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Internet Use Could Be Addictive For Teens

May 20, 2011

A new study found that out of every 25 teens, at least one has “problematic Internet use,” and brings in the question: What came first? The chicken or the egg: are teens online because they are depressed or are they depressed because they’re spending too much time online?

“It’s really hard to explain the link,” Dr. Aboujaoude, a Stanford researcher and author of the book “Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality”, tells Reuters Health.

The answer to the chicken or the egg question could be critical in the consideration of whether or not extended amounts of time spend on the Internet should be considered a problem.

Yale University’s Dr. Timothy Liu led the new study on teen Internet use, which surveyed 3,560 high school students from ten different schools in Connecticut. More than 150 questions were asked about health, risky behaviors and impulsiveness, and seven questions asked about their Internet use.

Students were asked if they had ever missed school or important social activities because they were on the Web, or if their family members showed any concern about how much time they were spending on the Internet.

The researchers focused on three specific questions that helped them determine if a student had “problematic Internet use:”

1. Have they ever had an “irresistible urge” to be online;

2. Have they experienced “a growing tension or anxiety that can be relieved only by using the Internet; and

3. Have they tried to quit or cut down on using the Internet?

Out of the students surveyed, four percent met the criteria for problematic Internet use, with Asian and Hispanic students more likely to qualify as problematic users. However, the majority of the students surveyed where white.

The study also found that girls (13%) were more likely to answer yes to one of the problematic Internet use questions, but found that more boys (17%) say they spend over 20 hours a week online.

Furthermore, problematic Internet users tend to be more depressed and would get into serious fights more often, according the survey; and boys in this group had a higher rate of smoking and drug use.

Students who reported an “irresistible urge” to be on the Internet and who experienced tension when they weren’t online were more likely to be depressed and aggressive and to use drugs than their peers.

But the results are inconclusive as to whether the obsessive computer use was causing the depression and other related behaviors, reports Reuters Health.

Liu and his colleagues note that their findings do not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between problematic Internet use and depression and drug use.

Aboujaoude says that the evidence from the study suggests that problematic Internet users share “common features of drug and alcohol abuse disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and disorders where people have trouble controlling their pleasure-seeking impulses,” reports Reuters Health.

Others believe that the evidence points to an addiction to the Internet.

Dr. Jerald Block, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health & Science University tells Reuters Health, “There seems to be common pathways within the brain for addictive behaviors, of which pathological gambling is one example.

I would say that there’s sufficient data to show that pathological computer use is another example of an addictive behavior.”

He also suggests that the new study might be underestimating the number of actual kids who have a problem, since it asks students to rate their own behaviors. Block explains that “with pretty much any addiction there’s a tendency to under-report” how much time you spend doing the activity.

Author of the study, Liu says that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to treat problematic Internet use.

“I would support treating all the underlying conditions (such as depression) as you would treat anyone with psychiatric illness,” he tells Reuters Health. But, “We don’t really have a lot of evidence for treatment.”

He says that more research is needed to find the causes that are behind different kinds of Internet use, such as the impact of social networking or role-laying games.

The study can be found in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

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