An interesting new study was published earlier this week about “Internet addiction.” Unlike many previous studies on this hypothesized disorder, this one actually took measurements at two different points in time to try and tease out the possibility that “Internet addiction” can cause mental health problems, like depression or anxiety.
Can we show that simply using the Internet causes depression? Researchers set to find out on Chinese teens.
Psychologist Lawrence Lam and his colleague studied 1,041 Chinese teens, mostly ages 13 to 16, who had no signs of depression at the onset of the study. Some of the group, however, had moderate to severe pathological use of the Internet (64 of the subjects).
The researchers then assessed all 1,041 teens for depression, anxiety and “Internet addiction” nine months later. They found that those who were “excessively” using the Internet at baseline were twice as vulnerable to depression than more moderate Internet users.
That’s all good and fine. That’s pretty straightforward statistical analysis, if you believe in the reliability and validity of the assessment measure used, the Internet Addiction Test (I’ll come back to this point).
But the researchers say, “Results suggested that young people who are initially free of mental health problems but use the Internet pathologically could develop depression as a consequence.”
Perhaps. But it begs the question — how come none of these folks exhibited depression at baseline if they were already “addicted” to the Internet?
The researchers also did something a lot of researchers do when their sample size is simply too small to study — they combined two groups that are potentially very different. For analysis purposes, they combined “moderately” addicted Internet users with severely addicted Internet users. This could skew the results.
Getting back to the Internet Addiction Test, there’s surprisingly few psychometric validity studies conducted on this test. The journal actually let the researchers of this article reference the online version of the test as a justification for the cutoff scores used. You have to take the 20-question test (conveniently placed on 20 different pages!) to actually find the cutoff scores. The cutoff scores are critical, since those are what categorize an individual as to whether they are using the Internet in a “normal” manner, or a moderate to severely addicted manner.
But I’ve searched high and low for research validation of the cutoff scores beyond Young’s own research into the very initial development of the test. All I could find was a study that demonstrated that the Internet Addiction Test is actually a six-factor test — not a single factor test. This suggests that instead of using a single cutoff score (which may not be reliable to begin with), Internet addiction — as measured by the Internet addiction test anyway — is a multidimensional concept. (But the Ns on even this validation research are small — 92 — and not replicated elsewhere.) If the cutoff scores are unreliable — and we have very little research to suggest they are — then so is anything based off of them. Including the present study.
The last concern is the cross-cultural issue. Is an American test designed by an American for English-language use appropriate to be used on a Chinese population? Most psychologists would say, “No,” not without further population-specific validation. I couldn’t find any such validation for this test in the research literature, but I did find Chinese researchers who were creating their own versions of an Internet addiction questionnaire. Why the current researchers didn’t use one of these Chinese-specific tests is an open question.
But maybe it’s not the Internet that’s really causing all of these problems, at least according to one of the researchers of the current study:
The depression might be a result of lack of sleep and stress from competitive online games, [Lam] explained. “People who spend so much time on the Internet will lose sleep and it is a very well established fact that the less one sleeps, the higher the chances of depression,” Lam said.
So here we get an even more nuanced explanation — it’s not the Internet that’s causing the depression after all, it’s the lack of sleep and possible stress from gaming (which you would think might show up on the anxiety scale the researchers also used, but failed to find any significant results for).
Confused? Yeah, so’m I.
This kind of study, however, is the exact sort of research that is more powerful and has the potential to move our knowledge-base about “Internet addiction” forward. Future researchers would do well to replicate studies similar to this one to demonstrate the exact nature of the relationship between use of the Internet — or playing video games online, a very specific activity — and other mental health issues.
Which brings me to my last and perhaps most important point — researchers need to get far more detailed and refined when researching the Internet. “Use of the Internet” is such a broad concept, it is silly to try and measure related to other problems in a person’s life. Playing video games, using the Internet for gambling, viewing porn — researchers need to get detailed in their analysis, so we can stop blaming the general Internet boogeyman.
Read the full article: Excessive Use of Internet Predicts Later Depression