As more and more young people report struggling with internet addiction, a growing body of research suggests that the problem could be worse than previously believed. We look at a recent study that found a possible link between net addiction and mental health issues.

Are Internet Addiction & Mental Health Problems Linked

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  • Do mental health issues lead to internet addiction, or is it the other way around?
  • New research suggests that internet addiction could be linked to mental health issues.

In the scope of human history, the Internet is a new and novel invention – with serious benefits for humanity. It rapidly spreads information, facilitates new types of cultural expressions and connects us to one another in ways that we have never been connected before. At this point, it is probably safe to say that most of us could not imagine life without it.

But for all of its wondrous potential, the Internet has already begun to show its darker side – particularly in its ability to feed addiction. And as new research reveals, there is reason to believe that there is a link between web addiction and some serious mental health issues in young people. As a growing number of young adults require treatment for internet addiction, the question on researchers’ minds is: Do mental health issues lead to internet addiction, or is it the other way around?

How Internet Addiction is Measured

This study is the result of a survey recently conducted in Canada. Researchers at McMaster University administered a series of questionnaires to some 254 students to examine problematic internet usage along with mental health issues including depression, anxiety disorders, impulsivity and reduced executive function.

In the past, most studies exploring web addiction have made use of the Internet Addiction Tool (IAT). But a newer set of standards was adopted for this study, allowing researchers to compare their current findings to what would have been revealed through the IAT, alone.

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Two Different Ways to Assess Internet Addiction

Originally developed in 1998, the IAT has long been considered the gold standard in identifying and assessing net addiction. However, the authors of this study were aware that much has changed in the way that we access and interact with the Internet in the nearly two decades since the IAT was created. This prompted them to adopt the Dimensions of Problematic Internet Use (DPIU) for this particular round of research.

The DPIU is based on DSM-5 addiction criteria for substance use disorders. It takes particular interest in the following nine dimensions of web usage:

  • Information-seeking
  • Video streaming
  • Social media
  • Online shopping
  • Gaming
  • Online messaging
  • Online gambling
  • Pornography and sexual content

This broader set of criteria allowed the researchers to bring a more modern and holistic perspective to internet addiction. Dr Van Ameringen, the lead researcher of the study, explained that the DPIU was designed to compensate for IAT’s potential shortcomings. He said, “We were concerned that the IAT questionnaire may not have been picking up on problematic modern internet use or showing up false positives for people who were simply using the Internet, rather than being over-reliant on it.”

Specific Findings of the Study on Internet Addiction

There were several key takeaways from this study. To begin with, both the IAT and DPIU were used to assess whether or not the survey respondents in question showed signs of internet addiction. And the results were markedly different:

  • IAT: 12.5 per cent of participants showed signs of internet addiction.
  • DPIU: 42 per cent of participants showed signs of internet addiction.

With that in mind, researchers could make a reasonable assertion that the IAT is no longer suitable for assessing and evaluating addiction in modern web users.

However, it is also worth noting that those who screened positive for internet addiction through the IAT spent significantly more non-essential (i.e. leisure) time online than those singled out by the DPIU. In other words, the IAT was more effective in screening specifically for people with signs of more acute internet addiction.

Finally, those who screened positive through the DPIU reported having the most profound difficulty controlling their usage of the following internet-related activities:

  • Video streaming (55.8 per cent)
  • Social networking (47.9 per cent)
  • Instant messaging (28.5 per cent)

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A Mental Health Connection Presents Greater Cause for Concern

The most concerning aspect of this particular study was that those who screened positive for internet addiction also demonstrated significantly higher levels of mental health problems. Specifically, they appeared to be at greater risk of the following:

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Executive function impairment
  • Depression
  • Attention-deficit disorders

This is one of the first times that such strong correlations between web addiction and mental health problems have been clearly demonstrated. At this point, it is difficult to tell whether internet addiction is merely associated with pre-existing mental health issues or if it can actually cause them to develop. Medscape Medical News quoted Dr Van Ameringen saying the following:

“We don’t know, because it’s a cross-sectional thing. So it could be that for people who are depressive or anxious, it’s a way of coping with that; they’re spending all this time on the Internet and just can’t get away from it.”

He added that the issue could simply be related to problems with self-control. For example, some people with ADHD may also be prone to compulsive behaviour – and vice versa. For people who are easily distracted, the Internet serves as a powerful and readily available form of stimulation.

Help for Young Men Struggling with Web Addiction

The concept of internet addiction is relatively new, but there is no question that many young people feel compelled to participate in internet-based activities far more than they would like to. Another slightly older study conducted by Digital Clarity found that 16 per cent of young adults aged 18 to 25 exhibit signs of internet addiction – and most of these people admitted to spending more than 15 hours a day online. The Internet is effectively taking over their waking lives.

At The Edge, we specialise in helping young men overcome the perils of addiction – whether to alcohol, drugs or a process like internet usage. Our innovative addiction treatment programme is designed to challenge young men whilst helping them to develop new, more constructive behaviours. Contact us today if you or someone that you care about is in need of help.