Expert reaction to conference abstract looking at whether excessive internet use may indicate mental health problems in college students

Science Media Centre | Published online: 17 September 2016

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Unpublished work presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress (ECNP) has investigated possible associations between internet use and mental health issues in college students.

Dr Andrew Przybylski, Experimental Psychologist and Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, said:

“This is a survey study which reports statistically significant correlations between a range of self report assessments reflecting psychopathology and a measure of so-called ‘internet addiction’. Though the topic is of importance and the researcher efforts are admirable, there are at least three reasons why this research should not inform policy or clinical practice.

“First, the findings from this survey are derived from a convenience sample of first-year Canadian undergraduates recruited though an anxiety research website. This means the sample is not representative of the Canadian population or college students who are not seeking help through an anxiety website. The findings therefore cannot “highlight that problematic internet use may be more widespread than once thought” because the sample cannot be generalised to the population. Indeed one might expect anxious or depressed individuals to use the internet differently than the general population.

“Second, the study is correlational and critical information regarding the size of the correlations is missing. In other words, it is not clear whether having psychological problems might lead to a high score on the internet addiction scale or vice versa. The most simple, and likely correct, interpretation of these observations is that anxious and depressed people have everyday issues that affect the way they use the internet, not the other way around. This problem is aggravated by the fact we only have information on statistical significance, but we cannot know if this is a inconsequential, small, or huge relationship. Because of this we cannot determine if this correlation is something to be worried about.

“Finally, the study appears to neglect to mention that the scale used to measure ‘internet addiction’ is not diagnostic of a professionally recognised psychiatric disorder. Indeed there is no such thing as ‘internet addiction’ according to the American Psychiatric Association. The self-report measure has been widely used in similar survey research but these cut-off scores are arbitrary. It is not clear what about the internet is addictive; is it gaming, commenting on social media, using Uber? This issue belies a larger important question of whether human communication can be ‘addictive’ in a clinical sense.”

Read the full commentary here

 

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