Telethon researchers prove link between excessive net use and psychological distress


Wavne Rikkers.
Wavne Rikkers.

TELETHON Kids Institute researchers have found a strong link between excessive internet use and increased levels of psychological distress, including suicidal thoughts, in young people.

Researchers used data from Young Minds Matter, the largest youth mental health survey ever conducted in Australia, for the study published in the BMC Public Health journal.

They found that while most young people aged 11-17 used the internet or played electronic games, around 78,000 – or 4 per cent – of children and adolescents experienced problematic internet or games use behaviour, which caused negative impacts on their life.

The findings were similar to other research that found associations with excessive internet use and psychological distress, depression, suicide ideation, self-harm, and alcohol abuse.

Lead author Wavne Rikkers stressed it was unclear from the research whether psychological distress led to over-use of the internet or vice versa.

“These young people could be experiencing more mental health problems as a result of their internet use, or they could be turning to the web to help them deal with their psychological distress,” Ms Rikkers said.

“It really is a chicken or egg scenario…nevertheless, the significance of the links is sufficient to warrant concern and further research.”

Ms Rikkers said that new technology dominated all aspects of a young person’s life in ways not seen in previous generations.

“This has led to a cultural change in how young people may deal with issues of social isolation, bullying, depression, behavioural disorders, boredom or family breakdown,” Ms Rikkers said.

“Quite often young people will turn to a screen instead of another person, with a third of them sourcing information online about mental health problems and many using the internet to remain socially connected.

“Regardless of whether internet and gaming is the cause or response to psychological distress, these associations are cause for concern amongst parents, educators and service providers, particularly with respect to links identified between youth suicide attempts, high levels of psychological distress, and problem behaviour.”

Main findings of the study

About one in four young people with problematic internet use also suffered from major depressive disorder based on self-reported information

In comparison, for those without problem behaviour, nearly 7 per cent per cent had major depressive disorder

14 per cent of young people with problematic internet use had attempted suicide in the previous 12 months

Over one in five young people (22%) with problematic internet use had binged on alcohol in the previous 12 months

In the 12 months prior to the survey, about one in four (25 %) young people who had attempted suicide or experienced high to very high levels of psychological distress also had problematic internet use behaviour

13 per cent of those with major depressive disorder had problematic internet use behaviour

13 per cent of those who had self-harmed also had problematic internet use behaviour.