Vampires put student Net access at stake

May 10, 1996

It is spring, and morning breezes stir the budding flowers on university and college campuses in the United States.

A few weary students also emerge with the dawn. Administrators call them "Internet vampires," because they sit awake all night in front of their computers, prowling around in the deep recesses of the network.

"It is very alluring. It grabs you and sucks you into the screen," said Larry Rosen, a research psychologist and partner in a southern California consulting firm that specialises in the psychological implications of technology. "It's just as serious as any other addiction."

University and college students are considered prime candidates for Net addiction as they spend more time online than most other groups and generally have no hourly access fees to pay. Psychologists say these students lose themselves in electronic communication and withdraw from human interaction precisely at the time when they ought to be developing their social skills.

"You can easily be deluded into believing you have a social life when you don't," said Dr Rosen. "Then you start missing classes because you'd rather be online or you're hung over from being online all night."

In response, some schools are considering or have enacted policies restricting campus computer networks to academic purposes. Others are providing counselling, although with mixed success.

"We can tell people to stop gambling, stop drinking or stop doing drugs, but you can't tell students on a campus to stop using their computers," said Linda Tipton, a staff psychologist at the University of Maryland, where only three students showed up for a workshop on the issue.

The problem, Dr Tipton said, is that many people on American campuses, herself included, are not entirely convinced that spending hours on the Net is necessarily a bad thing.

"Sure, it makes your eyes hurt," said Tom DiPiero, a professor of visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester in New York and a self-described cyber-addict. "But the people who are spending this kind of time online are acquiring amazing skills."

Professor DiPiero said attempts to curb computer use or limit it to school-related research will probably have the opposite effect.

"Think about the early 1970s when we had universities acting in loco parentis, trying to keep people from having sex in their dorm rooms," he said. "It's even easier to find your way around restrictions on your access to the Net."

Others see a more insidious development.

"While they're trying to lay down general rules, they end up with these really vague assertions of what's OK and what's not, and that infringes on free speech," said Ann Beeson, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney specialising in Net issues.

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