People with autistic tendencies may use the Internet in a more compulsive manner, potentially leading to a negative sense of well-being and poorer relationships, according to researcher Catrin Finkenauer from the University of Amsterdam.
For the study, 195 married couples completed a questionnaire regarding the frequency of their Internet use and their levels of compulsive use. Internet use is considered compulsive if the user does not feel in control of his or her online activity.
In order to establish the level of autistic tendencies in the respondents, participants rated phrases such as “Number plates and other series of information grab my attention” and “I always like to do things in the same way each time.”
The results showed that individuals who scored high for autistic characteristics also used the Internet in a compulsive manner more often than people who had few or no autistic traits.
People with autistic tendencies did not necessarily spend more time on the Internet but the nature of the Internet use was often more problematic.
Examples of compulsive Internet use are: feeling restless if you cannot use the Internet, continuing to use the Internet even though you want to stop and Internet use that results in conflicts with others.
One year later the participants completed the same questionnaires in order to measure any differences over time. At both points in time, men scored higher than women for compulsive Internet use.
Interestingly, women with autistic tendencies who a year before had shown little compulsive Internet use, suddenly exhibited higher levels a year later.
“It might be the case that autistic characteristics are mainly a stimulating factor at the start of compulsive Internet use,” said Finkenauer.
“As soon as the degree of compulsive Internet behavior rises above a certain level then these tendencies no longer play a significant role.”
Previously, Internet use had been considered positive for people with autistic tendencies as it allows them to communicate with others in a safe and structured environment without a lot of distractions.
Finkenauer warns, however, that it is important to monitor Internet use in individuals with many autistic traits to prevent damaging the contact they have with the off-line world. She believes that followup research is needed to study the exact nature of the relationship.
“For example, we would like to know if the relationship between compulsive Internet use and autistic characteristics is important for the type of activities that people undertake on the Internet,” said Finkenauer.
The research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.