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Adolescents: The risk of compulsive internet use has grown in the coronavirus pandemic

Loneliness is a risk factor associated with adolescents being drawn into compulsive internet use. The risk of compulsive use has grown in the coronavirus pandemic: loneliness has become increasingly prevalent among adolescents, who spend longer and longer periods of time online.

A study investigating detrimental internet use by adolescents involved a total of 1,750 Finnish study subjects, who were studied at three points in time: at 16, 17 and 18 years of age. The results have been published in the Child Development journal.

Adolescents’ net use is a two-edged sword: while the consequences of moderate use are positive, the effects of compulsive use can be detrimental. Compulsive use denotes, among other things, gaming addiction or the constant monitoring of likes on social media and comparisons to others.

In the coronavirus period, loneliness has increased markedly among adolescents. They look for a sense of belonging from the internet. Lonely adolescents head to the internet and are at risk of becoming addicted.

Internet addiction can further aggravate their malaise, such as depression,” says Professor of Education and study lead Katariina Salmela-Aro from the University of Helsinki.

Highest risk for 16-year-old boys

The risk of being drawn into problematic internet use was at its highest among 16-year-old adolescents, with the phenomenon being more common among boys.

For some, the problem persists into adulthood, but for others it eases up as they grow older. The reduction of problematic internet use is often associated with adolescent development where their self-regulation and control improve, their brains adapt and assignments related to education direct their attention.

“It’s comforting to know that problematic internet use is adaptive and often changes in late adolescence and during the transition to adulthood. Consequently, attention should be paid to the matter both in school and at home. Addressing loneliness too serves as a significant channel for preventing excessive internet use,” Salmela-Aro notes.

It was found in the study that the household climate and parenting also matter: the children of distant parents have a higher risk of drifting into detrimental internet use. If parents are not very interested in the lives of their adolescents, the latter may have difficulty drawing the lines for their actions.

Problematic net use and depression form a cycle

In the study participants, compulsive internet use had a link to depression. Depression predicted problematic internet use, while problematic use further increased depressive symptoms.

Additionally, problematic use was predictive of poorer academic success, which may be associated with the fact that internet use consumes a great deal of time and can disrupt adolescents’ sleep rhythm and recovery, consequently eating up the time available for academic effort and performance.


In December 2019, the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was first reported in Wuhan city, Hubei province, China (1). The COVID-19 is an extremely contagious disease with high infectivity, fast transmitting speed, susceptibility of all-age groups, and damage to public health.

The emergency response and massive vigorous actions taken by the Chinese government have slowed down the epidemic. However, the Chinese people were facing enormous pressure and a grim challenge of prevention and control. The ministry of education of China issued notices in January, the extension of the opening of the spring semester in 2020, requiring all primary and secondary schools to delay school opening and students to stay at home (2) and learn via online courses (3).

As an unprecedented, nationwide, even worldwide public health emergency, the epidemic of COVID-19 is bound to have a corresponding impact on the psychology and behaviors of school-age children and adolescents, who deserves more attention.

The rapid rise of the Internet age has popularized Internet use in China. More and more children and adolescents spend time on the Internet to study, play online games, shop, watch movies, use social media, and chat. These activities are often used to reduce stress and anxiety or to alleviate depressed mood.

As there are 588 million Internet users in China (including 287 million teenagers) that account for 20% of all Internet users worldwide (4). Internet use in a reasonable way is beneficial, but excessive and uncontrolled Internet use may develop into Internet addiction (IA), which is defined as an individual’s inability to control his/her use of the Internet.

IA is a serious public health problem in the world, especially in Asia (5). In China, the prevalence of IA has been reported as 2.4% to 10% (6, 7).

The COVID-19 outbreak is an excellent opportunity to study the association between stressful life events, its consequent psychological responses, and addictive behaviors. Previous studies have confirmed stress, depression, and anxiety are correlated with IA (8–12).

We hypothesized that the increased level of stress, anxiety, and depression caused by the crises of the COVID-19 outbreak might change Internet use behaviors.

Research data are needed to develop evidence-driven strategies to reduce adverse psychological impacts on Internet use. So this population-based epidemiological study screened, described, and compared the Internet addictive behaviors and identified risk factors of IA among school-aged children and adolescents in China in response to the outbreak.

Discussion

Prevalence of AUI and PUI Among Chinese Children and Adolescents

To the best of our knowledge, there is limited information available on an overview study of IA and related risk factors of children and adolescents in a particular situation of stress and isolated condition. In the present study, 2.68% and 33.37% of the participants were classified as addicted and possibly addicted to the Internet.

Several studies using the same criteria by the IAT reported with 1.2%~6.2% addicted Internet users and 12.5%~46.0% problematic Internet users in China mainland, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Nigeria, and Greece (7, 20, 21). We found the prevalence was relatively higher than those reported earlier in China (2.2%/17.1%).

The possible reason is that more students spent time in Internet use during this investigation. The fear resulting from the COVID-19 disease, and the consequences of lockdown, depression, and stress have been mounting affecting individuals’ behaviors. It may also be explained by methodological differences (cross-sectional versus longitudinal study designs), and different statistical approaches (correlations versus time-lag models).

Age and IA

The results also showed that IA grew with age. Our research had a young group aged from 6 to 9 years old, and the incidence of AUI and PUI was 1.67% and 28.10%, respectively. Until now, most studies focused on the population of teenagers and young adults on Internet use (22). However, the onset use of the Internet in China has become earlier.

The research report on the situation of Internet use among children and adolescents in China pointed out that the daily electronic devices (followed by mobile phones and tablets, followed by computers and televisions) exposure rate of Chinese children over 3 years old reached 92% (4).

The average days of Internet use every week in children aged 3-8 years old in China are 3.7 (4). IA, just as Internet gaming disorder and gambling disorder, is a kind of addictive behavior without psychoactive substances. Behavioral addiction is generally developed incrementally and characterized by a change from fun, through losing control, to obsession (22). Internet use has its popularity and accessibility, so we should start to prevent IA in children according to the findings of this study.

Gender and IA

Gender difference is an essential issue in terms of IA. The proportion of males in AUI was much higher than that of females, which is consistent with previous studies (21, 23, 24). Boys who recreationally use the Internet prefer massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) (25) and violent games (26).

In contrast, girls’ online activities are mostly focused on playing time-killing games, socializing, texting, and online shopping, but less violent games (27–30). Girls present with shorter durations of online gaming and shorter online screen times (31). The possible reason is girls are better in self-control and emotional regulation and physically and psychologically mature earlier, which can reduce pathological Internet use, especially when negative events occur (32, 33).

Internet Use and Mental State During the Epidemic of COVID-19

This study discovered that the frequency and duration of recreational electronic devices use, the frequency of electronic devices use after 00:00, and the self-score of addiction to electronic products were all significantly higher than those before the epidemic in all the groups. It is worth noting that the frequency of use overnight/week in NIU was higher than that before the epidemic, which might indicate risks in developing IA. Considerable attention should be paid to all children and adolescents, including those who have not yet reached the standard of IA.

Our data showed that a number of participants experienced significant depression, anxiety, and stress during the outbreak. In this particular period, due to the suspension of schools, the closure of living environments, the reduction of outdoor activities, and the increase of epidemic pressure, the mental health of school-age children and adolescents were threatened.

The uncertainty and potentially adverse effect of a loss of academic progression could have a harmful impact. Furthermore, children and adolescents were not psychologically independent and still in the stage of psychological development, and also faced the challenge of massive online courses.

Although guidance and handbooks for mental health care for Chinese people were posted and free online or telephone psychological counseling was widely promoted during the COVID-19 outbreak, there was little relative professional psychological assistance for children and adolescents.

However, worth noting that we only assessed the psychological status once in the early phase of the outbreak. Given the ongoing pandemic, further studies on mental health over time and confirmation of psychological status development are needed.

Our study confirmed the role of depression and stress in IA in response to this outbreak, and these findings were inconsistent with the previous studies (8, 34–36). It is well-known that adverse experiences are associated with higher depression and stress levels (37).

Internet is entertaining and easy to access, which may be a common way for children and adolescents to release emotions and stress and escape from reality (38). The Internet, especially online games, can stimulate individuals to have a sense of energy and autonomy and enhance self-esteem. Excessive users will be more focused on Internet and less interested in real life (39).

Future studies are needed to assess whether expanding online consulting, particularly during the outbreak, effectively reduces depression and stress among children and adolescents, and indirectly prevents the development of IA.

reference link : https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00751/full


More information: István Tóth‐Király et al. Longitudinal Trajectories, Social and Individual Antecedents, and Outcomes of Problematic Internet Use Among Late Adolescents, Child Development (2021). DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13525

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