behaviour, 7, 321-326.

Thacker, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory study of trolling in online video gaming. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 2(4), 17-33.

Widyanto, L., & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). An empirical study of problematic internet use and self-esteem. International Journal of Cyber Behaviour, Psychology and Learning, 1(1), 13-24.

Willard, N. (2006). Cyberbullying and cyberthreats: responding to the challenge of online social cruelty, threats, and distress. Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.