Do you find it’s hard to put down your smartphone? Is it difficult to watch a movie, hang out with friends and family, or even go for a walk to decompress without bringing along some sort of internet-enabled device? You may not think of that itch to keep scrolling through Facebook or Snapchat as “internet use” per se, but when you simply can’t allow yourself to step away from the online world, it may be a symptom of a deeper problem. It may be internet addiction, or even an indicator other mental health problems.
That’s what a new study from McMaster University, an Ontario-based research institution, found. Basically, by studying and evaluating internet use patterns, researchers concluded those who use the internet excessively — or, those who display some characteristics of internet addiction — may have previously unknown or unforeseen mental health issues.
The study, published by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, used two different scales to measure internet use and reliance. The McMaster research team found “high rates of problematic internet use in a group of primarily college-aged students.”
That age group was in the middle of the bell curve, but the truly interesting finding from the study was excessive internet use was tied to many other problems.
“We found that those screening positive on the [Internet Addiction Test] IAT as well as on our scale, had significantly more trouble dealing with their day-to-day activities, including life at home, at work/school and in social settings,” McMaster’s Professor Van Ameringen said in a press release. “Individuals with internet addiction also had significantly higher amounts of depression and anxiety symptoms, problems with planning and time management, greater levels of attentional impulsivity as well as ADHD symptoms.”
Van Ameringen continued, “this leads us to a couple of questions: Firstly, are we grossly underestimating the prevalence of internet addiction, and secondly, are these other mental health issues a cause or consequence of this excessive reliance on the internet?”
Those questions will likely be answered with time, but to get this far, the McMaster team had to revamp some old ways of measuring internet use.
For years now, researchers have used the Internet Addiction Test to try to gauge an individual’s reliance on the internet to cope with everyday life. It’s been more or less the standard since it was developed back in 1998, but now that the internet has invaded our lives in many more ways, it’s hard to get a grasp on how behavior has changed.
Our phones, tablets, TVs, and even refrigerators are connected these days. It’s a big difference from the late 1990s. Because of that, this study used a second measuring tool, developed by McMaster’s team, in addition to the standard IAT. The new scale included updated criteria in order to compensate for the IAT’s shortfalls. It was after using this scale in conjunction with the traditional test that researchers found compulsive internet use seems linked to other maladies.
Taking stock of your mental health
So, what does this mean for you? It might not mean anything, but it could be worthwhile to track or at least take a mental note of how much time you’re spending online. And that doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in front of a computer. Sitting in the car, on a bus, waiting at a doctor’s office, or even watching TV can all cause us to reach for the smartphone to peruse the web.
The internet, too, doesn’t mean you’re on Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. If you’re on your Snapchat app, or Facebook, or Amazon — that’s all internet use too. Without realizing it, you might be spending a whole lot more time online than you thought.
But the real issue here isn’t necessarily the amount of time we’re spending online (how many people get eight hours per day just from being at work?), it’s the compulsive and excessive use that can point to underlying issues. There’s need for more digging by researchers, and you probably shouldn’t try to self-diagnose any addictions or mental health problems just because you can’t put your smartphone down. But it’s something to keep in mind.