Admit it — if you spend most of your workday sitting in front of a computer screen, chances are good you've also wasted some of that time "cyberloafing": checking Facebook, searching Google for a recipe for a weekend dinner party, or watching funny cat videos on YouTube.

While most employers probably don't mind if workers use the Internet for a few minutes on their lunch break to look up movie show times or to check the balance of their savings account, employers may be experiencing a greater loss in employee productivity due to the Internet than they realize. A recent Kansas State University study revealed between 60 and 80 percent of people's time on the Internet at work has nothing to do with work.

Joseph Ugrin, assistant professor of accounting at Kansas State University, and John Pearson, associate professor of management at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, found company policies are not enough to stop employees from wasting time at work and that sanctions with policies must be consistently enforced for policies to be effective.

"We don't want to make everyone at work upset because the corporate office is watching over their employees' shoulders, but what if workers are wasting all of their time online?" said Ugrin, who studies behavioral and ethical issues related to accounting and information systems. "Where's the balance?"

Online @ work

Although organizations benefit from positive aspects of the Internet, like improved communication, some have trouble addressing cyberloafing, Ugrin said. Companies spend time, money and effort trying to monitor computer usage, detect what employees are doing online and write policies for employees on acceptable Internet behavior.

Cyberloafing not only results in lost productivity, it also could put companies in legal trouble when workers conduct illegal activity or view inappropriate websites on work computers.

The researchers, who surveyed office workers and university students, discovered both older and younger workers find ways to waste time on the Internet — but in different ways.

"Older people are doing things like managing their finances, while young people found it much more acceptable to spend time on social networking sites, like Facebook," Ugrin said.

Threats of termination and detection mechanisms are effective deterrents against activities such as viewing pornography, managing personal finances and personal shopping, according to the study. However, that may not be enough. Researchers said policies must be enforced to discourage activities like excessive personal emailing and social networking.

"We found that for young people, it was hard to get them to think that social networking was unacceptable behavior," Ugrin said. "Just having a policy in place did not change their attitudes or behavior at all. Even when they knew they were being monitored, they still did not care."

Local views

Several local organizations have attempted to find a middle ground on the issue of personal Internet use at work.

"In general terms, employees are allowed to use company computers to access the Internet for personal use," said Sonia Cox with Bunting Magnetics. "However, they are asked to limit their use of the Internet (to) during their off hours — for example, before and after the work day starts, during breaks, etc."

She said employees also are advised to exhibit good judgment when doing this, ensuring the material and content they view is not inappropriate.

Erin McDaniel, the city of Newton's public information officer, provided the Kansan with a copy of the city's technology usage policy. City employees are notified their emails and Internet access at work is not private and could be monitored by the city and subject to an open record or litigation request.

Like Bunting, the city encourages employees to keep their personal use of computer systems to a minimum, preferably only during employee breaks or lunch periods.

Researchers discovered the best way to change people's attitudes about personal Internet use at work is to provide them with information about other employees who were reprimanded.

However, that strategy can have negative consequences in the workplace and can lower morale, Ugrin said.

"People will feel like 'Big Brother' is watching them, so companies need to be careful when taking those types of action," he said.

Kansas State University Communications and Marketing contributed to this article.