Feb. 4, 2010 -- Internet users who are compulsive about going online and have more social interactions in virtual worlds than the real one may be depressed, according to a new study.
Some Internet users retreat from real-life interaction and opt for chat rooms and social networking sites, and this can have an adverse effect on mental health, researchers say in the Feb. 10 issue of Psychopathology.
“This type of addictive surfing can have a serious impact on mental health,” lead author Catriona Morrison, DPhil, of the University of Leeds, says in a news release. “The Internet now plays a huge part in modern life, but its benefits are accompanied by a darker side.”
She tells WebMD in an email that the Internet provides a “refuge for certain types of people” and that “Internet addiction seems to be a bona fide syndrome.”
For most people, the Internet is adaptive “and helps us function well in our daily lives,” she says. But for some people, “it is compulsive and damaging.”
“What is not clear is what causes what, so the next step is to ask: Does the Internet make you depressed, or is it the case that depressed people are drawn to the Internet?” she says.
Morrison’s research team studied 1,319 people aged 16-51 who were evaluated for Internet addiction and depression. Eighteen participants (1.2%) were classified as being addicted to the Internet.
Many people use the Internet to pay bills, shop, and communicate via email, but a small subset of the population finds it “hard to control how much time they spend online, to the point where it interferes with their daily activities,” Morrison says.
Such “Internet addicts,” she says, spend more time browsing sexually gratifying web sites, online gaming sites, and online communities. Also, they had a higher incidence of moderate to severe depression compared to non-addicted users.
The study found that younger people were more likely to be addicted to the Internet than middle-aged users, with the average age of the addicted participants being 18 years old.
“This study reinforces the public speculation that over-engaging in Web sites that serve to replace normal social function might be linked to psychological disorders like depression and addiction,” Morrison says. “We now need to consider the wider societal implications of this relationship and establish clearly the effects of excessive Internet use on mental health.”
The researchers say the study was the first large look at Western young people and Internet addiction and depression.
The authors write that there “is no doubt” that some people develop compulsive tendencies toward Internet use and experience physiological arousal and psychological withdrawal. And they say their study clearly suggests too much Internet use could be linked to “maladaptive” behaviors.
The authors recommend the inclusion of Internet addiction as a distinct mental disorder and say “it is vital that this issue receives adequate attention now.”