Applying Behavioral Economic Theory to Problematic Internet Use: An Initial Investigation


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Abstract

The widespread availability of the Internet has had profound social, educational, and economic benefits. Yet, for some, Internet use can become compulsive and problematic. The current study seeks to apply a behavioral economic framework to Internet use, testing the hypothesis that, similar to other addictive behaviors, problematic Internet use is a reinforcer pathology, reflecting an overvaluation of an immediately acquirable reward relative to prosocial and delayed rewards. Data were collected through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk data collection platform. A total of 256 adults (Mage = 27.87, SD = 4.79; 58.2% White, 23% Asian; 65.2% had an associate degree or greater) completed the survey. Measures of delay discounting, consideration of future consequences, Internet demand, and alternative reinforcement all contributed unique variance in predicting both problematic Internet use and Internet craving. In aggregate models controlling for all significant predictors, alternative reinforcement and future valuation variables contributed unique variance. Individuals with elevated demand and discounting were at greatest risk for problematic Internet use. Consistent with behavioral economic research among substance abusing samples, individuals engaging in heavy Internet use report elevated motivation for the target behavior coupled with diminished motivation for other potentially rewarding activities, especially those associated with delayed reward.

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