Internet addiction in teenagers leads to difficulty regulating emotions

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A new study has found internet addiction in teenagers leads to difficulty regulating emotions. However there was no evidence that pre-existing emotional issues are a predictor of obsessive internet use.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Emotion, the paper is the first longitudinal study to examine the connection between internet addiction among teenagers and emotion regulation difficulties.

Over 2,800 adolescents from across 17 Australian high schools took part in the study. Participants were from years eight to 11 inclusive.

Lead author from the University of Sydney Business School, Dr. James Donald, said the research tested two hotly-debated ideas: first, whether compulsive internet use leads to emotion regulation difficulties over time; and second, whether underlying emotion regulation difficulties lead to this compulsive behavior.

“We observed a pattern of behavior over time that suggests internet addiction leads to emotion regulation problems, but not the reverse,” said Dr. Donald from the Business School’s Discipline of Work & Organizational Studies.

“Despite a lot of anecdotal evidence and popular opinion on this, we know little about how compulsive internet use impacts young people’s emotion regulation and vice versa. We were surprised to find the negative effects of compulsive internet usage on things like the ability to set goals and understand one’s emotions, remained stable across all four years of the study.”

Busting the myth of emotion dysregulation as a predictor

The study found no evidence that, among young people, having pre-existing emotion regulation difficulties leads to problems regulating their use of the internet.

Collaborating with researchers from the Australian Catholic University, the team found that compulsive internet use has more severe effects on “effortful” forms of emotion regulation such as difficulties pursuing life goals and understanding one’s emotions.

“Our research shows compulsive internet use has little impact on less complex emotional processes like self-acceptance and awareness,” said co-author Professor Joseph Ciarrochi.

“A 12-month period of compulsive internet use might not be as harmful as we first thought. However, if this behavior persists into a teenager’s later years, effects compound, and emotion dysregulation can become a problem.”

Limiting internet use could be the only answer

The research also suggests that teaching adolescents general emotion regulation skills, for example through programs at school, may not be as effective in reducing compulsive internet use as more direct approaches like limiting time spent on the internet.

“Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, high school students are more reliant on the internet than ever before. The internet is both a site of learning and play, which makes it difficult for parents to monitor,” said Dr. James Donald.

“While it might be difficult for parents to control internet access, our study suggests that parents and schools have an important role to play in teaching their kids about healthy internet use, monitoring the activities they engage with online, and ensuring they have meaningful and engaging offline activities that provide balance.”


Adolescence is a vital period of human development, because it is the period between childhood and adulthood and involves substantial physical growth and brain development [1].

However, it is also marked by emotional and psychological instability, and the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders in adolescence is very high [2]. Suicide is the main cause of adolescent death in Korea and the second most common cause of adolescent death in the United States [3,4]. Moreover, death rates by suicide are rising exponentially [5].

Suicidal ideation is defined as having serious thoughts about suicide; thus, it is considered an important risk factor for suicidal attempts [6,7]. Moreover, it is a predictor of other negative outcomes such as depression, poor mental health, and drug use [8].

The identified factors associated with suicide have a greater influence on adolescents than on adults [9]. Excessive Internet use such as Internet addiction is one of the factors related to suicidal ideation and attempts among adolescents [10], although the effects of the Internet are still controversial.

The Internet has become an indispensable tool, and 90% of the population use the Internet in Korea, Australia, and Canada [11]. Despite multiple advantages of the Internet, excessive Internet use can cause Internet addiction, which can lead to other psychological problems [12].

The most important issues with respect to Internet use are its management and regulation. According to a meta-analysis of studies on Internet addiction conducted in 31 countries, the overall Internet addiction prevalence rate was around 6.0%, which is very high compared to the 0.2–2.1% prevalence rate for pathological gaming addiction [13].

Moreover, in countries reporting high levels of Internet addiction, overall life satisfaction was low, pollution was severe, and the economic conditions were poor [13]. Furthermore, mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety have been frequently reported among adolescents who overuse the Internet [14,15].

In addition, adolescents who are at an increased risk of Internet addiction are at higher risk for mental health problems [16].
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, 5th edition (DSM-5) recognizes only “Internet Gaming Disorder,” which was added as a new disorder in this revision [17].

However, Internet overuse or addiction has not yet been identified as a disease, and accurate standards for its diagnosis are not yet determined. Furthermore, to date, no studies have reported a clear relationship between Internet use duration and suicidal ideation among adolescents.

Is there a difference in Internet use duration between adolescents who have suicidal ideation and those who do not? If excessive Internet use leads to Internet addiction, it might affect one’s psychological and social characteristics as well.

Therefore, this study was conducted to identify the factors associated with Internet use duration for those who have suicidal ideation and those who do not. The findings are expected to provide basic data for research on Internet usage time management, policy development, and development of customized intervention programs for adolescents based on suicidal ideation.

Discussion

The present study identified general characteristics and physical and psychological factors associated with Internet use among adolescents by the presence or absence of suicidal ideation.

The findings showed that alcohol consumption and drug use were significantly more frequent among adolescents with suicidal ideation than adolescents without suicidal ideation.

Furthermore, stress and depression were higher among adolescents with suicidal ideation. Adolescents with suicidal ideation reported having more frequent suicidal perceptions and attempts. Although most participants in both groups reported that they did not perception to attempt suicide and had not attempted suicide, those with suicidal ideation were more likely to perception and attempt suicide.

There was a statistically significant difference in the perception and attempt of suicide depending on the suicidal ideation.
Previous studies, with suicides differed by sex, have indicated that boys are more likely to commit suicide in adolescence and girls are more likely to commit suicide after adolescence. In addition, suicidal ideation, previous suicide attempts, intentions and motivations, and mental disorders have been identified as risk factors for adolescent suicide [18].

Furthermore, a study by Mars et al. found that adolescents with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts were more likely to engage in self-harm and reported more psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorder, and behavioral disorder [19].

Although a previous study found a link between actual suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts [20], there is still insufficient clear evidence for this relationship.

A recent study has shown that “suicide capability”—the perception that one can actually attempt suicide—is a factor that operates between suicidal ideation and actual suicide attempts [20]. However, the research on suicide capability is very limited and more research is needed.

Thus, it is clear that there is a connection between suicidal ideation and actual suicides, and more research on the factors associated with them should be conducted. Understanding this relationship would help to address the factors associated with suicidal attempts and thereby prevent actual suicides, especially considering that adolescents might be able to address some of these factors by themselves.

The present study found significant differences in the factors associated with Internet use duration during weekdays and weekends by suicidal ideation. These findings suggest new directions for intervention development or preventive strategies.

The average weekend Internet duration was 228 minutes (3.8 hours) among those without suicidal ideation and 266 minutes (4.4 hours) among those with suicidal ideation. These results were statistically significant, but the difference between the actual 3.8 hours and 4.4 hours may not be recognized as an obvious difference.

Therefore, these results should be interpreted carefully. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using screen media less than two hours a day [21]. In particular, this study found that adolescents with suicidal ideation reported longer Internet use duration, which exceeded the suggested usage time as well as the average reported in previous studies.

These results indicate that adolescents spend considerable time on the Internet during weekend breaks. Furthermore, excessive smartphone use is associated with sleep disorders, depression, and chronic stress [22]. In addition, adolescents are susceptible to following the harmful behaviors of their peers, which can aggravate problem behaviors [23].

This study has several limitations. First, secondary data were analyzed, and thus, it was impossible to change the measurement variables. Therefore, research including additional qualitative data on Internet use is needed. Second, there was also a substantial difference between the proportions of adolescents with suicidal ideation and those without suicidal ideation, although this is expected.

Therefore, evidence-based results from interventional studies with similar proportions of adolescents with and without suicidal ideation are needed. Despite these limitations, the results of this study are highly representative of all Korean adolescents, because the survey was conducted at the national level, and the entire process was designed to reflect representativeness.

In addition, detailed basic data for the development of guidelines for the appropriate use of the Internet through future research are needed. Furthermore, by establishing a model that can predict suicidal ideation or actual suicides based on the collected characteristics and patterns of the participants, studies that identify predictable paths will not only help adolescents with suicidal ideation but also effectively prevent suicides.

Conclusions

This study showed a difference in the Internet use duration between adolescents who engage in suicidal ideation and those who do not. The results also confirm the need for prevention programs that focus on adolescents, particularly those vulnerable to the risk of psychological problems, such as suicidal ideation.

This study provides a better understanding of the associations between suicidal ideations and Internet use and could be used as the basis to develop programs for preventing Internet overuse.

Finally, although the difference in the amount of time spent on the Internet may not be considered as decisive factor of suicidal attempts, it is beneficial to help adolescents engage in meaningful activities other than using the Internet.

References

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More information: James N. Donald et al. The consequences of compulsion: A 4-year longitudinal study of compulsive internet use and emotion regulation difficulties., Emotion (2020). DOI: 10.1037/emo0000769

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