Internet addiction among college students could be signalling the presence of other mental health problems, according to the results of a new study.
The study, recently presented at the 29th ENCP Congress in Vienna, involved a survey conducted among 254 freshmen students at the McMaster University in Ontario. Using the Internet Addiction Test (IAT) coupled with a scale they developed, the researchers tested the students for internet addiction.
Lead researcher Michael Van Ameringen, psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at McMaster University, pointed out possible limitations with the use of the IAT, which was developed in 1998, a time when internet use was not as widespread as today.
“Internet use has changed radically over the last 18 years, through more people working online, media streaming, social media, etc.,” Van Ameringen said in a news release. “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."
Aside from using the new scale they developed, the researchers also checked the students’ mental health and watched for signs of depression, stress and impulsiveness.
According to the results, 107 students suffered from problematic internet use while 33 students suffered from internet addiction.
Those who showed signs of internet addiction were more likely to be depressed and anxious. They also showed impulsiveness and difficulty in focusing their attention. On top of these, they struggled with time management.
Additionally, they found it difficult to control their internet usage, particularly when using social media sites and chat or messaging platforms and watching streaming videos.
"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,” Van Ameringen said. “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.”
The researcher said these results raised two important questions.
“Firstly, are we grossly underestimating the prevalence of internet addiction and secondly are these other mental health issues a cause or consequence of this excessive reliance on the internet?” Van Ameringen said.
He said it could be possible that a person being treated for addiction could be suffering from depression. He recommended that further studies involving bigger samples be conducted to arrive at better conclusions, as the present study was only able to establish a link, not a causative relationship, between internet addiction and mental health.
Another study, whose results were published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence in May, found a link between school burnout and excessive internet use. The study showed that school burnout could lead to internet or digital addiction, which could in turn result in depression.
According to the researchers, it is critical that internet or digital addiction problems among students aged 13 to 15 be addressed effectively. Schools can help do this by encouraging activities that allow the students to engage and by motivating them to learn.