Mark Griffiths will teach the UK's first "cyberpsychology" degree in the new academic year. Students on the MSc course will probe the psychology behind online gaming, gambling and dating as well as cybercrime.
Professor Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, said: "People behave differently online. Work on online relationships has shown that people fall in love more quickly than they do offline. There's the 'strangers on a train' effect - people feel anonymous, which is disinhibiting."
Adding that disinhibiting effect to the internet's constant availability can create a recipe for addiction.
"The internet enhances addictive predispositions to certain types of behaviour. You can gamble or shop 24/7, which is impossible offline," he said. The discouraging aspects of some offline services - the all-male environment of a bookmaker's shop, for example - are also removed. "A woman might be psychologically predisposed to take risks but would never walk into the bookie's or a casino."
Professor Griffiths, who has a PhD in fruit machine addiction from the University of Exeter, distinguishes between addictions on, and to, the internet. "An online gambler is not an internet addict. The internet is merely enhancing or facilitating behaviour that may also be taking place offline. (But) there are some people who are addicted to behaviour that will occur only on the internet." These include chatroom addicts and those who can not stop playing online games. "They create new social personas ... Online you can be anything you want to be."
The difference between an addict and somebody with an enthusiasm is not a question of time spent on the activity, he said. "I have one case study of a 21-year-old unemployed single guy who spent 12 hours per day playing (the online game) Everquest. That was life-enhancing for him, (but) when he found a girlfriend, his playing stopped." Another subject spent the same amount of time playing, but lost his wife, children and job as a result.
Griffiths says he receives emails from parents who fear that their children are addicted because they use their computers three hours a day. "That isn't addiction. People will spend hours cyberchatting with long-distance friends or partners and it's said they're addicted. That wouldn't be said if they were on the phone. Eventually that image will peter out."
The negative aspects of the internet are often the same things that make it so valuable. "I'm a massive Adam Ant fan," he said. "I meet people online who I'd never meet in the pub. Every new advance has its downsides ... But the positives far outweigh the disadvantages."