Brad Sharlott: On sabbatical and busy at work

Ever wonder what teachers do while on sabbatical? This semester, one Northern Kentucky University professor will be studying how students use the Internet to find love.

Professor Brad Scharlott of the Communications Department will soon be distributing surveys in most Speech 101 classes. These surveys, once completed, will provide the information for the first phase of his study.

The survey will actually explore how students use the Internet for all social purposes. This includes the use of online classified ads, e-mail, chat rooms, as well as pornographic Web sites and online dating services.

The survey will then ask questions assessing psychological aspects such as shyness and introversion. Scharlott hopes to examine the role of anonymity and an increased sense of safety when using the Internet in comparison to actual social interaction. It will also ask demographic information such as age, sex and class standing which can later be examined in comparison to the other responses.

“I was interested in psychology in school,” Scharlott said. “My interest in the Internet has grown with the Internet itself.”

Scharlott plans to use the survey (which will be distributed to a couple of hundred students) to identify “heavy users” of the Internet. These “heavy users” will be identified, in part, by their use of the Internet between 20 and 30 hours per week.

The second phase of the study will involve in-depth interviews with these students discussing what they get out of being online. The interviews will explore whether or not students use the Internet as a substitute for actual, interpersonal relationships or in order to fill existing deficits in their social lives. They will also explore whether students are better or worse off as the result of this heavy use, examining things such as effects on relationships and schoolwork.

“This is a hot area of research,” Scharlott said. “Assuming I find interesting results, I shouldn’t have any trouble getting published.”

Scharlott already had a similar study published in 1995, in Computers In Human Behavior, a psychology journal. In 1989 he began collecting data on online dating services, focusing on who used them and why. Scharlott then looked more closely at the role shyness played in the use of these services, as well as at the role of gender and appearance.

The project was a byproduct of his “tooling” around on the Internet in the 1980s and wondering about its social implications. The role of shyness as a variable was a personal insight.

“I am a shy person,” Scharlott said, “and therefore found research into shyness to be particularly relevant to my own life.”

The study found that shy people used online dating services more often to find love, whereas those less shy used the services to make friends or simply to browse. The study found that while men usually made the first move, a quarter of the women in the survey were willing to make the first contact. According to Scharlott, “these women did it a lot.”

He suggests that the Internet gave these women the security to break free of traditional gender-based roles, whereas in a bar, the person may not have been as bold. Or, Scharlott added, he may just be behind the times.

The major difference in the study this semester is that it will expand to cover all social interests on the Internet, and it will be a more widely distributed survey. The survey for his first study was a posted survey, voluntarily answered. This semester’s survey will be more random, in that sense.

Scharlott has some hypotheses going into the study. He believes shy people will be heavier Internet users, in general, and that they may use the Internet to overcome the barriers of face-to-face communication. On the Internet, he pointed out, a person has more time to give responses, and they can’t be seen. This may help shy people avoid feeling judged and clamming up.

Scharlott feels his research could be beneficial. The study, he said, may be a help to therapeutic psychologists and mental health professionals who could begin using the Internet to help patients with sever social anxiety overcome their problems. NKU may also consider sponsoring Internet-related activities such as chat rooms for the benefit of students who are too shy to participate in regular campus activities, he added.

The survey should be ready within a week to two weeks and the data collection should be completely finished within two months. Scharlott hopes to have two articles written up by fall, possibly one for each phase of the study. He will probably submit his articles to Computers In Human Behavior, or a similar journal.

This is Scharlott’s first sabbatical. Sabbatical comes from the same root as the word sabbath, meaning the seventh day or a day of rest. Sabbaticals are taken a maximum of once every seven years, as a break away from teaching. Scharlott has taught at NKU since 1991, and also between the years of 1982-1986.

Despite being on sabbatical, Scharlott has been on campus a lot lately. When asked whether this was because he loved NKU so much or because no one else could do his job, he responded. “Maybe all of the above, or maybe I just have to get out of the house when the cleaning lady comes.”

All kidding aside, he admits it is hard to resist going into the lab and fixing problems when he is on campus, and that he should probably stay away from NKU so he can get his research done.