The growing threat of internet addiction

Excessive and problematic internet use is increasingly recognised as a potential threat to public health.

According to Eurostat, 72 % of Europeans use the internet every day. A new European research network, the European Network for Problematic Usage of the Internet (EU PUI Network), brings experts together from 40 countries to investigate the problem.

We live in the age of the internet, a new technology that is rapidly reshaping our society – but not without some negative consequences. One of the most worrying of these is the most obvious – people are becoming addicted. The range of problematic behaviour observed in the growing population of internet users has in recent years become so complex that scientists have coined an accordingly wide term for the phenomenon – ‘Problematic Use of the Internet’ (PIU). These maladaptive behaviours range from addictive gaming, gambling, purchasing, viewing pornography and social networking to ‘cyber-bullying’ and ‘cyberchondria’, generally presenting with addiction-like symptoms and clinical characteristics. This year, more than a hundred experts from 40 countries joined the European Problematic Use of the Internet Research Network, in an effort to better understand this emerging public health problem.

According to the latest Eurostat numbers, 81 % of EU citizens use the internet at least once per week, and 72 % use it daily. This represents a sharp increase compared with the respective 56 % and 43 % measured only 10 years ago. The numbers are even bigger in the United States, where the latest survey from PEW Research Center showed that roughly 9 in 10 American adults use the internet daily, or almost 90 %, compared to 2008, when the internet was used by 74 % of US citizens. The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged the growth in problematic use of the internet alongside the increase in general usage as early as 2014. There is also a growing body of scientific evidence that PUI could have mental and physical health consequences and strong connections with various psychiatric symptoms.

In a study by Stéphanie Laconi et al., published earlier this year, scientists investigated the relationships between PUI, amount of time and activities spent online, and psychopathology in 5 593 adult internet users from 9 European countries. They estimated the prevalence of problematic internet use as between 14.3 % and 54.9 %, with an average of 25 %, a higher figure than observed in previous research. The results also stressed the connection with psychopathological symptoms: problematic internet users had more obsessive-compulsive symptoms; higher hostility; more paranoid beliefs; and phobic anxiety. The subjects appeared to be more sensitive, irritable and impulsive than regular users, which researchers concluded can prompt them to spend more time online in order to mitigate their coping issues.

Zsolt Demetrovics from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, one of the scientists involved in the EU PUI Network says that simply spending time online does not present the greatest danger for developing internet related problems.

Demetrovics ZsolZsolt Demetrovics :“There is an association, of course, with the time spent online. However, it seems that the motives, which are also linked to different psychological problems, are better predictors. Such motives as escapism – to forget about daily hassles and real-life problems, and coping – for example, gaming in order to improve mood or reduce negative feelings – are also stronger predictors for developing problems than playing just for fun or for skills development.”

The European PUI Research Network, the first of its kind, and funded by the EU’s COST programme (European Cooperation in Science and Technology), gathers 123 psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists and academics with the aim of identifying and understanding the problems associated with internet use. The first result of their joint effort is the Manifesto on PUI, published in October 2018, to describe research priorities in the field.

Naomi Anne FinebergNaomi Fineberg, Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, leading author of the Manifesto : “As the existing research in this area is patchy and inconsistent, our first step was to reach consensus on the key areas needing to be studied with a view to improving public health. One of the key research goals is to define the extent of the different forms of problematic usage. Different age groups, cultures and genders are affected differently – but to date, we do not have reliable global or even national figures on the prevalence, costs and burden”

Specific internet related problematic behaviours are not as yet officially recognised within the psychiatric nomenclature, although some of them are seen as included in existing mental disorders. This is likely to change in the future. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reached an agreement on ‘internet gaming disorder’ to be included with disorders of behavioural addiction in the forthcoming revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Internet gaming disorder is considered as a ‘condition that requires additional research’.

Zsolt Demetrovics : “The experts currently see gaming as the most problematic internet related activity. Use of social networks also attracts increasing attention, however not enough data is available yet.”

Another aspect of the problem, as warned in the Manifesto, could be the interactive nature of the internet itself. Artificial intelligence programs created to generate personalised content for users may strengthen the sense of reward and reinforce addiction and other problematic behaviours. The EU PUI Network’s research priorities will be to: define diagnostic criteria; clarify the potential role of genetics and personality traits; and determine the brain-based mechanisms behind internet related disorders.

WIKIPEDIA GLOSSARIUM

CYBERCHONDRIA: the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomology based on review of search results and literature online

GAMBLING: is the waging of money or something of value (referred to as ‘the stakes’) on an event with an uncertain outcome, with the primary intent of winning money or material goods. Gambling thus requires three elements be present: consideration, risk (chance), and a prize.

GAMING is the act of playing games, as in:

Useful links

Manifesto on PUI
Research by Stéphanie Laconi et al. (ten institutions)
STOA Study : Harmful internet use


Related Content

A scientist’s opinion : interview with Naomi Anne Fineberg about Screen addiction
A scientist’s opinion : interview with Zsolt Demetrovics about Screen addiction
EU project : NET&ME
Harms of the internet to individuals, culture and society

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