A small study out of Canada suggests that Internet addiction may correlate with other mental health problems among younger adults. The findings have yet to be published, but are being presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology. The results suggest ways for psychiatrists to approach excessive Internet use, though the significance of the findings remains to be seen.
Part of the issue is that the accepted Internet Addiction Test (IAT) was devised in 1998, well before the full proliferation of the Internet and smart devices. Dimensions of Internet use have also shifted dramatically. This made the researchers worry the IAT questionnaire may be prone to false positives or be otherwise unable to pick up problematic Internet use in the modern age. To solve this problem, they used both the IAT and a scale of their own devising.
The study surveyed 254 college-age students and administered the IAT, the custom scale, and a set of screening tests for dimensions of mental health like ADHD, impulsiveness, depression, anxiety, and inattention. The findings:
- The IAT indicated that 33 students met the criteria for internet addiction
- The custom scale found 107 students meeting the criteria for “problematic internet use”
- Those who screened positive on either the IAT or the custom scale reported significantly more trouble with daily activities like home and school life, higher symptoms of anxiety and depression, problems with planning and time management, and ADHD symptoms
The obvious caveats here are small sample size, the fact that the custom scale hasn’t been independently validated, and the lack of indication that the study has undergone peer review. None of these issues are enough to toss out the findings, but are important to keep in mind.
What This Means
On their own, the findings present a sort of chicken-and-egg problem since it’s unclear whether the Internet addiction was a result of the mental health difficulties or vice-versa. It is also possible that both are caused by something else entirely. From the perspective of psychological treatment, the findings suggest that professionals who are treating younger adults for Internet addiction may want to check for signs of underlying life difficulties, depression, or ADHD, if they aren’t doing so already. It could be that Internet addiction is a symptom of something else and that trying to manage Internet use would only be an indirect solution at best.
“Study shows internet addiction may indicate other mental health problems in college-aged students,” Alpha Galileo web site, September 17, 2016; http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=167954&CultureCode=en, last accessed September 19, 2016.