Teens and pathological use of the Internet

I admit that I wonder how my life ever existed before the Internet! But while I have a healthy respect for what it can do for me to make my life easier, it is a tool I use and not a full-time occupation. For many, especially teens, there is a growing concern about the time spent on the Internet which can replace outdoor activity, sports and just good old fashion socializing with people. It is known that pathological use of the Internet is seen as behaviour that is associated with problems. It can lead to signs and symptoms that are similar to other addictions. You might find that shocking but it is in fact true. Many studies have shown that it is mostly young men with introverted personalities that use the Internet in this way but this kind of pathological use is increasing in girls as well.

This week on the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescence is a study out of China looking at this kind of use. While one can argue that the results might be relatable only to the group in which the study took place, I would argue that the findings sound alarms in North America as well. Pathological use of the Internet has been thought to be associated with relationship issues, other mental health problems and even physical ill-health. There also has been a link to psychiatric symptoms such as aggressive behaviour and depression in adolescents who use the Internet in this kind of overly committed way.

Adolescents who are depressed or who have social phobias are more likely to use the Internet in a pathological way. The question remains does pathological use of the Internet lead to other mental health problems? In the study published this week, teens were followed forward in time to sort out what happens with Internet use. Adolescents between 13 and 18 were followed over time.

At the beginning of the study about 6 per cent of students had moderately pathological use of the Internet and 0.2 per cent were severely at risk. Nine months later the same adolescents were surveyed for anxiety and depression. It was found that the risk of depression for those who used the Internet pathologically was about 2 1/2 times GREATER than those who did not. There was no relationship found for anxiety and use of the Internet. The results showed that the adolescents who were initially free of mental health problems but used the Internet pathologically could develop depression as a consequence. The assessment of pathological use of the Internet is done through a questionnaire and it just might be that the use of such a questionnaire could be an early screening tool to pick up adolescents at risk.

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