Health officials and university experts in Swansea have found new evidence that excessive use of the internet can cause mental health problems.
And they say a new psychiatric condition – Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) – should receive urgent further study.
Academics at Swansea University, the University of Milan and the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board (ABMU) have conducted unique experiments that show those people who already have problematic use of the internet become more “impulsive” after exposure to the web.
‘This is a growing concern’
Patterns of behaviour that can be described as “impulsive” include problems like addiction to gambling, pornography or shopping.
A Swansea University spokeswoman said: “The association between behavioural and cognitive problems and excessive use of the internet is a growing concern.
“And the prevalence of such problematic internet use appears to be increasing.
“These concerns have prompted the suggestion a new psychiatric disorder – Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) – should receive further study.”
Internet addiction expert Professor Phil Reed from Swansea University collaborated with Professor Roberto Truzoli and Michela Romano from the University of Milan and Dr Lisa A Osborne from the ABMU board to conduct the study.
Professor Reed explained: “This latest study explored the impact of internet exposure on the impulsivity of individuals who reported higher or lower levels of problematic internet behaviour.
“This is the first study to show experimentally the changes of people’s behaviour as a result of exposure to the Internet.”
‘Internet addiction test’
Levels of problematic internet use in 60 volunteers, with an average age of 24, were measured using an “internet addiction test”.
Professor Reed said: “The volunteers were exposed to a choice assessment, in which they could choose between a small immediately-delivered outcome (impulsive), a medium-sized outcome with a medium delay (optimal), and a larger longer-delayed outcome (self-controlled).
“In the experiment they were given 15 minutes access to the internet, during which most participants chose to visit social media sites. It was found that about 30% of those taking part had internet problems.The group was then presented with the choice test again.
“After the first internet exposure, higher-problem users displayed greater impulsivity than before they used the internet, reflected by a move from self-controlled to impulsive choices,suggesting that people reporting internet-related problems become more impulsive after exposure to the internet.
“Additional research has found that people with problems associated with internet use also report experiencing severe problems across various other areas of their lives, including work, social relationships, as well as with their physical and mental health.
“Such people also report needing to spend increasing amounts of time online to satisfy their internet-related needs.”
Professor Reed continued: “We are now beginning to see the psychological impacts of internet misuse on a group of young people.
“These effects include them becoming much more impulsive, and unable to produce long term plans, which is concerning.
“Previous work has shown that overuse of the internet reduces ability to study at university, which also fits with problems with long-term planning”.