ADHD News & Research

Internet Addiction May Indicate Other Mental Health Problems

Adults who spend an unhealthy amount of time online are more likely to demonstrate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental-health conditions, a new research study suggests.

Spending an unhealthy amount of time online may indicate problems above and beyond Internet addiction, a new study finds. Specifically, adults who spend the majority of their wakeful hours online may be at higher risk for depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems.

The study, conducted by Canadian researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, was presented at the 29th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress earlier this week in Vienna. Researchers presented 254 university students — with an average age of 18.5 years — with a survey that included the Dimensions of Problematic Internet Use (DPIU), a tool designed by the researchers themselves and based off the DSM-V criteria for addiction. They also utilized questions from the Internet Addiction Test (IAT), which was developed in 1998 — though it hasn’t been fully adapted to reflect modern levels of Internet usage.

With the two screening tools combined, 33 of the students met the criteria for a full-blown Internet addiction, while an additional 107 participants raised red flags for “problematic” Internet use. The students were also screened for mental health problems like depression or anxiety, as well as for challenges with impulsiveness or executive function.

Those who were found to be addicted to the Internet reported that they spent most of their time online streaming videos, checking social networks, and instant messaging. They also had abnormally high levels of depression and anxiety, and struggled to control daily impulses and plan their time effectively. Many of them reported that they tried to cut back on their Internet use, but found that with each session, they stayed online for much longer than they had originally planned.

The data could not be used to determine whether those with mental health challenges are more prone to Internet addiction, or whether Internet addiction leads to changes within the brain that result in depression, anxiety, or impulse control issues. But, the researchers say, the data should be taken into account when mental health professionals evaluate a patient who shows signs of Internet addiction.

“This may have practical medical implications,” said lead author Dr. Michael Van Ameringen in an interview with Medscape. “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.”