Internet addiction may signal other mental health problems in students: Study


Internet addiction among university-aged students may signal other mental health issues, says a new study from McMaster University.

The findings could have major implications in how psychiatrists approach patients who use the internet excessively. The study was presented this week at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology’s (ECNP) annual meeting in Vienna, Austria.

“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,” said Dr. Michael Van Ameringen, lead investigator and a professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.

Michael Van Ameringen

Van Ameringen and his team surveyed 254 McMaster first-year students using a 1998 standardized test called The Internet Addiction Test (IAT), as well as their own, more up-to-date, screening tool.

“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 Van Ameringen.

Thirty-three students met screening criteria for internet addiction using the IAT questionnaire, while a larger group of 107 students met criteria for problematic internet use using the new screening tool. Further testing among those classified as having an addiction included self-evaluations in the areas of depression and anxiety, impulsiveness, inattention and executive functioning, as well as ADHD.

“We found that those screening positive on the IAT as well as our scale had significantly more trouble dealing with their day-to-day activities,” said Van Ameringen. These subjects displayed significantly higher amounts of depression and anxiety symptoms, problems with planning and time management, greater levels of attentional impulsivity as well as ADHD symptoms.

These results highlight a classic chicken and egg conundrum: Are the mental health issues a cause or a consequence of excessive internet use? Van Ameringen said a much larger study is necessary in order to answer that question definitively, as well as answer whether the prevalence of internet addiction as a whole is being underestimated.

“Excessive use of the internet is an understudied phenomenon that may disguise mild or severe psychopathology,” said Dr. Jan Buitelaar, a professor of psychiatry at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in the Netherlands, in comment. “[It] may be strongly linked to compulsive behaviour and addiction. As the authors say, further study is needed in larger populations.”

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