Internet Addiction Linked to Other Mental Health Problems

Internet addiction is an unofficially defined condition centered on dysfunctional use of the Internet while doing such things as browsing or playing games. The American Psychiatric Association is currently reviewing the evidence required to fully establish the criteria for this condition. Research indicates that substantial numbers of people potentially affected by Internet addiction also have a diagnosable form of some other mental health problem. In a study scheduled for publication in 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a team of Greek researchers used a small-scale project to explore the possible connection between Internet addiction and separately diagnosable mental illness.

Internet Addiction

Researchers and addiction specialists have known for years that some people who participate in everyday pleasurable activities (such as having sex, going shopping or eating satisfying food) eventually develop an unusually problematic relationship to those activities. In recent years, a mounting scientific consensus has concluded that these problematic relationships are the result of a form of non-substance-related addiction known as behavioral addiction, process addiction or addictive disorder. Just like people affected by an addiction to drugs or alcohol, people with a behavioral addiction experience lasting changes in brain chemistry and a related loss of voluntary control over certain key behaviors. These changes in brain chemistry and behavior stem from repeated and excessive reliance on the activity in question as a source of pleasure. The American Psychiatric Association acknowledges the existence of behavioral addictions/addictive disorders, but has not officially added Internet addiction to the list of diagnosable behavior-related conditions. However, in 2013, the organization did create a preliminary definition for a condition called Internet gaming disorder, which captures the essential features of Internet-related behavioral addiction. Proposed symptoms for the disorder include compulsive and expanding involvement in Internet use, an inability to regulate or limit Internet use, negative changes in mood when Internet use is not a viable option, concealment of the extent of Internet use and a reliance on Internet involvement to avoid dealing with personal problems or unpleasant emotions. Various members of the research community are currently involved in projects designed to test the diagnostic usefulness of these symptoms in real-world conditions.

Identifying Addiction

Although there’s no uniform definition for Internet addiction, researchers have developed screening tools designed to identify people who probably have a dysfunctional relationship with Internet use. Prominent examples of these tools include the Gaming Addiction Short Scale and the 14-question Compulsive Internet Use Scale.

Link to Mental Health Problems

In the study scheduled for publication in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from two Greek institutions investigated the overlap between Internet addiction and other mental health problems with the help of 50 college students who reported involvement in dysfunctional Internet use. The types of mental illness under consideration included major depression and other depressive disorders, various forms of bipolar disorder, various forms of anxiety disorder and schizophrenia and other psychosis-related conditions. The researchers also looked for personality disorders, a group of conditions characterized by long-term personality traits that harm an individual’s ability to interact socially or establish a sense of mental well-being. The researchers concluded that 42 percent of the study participants had one of the 10 recognized personality disorders. They also concluded that 50 percent of the participants had some other form of diagnosable mental illness. Upon further investigation, the researchers found that more than half (52 percent) of the cases of non-personality-related mental illness first appeared before the affected individuals experienced any symptoms of Internet addiction. Conversely, roughly 33 percent of these cases appeared after the onset of Internet addiction symptoms. The researchers could not determine the time sequence for the remainder of the people diagnosed with non-personality-related mental illnesses. In addition, since personality disorders are only officially diagnosed in adults, the researchers could not establish a meaningful timeline for these disorders in the young-adult study participants. The study’s authors came to several conclusions. First, they found that the symptoms of Internet addiction often appear in people affected by other mental health issues. They also concluded that the time sequence between Internet-related problems and other mental health problems varies from person to person. Regardless of which condition comes first, the simultaneous presence of a separate mental illness and Internet addiction can potentially worsen the impact of Internet addiction. Finally, the authors concluded that people who experience significant symptoms of Internet-related dysfunction should receive thorough evaluations of their general mental health.

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