Carole Hughes, Ph.D.

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Division of Student Affairs
Human Resources
Boston College

Doctoral Research Abstract

The Relationship Between Internet Use and Loneliness Among College Students


The popular press has been full of dramatic stories related to the diffusion of the Internet into society. Some of the more provocative headlines include: "Caught in the Web?" (Maurer, 1997, p.1) and " 'Net Drug has Students Hooked" (Keim, 1997, p.1). The Reuters News Organization published a report in 1996 that suggested that information overload was affecting people negatively. A follow-up report in 1998 suggested that there is great concern about the rapid growth of the Internet and its impact on society.

There has also been great debate within the psychological community as to whether Internet addiction meets the standard of a true addiction. Dr. Kimberley Young of the University of Pittsburgh supports the concept of Internet Addiction. Dr. Young's 1996 presentation to the American Psychological Association was the catalyst for much of the debate about the positive and negative effects of Internet use in our society. Dr. Young presented the results of a study she conducted on Internet use. She concluded that Internet addiction does exist and meets the criteria used for other established addictions (Young, 1996). Dr. Young reported that Internet addiction, at its worst, could cause divorce, child neglect, job loss and lack of success in school. Dr. Young has developed the Center for On-Line Addiction which is described as " The world's first consultation firm and virtual clinic for cyber-related issues" (Young, 1996).

The Internet and College Students

Computing and telecommunications advances are rapidly developing in workplaces. This development is forcing American colleges and universities to provide more access to the new technologies on campus. However, it seems that no matter how quickly the institutions move forward, some students, the "digerati" are demanding more (Belsie, 1995). It has been suggested that the future of the information revolution can be found in the American colleges and universities. Many of today's college students learned to use computers in elementary school and now find themselves with free on-campus Internet access and enough free time for exploration (Shen, 1995).

Most colleges and universities provide Internet access for students (Scherer, 1997). The explosive growth has created unique challenges for campuses across the country. The use of the Internet is heavy and is tying up campus computer networks. Many institutions are considering rationing access, which until now, has been provided free to students. College administrators are concerned that students may be falling behind in their studies as a result of significant use of the Internet. Some colleges have set up support groups to help students curb their use of the Internet (Leibowitz, 1996). There is an additional concern that students may not be developing social skills, given the amount of time they are spending at the computer (Shen, 1995).

As they embrace the technological age, providing Internet access from residence hall rooms, libraries and classrooms, many colleges and universities are finding that students are devoting more time to computers than to other activities (Sanchez, 1996). Some institutions deny on-line access to students who may be developing an addiction. One institution found that almost half of the students who dropped out of their freshmen class had been heavy users of the Internet late at night (Sanchez, 1996). Some universities are also imposing time limits for student use of the Internet, developing workshops on technology use for first year students, and seeing more students who are struggling academically due to the amount of time that is spent "on-line." 

Loneliness and College Students

Loneliness is a condition that has been experienced by most people at one time or another. Loneliness has been linked to depression, physical ailments, and excessive alcohol abuse. Loneliness is a subjective experience and the experience of loneliness is unpleasant (Peplau & Perlman, 1982). More recently, loneliness and depression have been linked to use of the Internet (Kraut et al., 1998).

Loneliness has been shown to be more prevalent among adolescents than in any other age group (Brennan, 1982). Some of the contributing factors to loneliness in adolescence include personal characteristics such as shyness, low self-esteem, and lack of social skills. Adolescents may also experience greater loneliness due to the developmental processes that are inherent in an adolescent's life, which affect the adolescent's personal and social growth. 

Loneliness can be a problem among college students due to the fact that students are often away from home and familiar friends, trying to create a new social environment for themselves (Cutrona, 1982). Loneliness has been linked to college students' lack of achievement in college and college drop out rates (Rotenberg & Morrison, 1993). It has been reported that loneliness in late adolescence has prompted lonely individuals to withdraw into solitary activities (Roscoe & Skomski, 1989).

College Student Development

The study of Internet use and loneliness among college students ties in closely with much that has been written and researched over the past thirty years about the development of traditional college aged students and the interaction of students with the campus community. In a comprehensive study of the American undergraduate experience, Boyer (1987) suggests that students' activities outside the classroom influence the outcome of their college experience. 

A useful student development theory is Tinto's theory of freshman development. There are three major stages of this development: separation from prior communities, transition into the new community, and full incorporation into the new community. Although focused on freshman integration into the collegiate community, Tinto's work points out characteristics that are essential for any student to succeed: peer support, knowledge of services and a caring relationship with an adult member of the community (Tinto, 1987). It remains to be seen if the advent of the Internet provides this support for students or decreases their exposure to such support. 

With the growing concern on some campuses that the Internet use by students has negatively affected their academic work, it is logical to assume that Internet use may also be affecting students' interaction with the campus community. Pitkow & Kehoe's survey of Internet users (as cited in Scherer, 1997) indicates that an estimated 32% of all Internet users access the Internet through educational providers and 28% of all users are full-time college students (Scherer, 1997, p. 655). The present study will attempt to extend the research on loneliness and media use, with "media" defined as the Internet and Internet use defined as e-mail, World Wide Web, and Usenet.




This research was conducted at a private, northeastern research university with an enrollment of 9000 undergraduate students. The participants were 302 students who responded to a mailed questionnaire: 20% freshmen, 28.6% sophomores, 22.8% juniors and 28.6% seniors. The sample was selected through a stratified random sampling technique. The sample was taken from the undergraduate residential student body. The researcher obtained a list of all resident students for the academic year 1997-98. This list was divided by class year, in order to insure equal representation from all four classes.


The two instruments used in this study were the Internet Related Addictive Behaviors Checklist (IRABC) and the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale. The first, the Internet Related Addictive Behaviors Checklist (Appendix C) is a 39-item questionnaire intended to measure use of the Internet. The IRABC also contains demographic information on the following variables: gender, age, class year, type of Internet use, time spent using the Internet. The second instrument, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, measures the current loneliness of a person in relationship to the person's present interpersonal experiences [Haines, 1993 #220]. Other demographic information added by the researcher included Internet access points, computer ownership, time spent viewing television.

Data Collection

In March of 1998, the researcher sent each of the selected participants a letter explaining the project, along with the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale, the Internet Related Addictive Behaviors Checklist and an envelope to return the completed instrument to the researcher's on- campus mailing address. A blank card was also included. Students were given the option of returning the card with their name and phone number. The names of all those who returned the surveys and the cards were placed into a drawing for an incentive gift of a portable compact disc player. The mailing was sent through the university mail services. 

There were two mailings conducted. The first, in March 1998, yielded a return of 20%. The researcher then re-sent the surveys in April 1998 to the entire sample with a new cover letter. The researcher then followed up with a voice-mail message and an e-mail message to the entire sample, reminding them of the return date. The result of this effort yielded another 100 (10%) completed surveys. 

As surveys were returned, the researcher numbered them chronologically in pairs. A complete package included a completed IRABC and Revised ULCA Loneliness Scale. This labeling made it possible to create a database by assigning case identification numbers to each student. Of the survey respondents, 92 (30.5%) were male and 209 (69.2%) were female. One participant (.3%) did not indicate gender. The highest response rate was from the sophomore and senior classes, followed by juniors and freshmen respectively. The total response rate was 30.08%.

Data Analysis

Analysis of data began with descriptive statistics such as means, standard deviations, type/time of on-line activity and location of connectivity to the Internet. The Pearson correlation coefficient was calculated in order to determine the positive or negative relationship between loneliness and Internet use. 

Sample Characteristics

Each participant was asked to provide demographic information as part of the survey. This information included gender and class year. Of the survey respondents, 92 (30.5%) were male and 209 (69.2%) were female. One participant (.3%) did not indicate gender. The highest response rate was from the sophomore and senior classes, followed by juniors and freshmen respectively. Table 4.1 provides the breakdown of the sample by class year, gender % of class, age and % of sample. 

Table 4.1

Sample Breakdown by Class Year, Gender, % of Class, Age and % of Sample
Class Year Male (N/%) Female(N/%) N Mean Age % of Sample
Freshmen 18/30% 42/70% 60 19 20.0
Sophomore 33/38.4% 53/61.6% 86 20 28.6
Junior 23/33.3% 46/66.7% 69 21 22.8
Senior 18/20.9% 68/79.1% 86 22 28.6
Missing 1
Total 92 209 302 100.00

Over one-half of the respondents (69.5%) indicated that they used on-campus public facilities for Internet connection. Over one-third of the students (42.7%) reported connecting to the Internet from home. A majority of the students (87.4%) reported connecting to the Internet from their residence hall room. The large numbers of students who reported using on campus computing facilities and connecting from the residence halls seems logical given the high speed Internet connection available to them. 

A small number of students (6%) reported that they connected to the Internet from an off-campus public computing facility. A minority of the students (25.8%) reported connecting to the Internet from their workplace. Table 4.2 provides the breakdown of the sample's Internet use off-campus, on campus, from home and from residence hall rooms. The results indicate that students connect to the Internet from several locations, which explains the sample percentage figure total of over 100%. 

Table 4.2

Internet Connectivity
Connection % Of Sample N
Off-Campus 6.0% 18
On-Campus 69.5% 210
Workplace 25.8% 73
Residence Hall 87.4% 264
Home 42.7% 129

Over 85% of the respondents owned computers. Twice as many women as men reported computer ownership. The largest numbers of computer owners were seniors, followed by juniors, sophomores and freshmen. Table 4.3 provides the breakdown of students who own their own computers by class year.

Table 4.3

Computer Ownership
Response Fresh Soph. Jr. Senior N % of Sample
Men 15 32 22 11 80 26.5%
Women 39 43 41 55 178 58.9%
Total 54(20.9%) 75(29%) 63 (25%) 66 (25.5%) 258 85.4%

Over 83% of the students reported having a computer in their residence hall rooms. Twelve percent of the respondents did not answer this question. The sophomores represent 30% of the respondents reporting computers in residence hall rooms. The juniors and seniors represent 24.6% each; the freshmen represent 21%. Table 4.4 provides the breakdown of students who had computers in their residence hall room by class year.

Table 4.4

Computer in residence hall room
Computer in Room Fresh/% Soph/% Jr/% Senior/% N % of Sample
Men 15 32 21 11 79 26.1%
Women 38 43 41 51 173 57.3%
Yes 53 /21% 75/29.7% 62 /24.6% 62 / 24% 252 83.4%

Students were asked to report the amount of time spent on line as well as type of on-line activity. Students reported that they spend an average of almost one-hour per day using electronic mail. At the lowest end of the range, no use was reported; at the highest end of the range, ten hours per day was reported. 

Students reported a range of usage of the Internet from zero to forty hours per week, with an average use of almost six hours per week. Students are using the World Wide Web an average of almost one hour per day and Usenet for less than one half an hour per day. Table 4.5 provides a breakdown of type of use and time spent on-line.

Table 4.5

Type/Time on-line activity
Variable Mean Std. Dev Minimum Maximum N
Hrs/Day on Email .99 1.22 .00 10.00 297
Hrs/Day on World-Wide Web .82 1.12 .00 11.00 295
Hrs/Day on Usenet .19 1.00 .00 15.00 296
Hrs/Week on Internet 5.90 6.13 .00 40.00 301

About 45% of the respondents reported using the Internet for 2-5 years. Well over one third of the respondents (35.4%) reported using the Internet for 1-2 years. Over 10% reported using the Internet for 6-12 months, 3% reported using the Internet for 3-6 months. A very small number (1.7%) reported 5 or more years use of the Internet. Figure A provides a breakdown of the sample's average length of use of the Internet in months or years.

Figure A

Frequency of Internet Use

Image coming soon.

Statistical Results

The study null hypothesis stated that there was no relationship between Internet use and loneliness among college students. The correlation coefficient calculated initially supported the null hypothesis. A correlation coefficient was calculated on scores of the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale and the IRABC. The results of the hypothesis test reveal that the correlation between respondents' reported loneliness and Internet use is r= -.07, n=297, p=.25 . There was no correlation between Internet use and loneliness in this sample. These findings did not support the hypothesis that frequent use of the Internet among college students is related to their self-reported levels of loneliness.

However, when 8 items were removed from the UCLA Loneliness Scale due lack of correlation with the total scores, a relationship between loneliness and Internet use was revealed ( r=.23, p=.001 ) which is a low but significant relationship between Internet use and loneliness. This finding supported the hypothesis that there is a relationship between loneliness and Internet use. 



From a student development perspective, the results should cause some concern, since there appears to be a correlation between Internet use and loneliness. The results in this study related to type of use and time spent on the Internet were very similar to national surveys. A major study on Internet use and loneliness (Kraut, et. al, 1998) also support the results from this study. It could be surmised from that result that students might be spending more time on their computers than involved in the community.

As institutions continue to upgrade technological offerings for students in an effort to retain market share, student affairs professionals will have to be more alert to the changing campus community. As the community orientation shifts to a "web-based" community, administrators will have to become more creative in encouraging student involvement. The concept of involvement may change dramatically to encompass electronic community-student centers replaced by virtual student centers. It will be essential for the student affairs staff to keep their own technological knowledge up to date in order to develop creative ideas for maintaining community.

Will we ever get to the point where students will be watching the football game on the web instead of inside the stadium? Will all their classes be web-based-taken from their rooms? Perhaps they will never even move to college, just enroll in courses from their homes? It is difficult to say, but, like television, there seems to be no question that the Internet will have a profound effect on society. Educators must be ready with the resources; guidance and skills to make certain that students are maximizing the learning and community potential of this new technology. 



Boyer, E. L. (1987). College: The Undergraduate Experience in America . New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Brennan, T. (1982). Loneliness at Adolescence. In L. Peplau & D. Perlman (Eds.), Loneliness A Sourcebook of Current Theory, Research and Therapy. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Cutrona, C. E. (1982). Transition to College: Loneliness and the Process of Social Adjustment. In L. Peplau & D. Perlman (Eds.), Loneliness A Sourcebook of Current Theory, Research and Therapy. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Haines, D. A., Scalise, J. J., & Ginter, E., J. (1993). Relationship of Loneliness and Its Affective Elements to Self- Esteem. Psychological Reports, 73 , 479-482.

Leibowitz, Elissa. (1996). Vermillion[On-Line]. 01 19/page 07.html

Keim, C. (1997, October 31, 1997). The 'Net Drug has Students Hooked. The New Hampshire, pp. 1-3.

Kraut, R., Patterson, M., Lundmark, V., Kiesler, S., Mukophadhyay, T., & Scherlis, W. (1998). Internet Paradox: A Social Technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well being.

Maurer, Geoffrey (1997). Caught in the Web. Cavalier Daily [on-line]. htpp://

Peplau, L. A., & Perlman, D. (1982). Perspectives on Loneliness. In L. A. Peplau & D. Perlman (Eds.), Loneliness: A Sourcebook of Current Theory, Research and Therapy (pp. 1-18). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Roscoe, B., & Skomski, G. G. (1989). Loneliness Among Late Adolescents. Adolescence, 24 (96), 947-955.

Rotenberg, K. J., & Morrison, J. (1993). Loneliness and Collage Achievement: Do Loneliness Scale Scores Predict College Drop-Out? Psychological Reports, 73 , 1283-1288.

Sanchez, R. (1996, May 23, 1996). Students Falling into Web that the Internet Weaves. Boston Globe.

Scherer, K. (1997). College Life On-Line: Healthy and Unhealthy Internet Use. Journal of College Student Development, 38 (6), 655-665.

Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving College. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Young, K. (1996). Internet Addiction: The Emergence of a New Clinical Disorder. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association.

Young, K. (1996). Center for On-Line Addiction. [On-Line].