The Internet Addiction Test (IAT) was developed in 1998 to measure excessive reliance on the internet in response to rising fears that a growing number of people are not able to cope without going online regularly. Since its inception, smartphone technology usage is on the rise and internet use has changed radically with more people working online, the introduction of media streaming and the event of social media.
Professor Michael Van Ameringen from McMaster University in Canada was concerned that the IAT questionnaire may not be identifying problematic modern internet use, or could be showing up false positives for people who were not being over-reliant on it, but were rather simply using the internet regularly.
Van Ameringen and his team developed a new screening tool of their own design based on updated addiction criteria. The researchers assessed internet addiction using the standard IAT as well as their new tool and found high proportions of problematic internet use in a group of primarily college-aged students. The work, presented at the ECNP conference in Vienna, could affect how psychiatrists approach excessive internet use in future.
Van Ameringen’s team surveyed 254 students and associated internet use with general mental health and wellbeing. Thirty-three of the students met screening criteria for internet addition according to the IAT. Using the new screening tool, 107 students were however found to meet criteria for problematic internet use. A further series of self-reported tests were then administered to determine how the internet addicts compared to the others in the survey in various areas. These included checking for symptoms of impulsiveness, inattention, depression and anxiety, and executive functioning, as well as tests for ADHD.
Van Ameringen notes that those screening positive on the IAT as well as on their new scale had considerable more trouble dealing with their daily activities including life in social settings, at home or at work/school.
Persons with internet addiction also had significantly more problems with planning and time management, higher volumes of depression and anxiety symptoms, greater levels of attentional impulsivity as well as ADHD symptoms.
The results lead to a couple of questions: firstly – is the prevalence of internet addiction grossly underestimated and secondly – are these mental health issues a consequence or cause of the excessive reliance on the internet?
The results of the study may have practical medical implications. If someone is treated for an addiction when the patient is in fact anxious or depressed, the wrong course of treatment will be followed. Van Ameringen adds that a better understanding is needed. This can be achieved by studying a bigger sample, drawn from a wider, more varied population.
Professor Jan Buitelaar (Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre) of the ECNP Child and adolescent disorders treatment Scientific Advisory Panel commented that excessive use of the internet is an understudied occurrence that may disguise mild or severe psychopathology. He also believes that excessive use of the internet may be linked strongly to compulsive behavior and addiction.