Teens who spend far too much time on the Internet run the risk of developing depression, a new Australian study suggests.
Since the 1990s, uncontrolled or unreasonable Internet use has been identified as a problem with signs similar to other addictions, researchers say. Pathological Internet use has been linked with relationship problems, health problems, aggressive behaviour and other psychiatric symptoms, they added.
"Parents should be vigilant about their children's online behaviour," said lead researcher Lawrence T. Lam, from the School of Medicine, Sydney, and the University of Notre Dame Australia. "Should there be any concern about young people involving problematic Internet-use behaviour, professional help should be sought immediately."
This sort of behaviour may be a manifestation of some underlying problems that are more insidious, Lam said.
"Given the results obtained from the study, even mentally healthy young people may succumb to depression after a long exposure of problematic use of the Internet. The mental health consequences of problematic Internet use for those who have already had a history of psychological or psychiatric problems would be more damaging," he said.
The report is published in the Archives of Paediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
For the study, Lam and his colleague Zi-Wen Peng, from the Ministry of Education and SunYat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, collected data on pathological Internet use among 1 041 Chinese teens aged 13 to 18.
Lam and Peng tested the teens for depression and anxiety, and questioned them about pathological Internet use and common addictive behaviours.
At the start of the study, the researchers classified 6.2% of the teens as having a moderately pathological Internet problem and 0.2% as seriously at risk.
Nine months later, the teens were reassessed for depression and anxiety. The researchers found 0.2% had symptoms of anxiety and 8.4% had become depressed.
The risk of becoming depressed was 2.5 times higher among teens who were addicted to the Internet compared with those who weren't, Lam and Peng found.
However, there was no association between pathological Internet use and anxiety, they noted.
"This study has a direct implication on the prevention of mental illness among young people," Lam said. "The results of the study indicated that young people who use the Internet pathologically are most at risk of mental problems, and would develop depression when they continue with that behaviour."
Screen at-risk teens
Early intervention and prevention that targets at-risk groups with identified risk factors is effective in reducing the burden of depression among young people, Lam added.
"Screening for at-risk individuals in the school setting could be considered as an effective early prevention strategy," he said. "Hence, a screening programme for pathological use of the Internet could also be considered in all high schools in order to identify at-risk individuals for early counseling and treatment."
Michael Gilbert, a senior fellow at the Centre for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, said that "it's not a revolutionary thought that kids get caught up on the Internet and it can lead to certain kinds of psychological behaviour."
For Gilbert, the question remains whether or not the teens who became depressed were at risk for depression before they became addicted to the Internet. Moreover, were they also at risk for other addictive behaviours.
Internet makes depression worse
One factor to the link between overuse of the Internet and psychological problems like depression may be that the Internet is actually isolating and alienating, Gilbert said.
"Parents are indicating to us that a lot of their children's friendship circles are contracting by reason of the fact they are spending too much time on the Internet," he said. "This ties in generally with the notion that Internet behaviour is becoming disruptive in the family."
Spending too much time on the Internet is a so-called "process addiction," like gambling and pornography, Gilbert said.
"We are going to see more of these problems, and [they] are especially acute in adolescence when kids are struggling with defining their social circumstances," he said.
The key for parents is to monitor their children's media time and content, Gilbert said.
"The technology changes, the medium changes, but the issue always comes down to parents ascertaining control over their children's behaviour and monitoring it," he said. (August 2010)
(Copyright © 2010 HealthDay. All rights reserved.)