The surprising relationship between caffeine and how you use the internet

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How much work you get done online might have something to do with how many cups of coffee you've consumed. A study released this week by researchers at New Zealand's Auckland University of Technology and Monash University in Australia have found a link between levels of online activity and caffeine dependency. But the link might surprise you.

The study's lead author, James Phillips, who studies technology use and addiction, said that he and his colleagues were curious whether monitoring student technology use could help identify students with mental health issues. For this experiment, they focused on caffeine addiction.

"These days electronic devices are the equivalent of Black Box flight recorders that give us an idea what was happening around the time things went wrong," he told me via email.


Phillips and his colleagues studied 62 students over a two-month period, asking them to log their daily caffeine intake and then monitoring their use of Blackboard, an online portal where students complete reading, take quizzes and perform other school-related tasks. They found that students who appeared to be caffeine-dependent spent less time online, but also seemingly studied less—they accessed fewer class materials and completed fewer quizzes. At the end of each week, students were required to an online assessment. The caffeine fiends didn't seem to fare as well. 

The people who consumed more caffeine, in other words, appeared to be worse students. Though, Phillips admits, without access to other study activity or student's grades, this initial study makes it hard to tell for certain.


The study's authors say that their research implies that information is processed differently when someone is caffeine dependent. What's more, they conclude, monitoring that kind of activity could be an indicator for a student's professor that something besides mere procrastination is going on.

"Caffeine dependency was associated with less time spent online, lower rates of file access, and fewer online activities completed," the authors conclude. "Reduced breadth or depth of processing during work/study could be used as a behavioral marker of stimulant use."


Eventually, the researchers hope to design computer systems engineered to help students when their online behavior indicates offline problems. That potential for help, though, also comes with some pretty creepy consequences: just imagine getting an email from your professor about your drug addiction when really you've just opted to read all your online assignments in analog form.

Previous research has indicated that overdoing it on the coffee leads people to spend more time online, but Phillips' study indicates that the increased time online is less productive. The study didn't look at internet use overall, but found persuasive evidence that those that consumed larger amounts of caffeine seemed to have a harder time focusing on their studies. Those with a caffeine dependency spent about half the time on Blackboard as those who didn't.


Phillips', though, is most interested in what we—or rather, our devices—might actually do with that kind of information.

Based on his research, "a teacher or administrator can then take action checking whether the student is OK," he told me. "This capability is pretty much here right now."


But he is also interested in how this kind of work might influence affective computing, or the idea that computers might one day recognize, interpret, and process human behavior and emotion. He imagines developing computer systems that could spot a student's caffeine-induced distractedness and appropriately respond.

Next, he said his team will likely look at how online activity is altered by the use of other substances.


"The capacity to monitor and document potentially creates liability," he said. In other words, he sees it as the duty of say, a university, to monitor its students to make sure nothing is wrong, and that they're not a little too addicted to Starbucks.