Internet Addiction — an Emerging Psychiatric Disorder?

The JMSC’s Research Assistant Professor Dr. King-wa Fu has been researching whether internet addiction should be formally recognised as a distinct mental health condition.

Fu King-waAlong with colleagues, he’s been studying whether internet addiction is as an emerging psychiatric disorder, particularly in young people. However, many academics and clinicians have argued that internet addiction does not exist independently from other types of mental health problems.

Fu and his team interviewed 208 adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19. The teenagers were asked questions about how often they used the internet, and filled in a checklist to find out if they showed symptoms of addiction.

Such symptoms included feeling restless, moody, depressed or irritable when attempting to cut down internet use, staying online for longer than intended, and lying to family and others about internet use.

The teenagers were also assessed to find out if they displayed other psychiatric symptoms, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

“Our empirical study demonstrated that internet addiction could be sufficiently differentiated from a few other mental conditions, including symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicidal thought,” Fu said.

The team also found that about one in 15 Hong Kong teenagers display five or more symptoms of internet addiction; those with five or more symptoms were also significantly more likely to report having symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts as well.

Teenagers who use the internet casually, for less than an hour a day or less than two days a week, are much less likely to show signs of internet addiction.

“As the American Pyschiatric Association (APA) has recently suggested to classify internet addiction into a newly created category, namely ‘behavioral addiction’, and been considering including internet addiction in the manual’s appendix, our study’s attempt to highlight the issues of defining internet addiction and its boundary with respect to other mental health conditions is timely,” said Fu.

The APA is in the process of revising its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), with the fifth edition due to be published in May 2013.

This research is particularly pertinent to Hong Kong and China. According to a report by China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), the number of internet users in mainland China reached 340 million in 2009 -– the largest internet population at a global level and the largest internet broadband market in the world. The CNNIC report also claimed that one in every six Chinese internet users may have developed some level of internet addiction.

Fu KW, Chan WSC, Wong PWC, Yip PSF (2010) Internet addiction: prevalence, discriminant validity and correlates among adolescents in Hong Kong, British Journal of Psychiatry v. 196, p. 486-492.