Web-Addicted Chinese Teens Prone to Depression
With teens' lives increasingly playing out online -- from socialization to schoolwork -- it's no surprise that many spend hours a week surfing the Internet.
But research has already indicated that some teens are at risk of compulsive overuse and dependency. Anywhere from 2 to 18 percent of teens are estimated to be addicted to the Web, with higher rates in Eastern countries.
Internet addiction is usually characterized by an inability to cut back on Internet usage, a fixation with the Web that affects day-to-day activities and withdrawal symptoms like anxiety and irritability.
The condition has also already been linked to mental health problems. A study of Taiwanese teens, published last year in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, found that Internet-addicted participants were more likely to exhibit symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression, as well as suffer from anxiety and hostility.
"They can take on an avatar or a different identity, and can contact other kids with the same problems and social inadequacies. They don't have to function in conventional social ways," Michael Gilbert, a senior fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, told CNN.
But this latest study, also in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, offers a unique perspective that helps pin down the Internet's causative role in depression.
Rather than examining teens already diagnosed with depression and then assessing their Internet usage, researchers tracked a group of healthy teens to see how the Net would affect their mental health. Study participants, aged 13 to 18, were randomly selected from a student registry in Guangzhou, China.
More than 1,100 teens were screened for depression, anxiety and Internet addiction, and then evaluated again after nine months. At the study's outset, all the teens included in the study tested below the diagnostic threshold for depression, anxiety and addictive Internet use.
Nine months later, and after controlling for relevant variables, researchers concluded that teens who'd used the Internet "pathologically" during the test period were 2.5 times more likely to be depressed than those who hadn't.
It's a conclusion that helps answer a key question about the impact of the Internet on health: Do depressed people tend to abuse the Web, or does the web itself trigger depression?
"Results of this study demonstrate not only a correlation between pathological use of the Internet and depression but also a direct effect of the pathological use of the Internet on the mental health of young people," the study says.
Despite ongoing research that confirms the mental health downsides to excessive Internet use, Internet addiction isn't actually an official diagnosis.
It's also been omitted from the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the veritable bible of mental illness, which is expected to be released in 2013.