Internet addiction, is a term describing pathological, compulsive internet use and has an estimated prevalence of 6% among the general population and higher in students. Extreme internet use may have significant public health importance as it has been attributed to several cardio-pulmonary deaths and at least one murder. While the pathological use of alcohol or drugs has been historically accepted as an addiction, questions remain concerning whether extreme internet use should be conceptualized as an addiction. The Internet Addiction Test (IAT) was developed in 1998, prior to the wide-spread use of Smartphone and other mobile devices, to detect internet addiction . It is unclear whether this instrument is capable of capturing problematic modern internet use. The purpose of this study was to examine the construct of “internet addiction” in a sample of college aged internet users.
A survey was administered to first year undergraduate students at McMaster University and posted to our centre website www.macanxiety.com. Following acknowledgment of a disclosure statement, participants completed several self-report scales detailing internet usage, symptoms of depression and anxiety, impulsiveness and executive functioning. Measures included: a short demographics questionnaire as well as a survey containing the IAT, sections from the Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview for OCD, GAD, SAD, the Barkley Adult ADHD Rating Scale, the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale, the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21), the Barkley Deficits in Executive Functioning Scale (BDEFS) and the Sheehan Disability Scale (SDS). Individuals were also asked to complete the Dimensions of Problematic Internet Use (DPIU); a scale based on DSM-5 addiction criteria. Once the survey was complete, respondents were informed of their score and interpretation on the IAT.
Two hundred and fifty-four participants completed all assessments. They had a mean age of 18.5±1.6 years and 74.5% were female. In total 12.5% (n = 33) met screening criteria for internet addition according to the IAT, while 107 (42%) met addiction criteria according to the DPIU. The most frequently reported dimensions of internet use where respondents had difficulty controlling their use were: video streaming services (55.8%), social networking (47.9%) and instant messaging tools (28.5%). Those screening positive on the IAT and on the DPIU had significantly higher levels of functional impairment (p < 0.001), depression and anxiety symptoms (p < 0.001), greater executive functioning impairments (p < 0.001) and greater levels of attentional problems (p < 0.001) as well as ADHD symptoms (p < 0.001). Those with IAT and DPIU internet addiction spent more of their non-essential (leisure) time online compared to those who did not meet internet addiction criteria. When examining the different dimensions of internet use, positive screeners were more likely to have difficulty controlling their use of instant messaging tools compared to negative screeners (p = 0.01). No other differences in use were observed.
A high proportion of the sample met criteria for internet addiction. Participants meeting criteria for internet addiction had greater levels of psychopathology and functional impairment. With the exception of instant messaging tools, none of the dimensions of internet use differed between individuals who did and did not meet internet addiction criteria on the IAT. This study highlights that problematic internet use may be more widespread than once thought. Further studies are needed to understand the relationship between problematic internet use and psychopathology.