The Changing Face of Problematic Internet Use

An Interpersonal Approach

by Scott E. Caplan (Author)
©2018 Textbook X, 250 Pages


Since the advent of the Internet and increasingly mobile devices, we have witnessed dramatic changes in computer-mediated technologies and their roles in our lives. In the late 1990s, researchers began to identify problematic forms of Internet use, such as difficulty controlling the amount of time spent online. Today, people live in a perpetually digital and permanently connected world that presents many serious types of problematic Internet use besides deficient self-regulation. Thousands of studies have been published on interpersonal problems such as cyberbullying, cyberstalking, relationship conflicts about online behavior, and the increasingly problematic use of mobile devices during in-person interactions. The Changing Face of Problematic Internet Use: An Interpersonal Approach also examines future trends, including the recent development of being constantly connected to mobile devices and social networks. Research in these areas is fraught with controversy, inconsistencies, and findings that are difficult to compare and summarize. This book offers students and researchers an organized, theory-based, synthesis of research on these problems and explains how interpersonal theory and research help us better understand the problems that online behavior plays in our personal lives and social interactions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • 1. The Changing Face of Problematic Internet Use
  • What Is “Problematic”?
  • Mundane to Severe Problems
  • Changing Conceptualizations of Online Social Behavior
  • Addictions and Displacement
  • Channel Differences and Interpersonal Deficits
  • Hyperpersonal Approach—Exploiting Channel Differences
  • Smartphones and Social Networking
  • Perpetually Online and Constantly Connected
  • Chapter Overviews
  • Chapter Two: Online Habits, Compulsion, and Addiction
  • Chapter Three: Online Relationship Transgressions
  • Chapter Four: Cyberbullying and Online Interpersonal Agression
  • Chapter Five: Cyberstalking, Unwanted Pursuit, and Relational Intrusion
  • Chapter Six: Copresent Device Use: Using Mobile Devices During In-Person Interaction
  • Chapter Seven: Moving Forward—An Agenda for Future Research
  • Note
  • References
  • 2. Online Habits, Compulsion, and Addiction
  • Conceptual Approaches
  • The Addiction Paradigm
  • Cognitive Approaches: Problematic Online Habits
  • Organizing and Summarizing 20 Years of Research: Three Common Threads
  • Problematic Online Habits as an Interpersonal Communication Issue
  • Problematic Habits and Online Interpersonal Behaviors
  • Interpersonal and Relational Deficits and Problematic Online Habits
  • Interpersonal and Relational Consequences of Problematic Online Habits
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • 3. Online Relational Transgressions
  • Relational Rules and Transgressions
  • Rules for Interaction and Relationships
  • Online Infidelity and Romantic Relationship Transgressions
  • Defining Online Infidelity
  • Harmful Effects of Online Infidelity
  • Explaining Online Infidelity
  • Other Romantic Relationship Transgressions and Conflicts
  • Summary of Online Transgressions in Romantic Relationships
  • Online Friendship Transgressions
  • Social Networking and Online Friendship Transgressions
  • Facework and Face Threats Among Friends Online
  • Distinct Friendship Rules on Social Networks
  • Summary of Online Friendship Transgressions
  • Future Research on Online Relational Transgressions
  • References
  • 4. Cyberbullying and Online Interpersonal Aggression
  • Similarities Between Cyberbullying and Traditional Bullying
  • Differences Between Cyberbullying and Traditional Bullying
  • Repetition Versus Persistence of Hurtful Messages
  • Power Imbalance
  • Time and Space Boundaries
  • Anonymity, Reduced Social Presence, and Disinhibition
  • Audience and Dispersal
  • Estimating Cyberbullying Prevalence
  • Cyberbullying Victimization Estimates
  • Cyberbullying Perpetration Estimates
  • Cyberbullying Happens Alongside Traditional Bullying
  • Gender and Cyberbullying Prevalence
  • Age and Cyberbullying Prevalence
  • Limitations of Cyberbullying Prevalence Estimates
  • Correlates of Victimization
  • Interpersonal Problems and Cyberbullying Victimization
  • Emotional Problems and Cyberbullying Victimization
  • Behavioral Problems and Cyberbullying Victimization
  • Causes and Consequences of Cyberbullying Victimization
  • Characteristics of Cyberbullies
  • Interpersonal Problems Among Cyberbullies
  • Emotional Problems Among Cyberbullies
  • Behavioral Characteristics of Cyberbullies
  • Predictors and Consequences of Being a Cyberbully
  • Conclusion
  • Note
  • References
  • 5. Cyberstalking, Unwanted Pursuit, and Relational Intrusion
  • Defining Cyberstalking
  • Empirical Findings in Cyberstalking Research
  • Cyberstalking Prevalence
  • Cyberstalker Characteristics
  • Victim Characteristics
  • Victim Outcomes
  • Victim Responses to Cyberstalking
  • Addressing Conceptual Challenges in Cyberstalking Research
  • Distinguishing Cyberstalking and Traditional Stalking
  • Distinguishing Cyberstalking and Cyberbullying
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • 6. Copresent Device Use: Using Mobile Devices During In-Person Interaction
  • Conversational Effects
  • Device Use Effects
  • “Mere Presence” Effects
  • Conceptual Explanations for Conversational Effects
  • Summary of Conversational Effects
  • Explaining Copresent Use With Interpersonal Communication Theory
  • Involvement and Immediacy Cues
  • Expectancy Violation Theory
  • Facework and Politeness Theory
  • Summary of Conversational Effects
  • Copresent Device Use Problems in Romantic Relationships
  • Attribution Theory and Romantic Conflict
  • Expectancy Violation Theory
  • Relational Dialectics Theory
  • Copresent Device Use in Parent-Child Relationships
  • Parental Absorption During Child Care
  • Attunement and Attachment Processes
  • Nonverbal Reciprocity and the Still Face Effect
  • Copresent Device Use and Co-Parenting
  • Family Rules for Copresent Device Use
  • Summary of Copresent Device Use in Close Relationships
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • 7. Moving Forward: An Agenda for Future Research
  • Three Questions to Guide Future Research
  • How Does Technology Affect Interpersonal and Relational Processes?
  • How Do Interpersonal and Relational Resource Deficits Contribute to Problematic Online Behavior?
  • How Do Online Interpersonal Behaviors Threaten Face-to-Face Conversational and Relational Goal Outcomes?
  • Using Interpersonal and Relational Theories to Advance Literature on Problematic Internet Use
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Author Index
  • Subject Index

| vii →


At a short distance from the inflection point between one millennium and the next, our species is struggling with any number of salient challenges and opportunities regarding its future. Among these challenges is the role that technologies play in our everyday interactions. Guttenberg compressed the time and space of knowledge diffusion and communication at distance, but the Internet has accomplished this at an altogether exponential scale. Several studies demonstrate that we live in a small world, ranging from 4 to 7 degrees of separation from everyone else on the planet. Further, several studies have found evidence for the Dunbar conjecture that we only have the cognitive capacity to optimally manage 80 to 180 actual relationships before our ability to negotiate relations in our social network begins to deteriorate. Little in our 5M years of hominid evolution has prepared us for the velocity, span, access, and capabilities that modern communication technologies now provide. It is little wonder then, that the pace of evolution in our technologies of communication are rapidly outstripping our ability to co-evolve with them. ← vii | viii →

There are obviously both respectable respective utopian and dystopian perspectives that can conceptualize these changes. For years now, I have been approaching such dialectics from what we refer to as a dark side perspective that incorporates both the benign and the baleful. Specifically, any phenomenon can be conceptually and empirically aligned along two dimensions: a functional dimension and a normative dimension. The functional dimension refers to the degree to which a phenomenon objectively facilitates or diminishes the ability of an organism, group, or system to sustain itself and pursue its functions and objectives. The normative dimension refers to the degree to which a person, group, society or culture subjectively perceives or evaluates a phenomenon as immoral evil, inappropriate, harmful or otherwise dysfunctional, on the one hand; or on the other hand as moral, good, appropriate, helpful, or otherwise functional. When these dimensions are crossed, they map four conceptual territories.

Functional and normatively good phenomena represent the bright side. In regard to technologies, this is the realm of dreamers and utopians, and probably most inventors and hi-tech businesses. Technologies will fulfill our needs, solve our problems, enrich us, relax us, and enhance us. Diametrically contrasted to the bright side is the space defined by dysfunctional phenomena that are widely viewed as harmful. In regard to technologies, a variety of candidates are increasingly becoming tarnished both by their science and the public tolerance for their effects; think nuclear power, fossil fuels, mass industrialized agriculture, big pharma, and ubiquitous technological privacy invasion. The most interesting domains of the dark side perspective, however, are the ambivalent quadrants: The things we think are good but have deleterious dysfunctional effects, and the things we think are bad that are often actually good for us. For example, physical attractiveness is widely valued subjectively, but often carries with it problems of objectification, excess celebrity, and self-handicapping. Alternatively, jealousy is widely viewed as unpleasant and destructive, yet can serve to bring some relationships closer and motivate self-enhancement to entice a partner back to the comfort of the relationship.

Scott Caplan has taken such nuances into account in his excellent examination of the complex terrain of our most common communication ← viii | ix → technologies, with emphasis on those technologies enabled by and dependent upon the increasingly omnipresent Internet. His umbrella term is problematic use, although he draws the connections among the dark side, socio-digital challenges, and digital stressors. Collectively, he is locating his interests closer to the dysfunctional and immoral ends of the spectra of the dark side. As interesting as the more paradoxical spaces of the dark side are, it makes sense to pursue the more dysfunctional/immoral quadrant. There is theory and research to support the notion that “bad tends to outweigh good,” in the sense that negative experiences are more damaging than positive experiences are healing. As such, it is certainly timely to begin developing a census of the problematic uses and effects of the Internet. In doing so, Caplan has thoughtfully identified most of the more tangible contexts of problematic Internet use in interactional and relational contexts. The lens he uses is distinct from most of the other approaches that might or have been taken to date. Instead of focusing on the technology itself, or on the philosophical or purely psychological impacts of such technologies, he takes a distinctly interpersonal approach.

An interpersonal approach moves away from the mechanistic and hypodermic conceptions of technological effects, and instead centers on the more systemic relational processes and effects of communication technologies. Looking through this lens, Chapter One lays out the key concepts and concisely presages some of the most relevant theoretical models of problematic Internet use. The examination of Internet addiction in Chapter Two allows the highlighting of the interpersonal problems arising from an individual’s addictive habits. Chapter Three examines transgressions from a more sophisticated perspective than popular magazine lists of netiquette rules. Research on infidelity, deceptions, incivilities, micro-aggressions, and relational breaches illustrate the degree to which technologies offer many affordances for relationship infringement. Chapter Four veers into the darker realms of the Internet and its communicative technological enablers. The study of cyberbullying is expanding rapidly, as the world begins to wake up to the realization that we have first aid kits for physical bruises, scrapes, scratches and cuts, but we have no obvious therapeutic bandages or salve for a savaged self-esteem. Here Caplan is keen to recognize some ← ix | x → of the paradoxes entwined in the cyberbullying research—victims are often perpetrators, and bullies are often esteemed by others yet lacking in self-esteem. As the pale of technological shadows cast ever darker spaces for interpersonal relations, Chapter Five examines cyberstalking and unwanted pursuit. Stalking itself is a relatively new crime, in that it was only explicitly criminalized in the 1990s in most Western societies, but cyber-technologies gave stalkers an entirely new and powerful set of tools through which they could intrude upon and harass others. The liminal spaces between flirtation and fear, between courtship and coercion, become central to recognizing the ways in which technologies both enable and disable our tendencies to form and re-form our relations with others.

By Chapter Six, Caplan moves to a less intense but nevertheless important and more familiar space of everyday conversation. In the realm of not there-thereness, avatars, fomo, phubbing, telepressure, and co-present absence, we are discovering that technologies designed to enhance the quantity or accessibility of our communication in cyberspace often function to diminish the quality of our communication with those we face in our proximal realspace. It seems somehow poetic then, to traverse the arc of problematic Internet use from the mundane notion of the couch potato spending endless hours in digital space, to the dark apex of transgression, abuse, aggression, intrusion, and harassment, only to end up in the domain of the mundane—everyday interaction.

Such is the journey an interpersonal approach to problematic Internet use presents—and none too soon. Given the pace of technological evolution, a second edition may be overdue in a relatively brief horizon of speculation, but taking heed right “here and now” is necessary as a moment of perspective-taking—where is here, and what detours, traps and threats are we are likely to encounter as we perambulate this strange, continually new, space? This book is a much-needed yield sign, suggesting the need to take in the intersection we have been brought to, and where we want to go, rather than where we allow ourselves to be taken.

Brian H. Spitzberg, Senate Distinguished Professor

School of Communication, San Diego State University

| 1 →

Chapter One

The Changing Face of Problematic Internet Use

What does problematic Internet use mean today? When researchers first began studying the topic in the early 2000s, problematic Internet use referred to online behavior that created offline problems. In 2001, Beard and Wolf defined problematic Internet use as “use of the Internet that creates psychological, social, school, and/or work difficulties in a person’s life” (p. 378). In my work, I defined problematic Internet use as “maladaptive cognitions and behaviors involving Internet use that result in negative academic, professional, and social consequences” (Caplan, 2003, p. 626). Although these definitions were useful in guiding early research, the term problematic Internet use can no longer be limited to compulsive or habitual use. As the online technology, and its role in our lives, has evolved, so have the problems people experience from computer-mediated communication.

The Internet use that early research described bore little resemblance to how we use or think about online social interaction today. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when scholars first proposed and defined problematic Internet use, less than half of U.S. adults were online (Pew Research Center, 2017). A majority of online social interaction ← 1 | 2 → was limited to text-based messaging. In the early 2000s, no one was “always” online in the sense most of us are today. People thought of the Internet, metaphorically, as a place, or spatial location, separate from the rest of their lives (Markham, 2003). Popular terms such as “cyberspace,” “world wide web,” and “information super-highway” reflect this spatial metaphor of the Internet (Olson, 2005). The spatial metaphor is also evident in the names of early web browsers such as “Internet Explorer” and “Netscape Navigator.” In the early years, people were either in cyberspace or were offline and in the real world.

One consequence of the geographic metaphor was early theory and research assumed that if a person was “online,” they could not also be “offline.” The difference between the two was stark and easily identifiable. Initial concerns about problematic Internet use assumed that being online diminished one’s separate, offline life. The online versus offline dichotomy is reflected in early researchers’ concerns with Internet use displacing or weakening in-person social ties.

Today, the lines between online and offline interaction are blurring. Most of our interpersonal relationships involve a complicated mix of device-mediated and in-person interactions. We use the greatest number of mediated channels with our closest relationship partners (Ledbetter, 2015). Throughout an ongoing interaction, people switch between modalities and the conversation moves back and forth between in-person and mediated channels (Caughlin & Sharabi, 2013; Ledbetter, 2015; Ramirez & Wang, 2008; Ramirez & Zhang, 2007).

Today, when I tell people that I study problematic Internet use, they often seem unsure of what I mean. However, if I mention specific examples, such as compulsive smartphone checking, digital distraction, social networking habits, compulsive gaming, cyberstalking, cyberbullying, and online infidelity, others react with instant recognition. The problems listed above illustrate the extent to which the meaning of problematic Internet use has changed and extended beyond concerns about overuse and social displacement. The changing face of problematic Internet use reflects a need for a more sophisticated vocabulary to talk about the variety dysfunctional and hurtful outcomes of online social interaction. ← 2 | 3 →

How might researchers study an ever-changing phenomenon like interpersonal technology use? This book argues that fundamental theories of interpersonal and relational communication processes can inform research on current and emerging types of problematic Internet use. Despite changing technologies, people’s online interpersonal behavior is still guided by stable communicative principles. For example, most people seek praise and avoid embarrassment. Goffman (1959, 1967) argued that maintaining face and the aversion to face threat are fundamental goals in most interpersonal situations. Here, the desires to maintain face and avoid face threat are universal motivations that guide our social behavior regardless of whether we are speaking, texting, or using Twitter. Irrespective of the technology involved, the dynamics of face threats and facework remain unchanged; people get angry when their face is threatened and are pleased when others uphold their face. What is unique and interesting is how new interpersonal technologies create new opportunities for face management and face threats.

Similarly, whether a bully attacks a victim in person or online, or a combination of both, the fundamental aspects of bullying, as an interpersonal phenomenon, are relatively unchanging; all bullying involves a power difference and repeated aggression (Olweus, 1993). However, there are distinct changes that mediated communication brings to a bullying experience that reveal how online contexts may facilitate bullying and contribute to victims’ suffering (Sticca & Perren, 2013).

Further, research on the dynamics of intimate relationships can explain how online social behavior may create problems in close personal relationships. Whether couples are arguing in person or with texting, communication research explains that relational partners must skillfully manage uncertainty (Baxter & Wilmot, 1984) and negotiate ongoing dialectical tensions (Baxter & Simon, 1993) to maintain a healthy relationship. Additionally, as technology evolves, close relational partners have begun to develop rules for online behavior. The fact that relationships have rules is a stable feature of personal relationships (Argyle & Henderson, 1985). Yet, the ways people use technology to break relationship rules continue to change. Here, theories of relational maintenance can help provide a framework for explaining ← 3 | 4 → how couples handle relational transgressions involving technology (Tokunaga, 2014).

Today, problematic Internet use may involve interpersonal aggression, unwanted pursuit, violating the rules of close relationships, and using communication devices in ways that diminish our in-person conversation partners. Scholars have studied these problems from many perspectives including, legalistic, sociological, and psychological research. This book emphasizes the utility of approaching these problems as interpersonal problems. Doing so allows researchers to connect their work to established theories of interpersonal and relational communication and avoids a myopic focus on specific technology that is likely to change over time (e.g., problematic MySpace use). The extensive literature on in-person interpersonal processes and relational principles can help guide research into the changing face of problematic Internet use.

What Is “Problematic”?

Conceptually, the topics covered in this book are examples of what some scholars approach as the “dark side” of online social interaction (Fox & Moreland, 2015; Spitzberg & Cupach, 2014) and others have conceptualized as “digital stressors” (Weinstein & Selman, 2014). Both approaches emphasize the importance of considering how interpersonal behavior can be destructive, immoral, and hurtful to others (Cupach & Spitzberg, 1998; Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007, 2014). From the dark side perspective, problematic behaviors are arrayed along two dimensions: moral-immoral and functional-dysfunctional. Cyberbullying, for example, would be an immoral, yet functional, way for a bully to get attention. On the other hand, regularly checking the phone during an intimate dinner is not immoral, but does reflect dysfunctional self-regulation or lack of interpersonal skill.

Weinstein and Selman’s (2014) research on socio-digital stress among adolescents reveals that many of the most common digital stressors are interpersonal (e.g., humiliation, shaming, harassment, bullying, boundary management, device use during in-person interactions). ← 4 | 5 → Further, Weinstein et al. (2016) explained that adolescents struggle with two general categories of “socio-digital challenges.” First, hostility-oriented stressors include problems with online harassment, bullying, and aggression. Second, adolescents described problems navigating close relationships as sources of socio-digital stress. In its variety of forms, technology-mediated interpersonal behavior is problematic when it contributes to immoral, stressful, or dysfunctional outcomes.


X, 250
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. X, 250 pp.

Biographical notes

Scott E. Caplan (Author)

Scott E. Caplan (PhD, Purdue University) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware.


Title: The Changing Face of Problematic Internet Use
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262 pages