Youngsters spending excessive time on the internet are more likely to suffer from mental health problems including anxiety, inattention, depression, executive functioning issues, impulsiveness and ADHD.

Researchers at McMaster University in Canada included 254 students for their study on the effects of internet and social media use in university-age individuals. For the purpose of the study, the investigators used the Internet Addiction Test (IAT) developed and used since 1998 and also a new testing scale they designed on their own.

"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," said Chief Researcher Michael Van Ameringen, a professor at McMaster University.

Out of 254 students, 33 were found to be suffering from internet addiction according to the criteria set by the IAT. About 55.8 percent of students found it difficult to control their practice of video streaming, 47.9 percent couldn't stay away from using social media and 28.5 percent were obsessed with instant messaging tools.

On the other hand, the new screening tool developed by the researchers showed that three times as many youngsters met the criteria for internet addiction.

Van Ameringen said that internet use has changed over the past 18 years with the advent of social media, online jobs, video streaming and the like. The researcher noted that the IAT, which was created before smartphone use became widespread, may not be reliable in the present scenario since it may produce false positive results in differentiating people simply using the internet from those addicted to it.

On the other hand, the new tool is designed to screen current internet use. With it, the researchers found that 42.1 percent of the surveyed students had mental health issues due to excessive reliance on the internet. Van Ameringen said this leads to questions on whether the prevalence of addiction to the internet has been extremely underestimated and whether other mental health issues are a cause or effect of being too dependent on the technology.

With these concerns in mind, Van Ameringen noted how the study may have practical implications for how mental health care providers address problematic internet use.

"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," he cautioned. Van Ameringen added that to achieve a better understanding of the problem and come up with a solution, large-scale studies should be conducted among a bigger and more diverse group of people.

The study is set to be presented at the 29th annual European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress in Vienna, Austria.

According to the Illinois Institute of Addiction Recovery, the warning signs of internet addiction include preoccupation with and prolonged use of the internet, unsuccessful attempts to cut down internet use and using the technology to escape real-life problems and feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, depression and guilt.

Photo: Pabak Sarkar | Flickr

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