Could excessive use of the Internet mean teenagers are more likely to be depressed later in life?
According to new research, teens who spend an unreasonable amount of time on the Internet could be at increased risk of depression.
“Young people who are initially free of mental health problems but use the Internet pathologically could develop depression as a consequence,” according to Dr. Lawrence T. Lam of the School of Medicine in Sydney and Zi-Wen Peng, M.Sc., of the Ministry of Education in Guangzhou, China.
Pathological use of the Internet (uncontrolled or unreasonable use), commonly known as Internet addiction, has become a widely discussed issue over the last several decades. Internet addiction is not an officially recognized diagnosis, but some have suggested it could affect up to one percent of the population. Many research studies have shown that other psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, social anxiety disorder, relationship problems, poor physical health, aggressive behavior, alcohol abuse, and ADHD occur at the same time as Internet addiction.
Lam studied 1,041 teens aged 13 to 18 from high schools in Guangzhou, China, and measured internet use with the Pathological Use of the Internet Test (including questions such as “How often do you feel depressed, moody or nervous when you are offline, which goes away once you are back online?”). Participants were also screened for depression and anxiety using the Zung Depression and Anxiety Scales, and after nine months, the teens were reassessed.
6.2 percent of the teenagers (62 participants) were considered to have moderately pathological use of the Internet at the beginning of the study, and 0.2 percent (2) were classified as high risk.
After nine months, when the teens were screened for anxiety and depression, 0.2 percent had symptoms of anxiety, and 8.4 percent had symptoms of depression. The teens who had problematic use of the Internet at baseline had two and a half times the rate of depression when assessed nine months later. No relationship was observed between pathological Internet use and anxiety.
Those assessed as using the Internet pathologically were also more likely to use it for entertainment purposes rather than for information.
Most prior studies on Internet addiction have focused on association between current Internet behaviors and mental health issues. That is, when both problems co-exist, it can be difficult to determine whether overuse of the Internet leads to mental health problems, or if psychological problems cause Internet addiction. These results are useful in suggesting that in some cases, misuse of the Internet may precede mental health problems.
“Pathological use of the Internet is predictive of depression at the 9-month followup,” writes Lam. “This study has demonstrated a chronological sequence between pathological use of the Internet and depression in healthy adolescents.”
Dr. Lam’s results can be found in the August online issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.