Theoretical Framework of Problematic IM Use
Previous studies on PIU have been criticized for lacking conceptual clarity and not being theoretically driven enough, with scholars contending that more studies needed to be done within a tested theoretical framework explaining the relationship between human predispositions, cognitive-behavioral symptoms and negative outcomes of PIU (e.g. Caplan, 2002, 2003, 2005; Davis, 2001).
Davis (2001) argued that PIU was more than simply a behavioral addiction but rather, a complex, multifaceted syndrome consisting of cognitive and behavioral symptoms that result in negative social, academic, or professional consequences of PIU (Caplan, 2002, 2003, 2005; Davis, 2001; Davis, Flett, & Besser, 2002). He proposed a cognitive-behavioral PIU model in which he stressed the importance of maladaptive cognitions associated with Internet use (e.g. “It is better to socialize online than to have offline social interactions.”) as a crucial antecedent of the behavioral symptoms of PIU such as compulsive Internet usage which in turn culminate in negative outcomes of Internet use (Davis, 2001). Also, such cognitions and behaviors of PIU were emphasized as key intermediary variables linking the relationship between pre-existing human predispositions and negative outcomes of PIU (Caplan, 2002, 2003; Davis, 2001).
Based on Davis' (2001) cognitive-behavioral model of PIU, Caplan (2002) sought to develop a theory-based measure of PIU by operationalizing the cognitive-behavioral symptoms and negative outcomes of PIU. He termed the maladaptive cognitive symptoms of PIU as ‘a preference for online social interaction’ (Caplan, 2002, 2003, 2005) and defined it as “a cognitive individual-difference construct characterized by beliefs that one is safer, more efficacious, more confident, and more comfortable with online interpersonal interactions and relationships than with traditional face-to-face social activities” (Caplan, 2003, p. 629).
His three behavioral symptoms of PIU were (a) Mood Alteration (the extent to which people utilize the Internet when feeling socially isolated or down); (b) Compulsive Internet use (the inability to control, reduce, or stop online behavior, along with feelings of guilt about time spent online); and (c) Excessive Internet Use (the degree to which an individual feels that he or she spends an excessive amount of time online or even loses track of time when using the Internet). Negative outcomes of Internet use were defined as personal, social, and professional problems resulting from one's Internet use (Caplan, 2002, 2003).
Congruent with Davis' (2001) proposed cognitive-behavioral model of PIU, preliminary findings showed that the cognitive PIU symptoms i.e. ‘a preference for online social interaction’ were indeed a strong predictor of the PIU behavioral symptoms, particularly mood alteration and compulsive Internet use (Caplan, 2003). Furthermore, amongst all the PIU behavioral symptoms, compulsive Internet use consistently emerged as the strongest behavioral predictor of negative outcomes stemming from Internet usage (Caplan, 2002, 2003). Since PIU has been extensively dubbed as an impulse control disorder that chiefly entails compulsive Internet usage (e.g. Beard & Wolf, 2001; Griffiths, 2000; Shapira et al., 2000), Caplan (2005) decided to focus solely on the compulsive Internet use construct and further elucidate the relationship between a preference for online social interaction, compulsive Internet use, and negative outcomes of Internet usage.
Subsequently, he tested a direct effects theoretical model of PIU which postulated that peoples' preference for online social interactions would lead to over dependence on the Internet, consequently leading to compulsive Internet use (i.e. difficulties faced in stopping, reducing, or controlling Internet use along with feelings of guilt) (Caplan, 2003, 2005). Ultimately, such compulsive Internet use is in turn likely to culminate in negative personal, social, and professional consequences of Internet use (Caplan, 2005).
Robust support was found for the direct effects model. Moreover, consistent with previous PIU studies (Caplan, 2003; Davis, 2001), the cognitive PIU symptom (a preference for online social interactions on the Internet) and behavioral symptom (compulsive Internet use) mediated the relationship between existing human predispositions and negative outcomes of Internet use (Caplan, 2005).
Among all online synchronous chat applications, IM merits a study on its own because it has emerged as the strongest predictor of PIU (Eijnden, Meerkerk, & Vermulst, 2005; Leung, 2004; Yuen & Lavin, 2004) and is also the most heavily used among university students (Jones et al., 2002). It has been said that research needs to concentrate on specific aspects of the Internet which people are addicted to (Beard & Wolf, 2001; Lee & Perry, 2004; Shaffer, Hall, & Vander Bilt, 2000). Scholars have also contended that more studies need to be done within an empirically testable theoretical framework explaining the relationship between human predispositions, cognitive-behavioral symptoms and negative outcomes of PIU (e.g. Caplan, 2002, 2003, 2005; Davis, 2001; Davis et al., 2002).
Hence, this study adapts Caplan's (2005) theoretical framework of PIU to specifically examine problematic IM use among university students. However, Caplan's (2003) original conceptual definition of “a preference for online social interaction” is too narrow as it primarily connotes problems to do with one's sociocommunicative competence (Caplan, 2003, 2005). Thus, in order for other factors that are unrelated to sociocommunicative competence to be tested as predictors of problematic IM use in this study, “a preference for online social interactions on instant messenger” shall be broadly defined as an individual-level construct comprising of cognitions that using IM to socialize is more gratifying than offline social activities. Extrapolating Caplan's (2005) theoretical framework of PIU to the context of IM use, the following direct effect hypotheses are proposed:
H1: A preference for social interactions on IM is positively associated with compulsive IM usage.
H2: Compulsive IM is positively associated with negative outcomes of IM use.
Furthermore, since pre-existing human predispositions have been theorized to be necessary distal factors preceding the development of the cognitive-behavioral symptoms and negative outcomes of PIU (Caplan, 2002, 2003, 2005; Davis, 2001), four new factors shall be incorporated as predictors of problematic IM use in this study. By expanding the conceptual boundaries of Caplan's (2005) original theoretical social-skill account of PIU, these factors encompass one measure of sociocommunicative competency (as gauged by one's level of oral communication apprehension), as well as three other predictors that do not pertain to one's sociocommunicative competence namely, polychronicity, the perceived inconvenience of using offline communication means, and trait procrastination.
Extant literature (as elaborated in the literature review section below) strongly suggests that these four aforementioned factors could potentially be salient in the specific context of problematic IM use. Hence, by testing these four factors as predictors of the cognitive-behavioral symptoms and negative outcomes of IM use, this study hopes to make a significant contribution to the field of mediated synchronous interpersonal communication.