Internet addiction may signal other mental health issues among college students, according to a new study.
Internet users who spent excessive time online were more likely to suffer mental disorders, as one in four cyber addicts were found with conditions such as autism and depression
Canadian researchers say their findings could affect how psychiatrists approach people who spend a significant amount of time online.
‘It is important to be physically active, engage more in interactive activities in real life and take regular breaks from online activities.’
For the study, the researchers evaluated the internet use of 254 freshmen at McMaster University in Ontario. The researchers used a tool called the Internet Addiction Test (IAT), developed in 1998 which is a standard test to measure excessive reliance on internet, as well as their own scale based on more recent criteria.
"Internet use has changed radically over the last 18 years, through more people working online, media streaming, social media, etc. 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," said chief researcher Dr. Michael Van Ameringen, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at McMaster.
With the new screening tool, 33 students met criteria for internet addiction, and 107 for problematic internet use.
Van Ameringen's team also assessed the students' mental health, including signs of impulsiveness, depression, anxiety and stress.
Most of those addicted to the internet had trouble controlling their use of video streaming and social networking sites as well as instant messaging tools, the researchers found.
They had more trouble handling their daily routines and higher rates of depression, anxiety, impulsiveness and inattention. They also had problems with planning and time management, the researchers found.
Dr. Jan Buitelaar is a professor of psychiatry at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center in the Netherlands said "Excessive use of the internet is an understudied phenomenon that may disguise mild or severe psychopathology; excessive use of the internet may be strongly linked to compulsive behavior and addiction."
The study is scheduled to be presented Sunday at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology's (ECNP) annual meeting in Vienna, Austria.
The new research only found an association between internet use and mental health. Van Ameringen said a larger study is needed to learn if these mental health issues are a cause or a result of excessive internet use.
Professor Van Ameringen said "We found that those screening positive on the IAT as well as on our scale, had significantly more trouble dealing with their day to day activities, including life at home, at work/school and in social settings. Individuals with internet addiction also had significantly higher amounts of depression and anxiety symptoms, problems with planning and time management, greater levels of attentional impulsivity as well as ADHD symptoms."
This leads to a couple of questions: firstly, is the prevalence of internet addiction being underestimated and secondly are these other mental health issues a cause or consequence of this excessive reliance on the internet.
"This may have practical medical implications. If you are trying to treat someone for an addiction when in fact they are anxious or depressed, then you may be going down the wrong route. We need to understand this more, so we need a bigger sample, drawn from a wider, more varied population," Van Ameringen said.
Another study by the Department of Health in 2014 in Hong kong found some 51.7% of youngsters aged between 15 and 24 spent 20 to 50 hours on the internet per week, up from 32.3% who did so in 2003. The number was about 37.4% for those aged between 10 and 14, up from 16.3%.
The trend is believed to be much worse nowadays as smartphones have become a part of daily life, the department's consultant of student health service Dr Thomas Chung Wai-hung of Integrated Centre on Addiction Prevention and Treatment under the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, said.
A majority were teenagers below the age of 17, who usually developed serious addiction to online games or cyber pornography. One in 10 refused to go to school because they were so addicted. Some even played truant for months.
Elderly addicts, including three aged above 60 years, had other forms of addiction, such as online shopping or gambling, which led them into financial problems.
"Spending too much time on the internet and electronic screen products may hinder the development of social skills in kids," Chung said. "It also leads to sleep deprivation which affects the growth and development of children and adolescents."