Debra Black
STAFF REPORTER

Say the word Internet and most people think about Facebook, gaming, paying bills and instant messaging far-flung friends.

But for a very small percentage of the population the Internet is as addictive as gambling or alcohol, according to a study conducted by a researcher at the University of Leeds.

And perhaps more interestingly, those who spend a lot of time surfing the Internet are in fact more likely to be depressed, according to the same study, recently published in the international journal Psychopathology.

The study, conducted by Catriona Morrison, a senior lecturer in experimental psychology at the British school, was prompted by a spate of suicides among teenagers in the Welsh town of Bridgend in 2008.

There was a suggestion at the time that the online relationship or friendship of the teens might have contributed to serial suicide.

"We found a very high correlation between the extent people felt they were Internet addicted and their levels of depression," said Morrison.

The researchers posted a questionnaire online which was answered by 1,319 people, ranging in age from 17 to 51.

But the majority of the respondents were young adults.

The participants answered questions on how addicted they felt they were to the Internet, their hours of use as well as answering questions on depression.

In conducting the research - the first large scale study of its kind of Western young people - Morrison used a standardized 20-question Internet addiction test developed by Dr. Kimberly Young and the Beck Depression Inventory to assess the emotional state of the participants.

What she found is that 1.2 per cent of the participants - or 18 people - were addicted to the Internet and they were all moderately to severely depressed. The participants not addicted to the Internet had extremely low levels of depression in the study, she said.

The percentage of depression may seem low on the surface, said Morrison. But it is similar to levels of gambling addicition which affects only .6 per cent of the population, she explained. While addiction may only affect a small portion of the population it still remains a serious problem, particularly if the depression rates are high in this group.

The study results are similar to those of an Internet addiction and depression study conducted in south-east Asia. In that study 1.8 per cent of the participants were addicted to the Internet and those participants also were moderately to severely depressed.

And excessive use of the Internet may be a signal or warning sign of possible depression, said Morrison who confesses to being a big fan of social networking sites such as Facebook.

The study also found that addicts spent more time browsing sexually explicit sites, gaming sites and online communites.

"Our data indicates Internet addiciton ought to be considered as a clinical syndrome in its own right and it currently isn't," she said. "It needs to be taken seriously. We need to consider advising people that they limit Internet use so it doesn't interfere with their daily lives and prioritize real relationships over virtual relationships."

What Morrison can't determine from her data is whether those who are addicted to the Internet were depressed first or whether their depression arises from constant use of the Internet.

"All we can say is there is a close correspondence between these two things," she said, adding that perhaps depressed people are drawn to the Internet. "Being too reliant on an online life will make you sociall isolated and depressed."

To really get at the heart of the issue Morrison hopes she can next do a longitudinal study of looking at young people over time and seeing how their Internet use develops.

Toronto Star
 

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