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Internet addiction: a 21st century epidemic with some more at risk than others?

October 5, 2009 |  5:37 pm

Psychiatrists struggling to draft a new manual to diagnose mental illness haven't agreed it's a mental illness yet. But mental health professionals are already gauging, parsing and analyzing Internet addiction, which bears all the hallmarks of addictive behavior.

And they are asking, as Washington University's Drs. Dimitri Christakis and Megan Moreno did in a commentary published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine on Monday, "will Internet addiction becomes a 21st century epidemic?"

If there were a medication for it, this process of declaring Internet addiction a true illness would probably go faster. But for now, there's little more by way of treatment than pulling the plug. We live in a world where going online has become as essential and inescapable as, say, eating. And pulling the plug isn't much of an answer.

So, prevention becomes a pretty important strategy. And if professionals are to prevent Internet addiction (if it exists), they must know who is most likely to fall prey to the affliction, so they can, perhaps, intervene early to avert it.

A two-year study tracked more than 2,000 young teens in 10 middle schools across southern Taiwan, and found that 233 subjects--10.8%--could be classified as having an addiction to the Internet. Males were more likely to fall into that category.Those who played online games were more vulnerable. And teens who used the Internet everyday and/or 20 hours a week or more were more likely to be deemed addicted.

And what other features did potential Internet addicts show? For boys, those with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and those who exhibited significant hostility were more likely to have a dysfunctional dependence on the Internet. For girls, having ADHD and hostility also heightened the risk of Internet addiction. But two more groups of girls--those with social phobias and those suffering depression--also were at greater risk.

ADHD had the strongest association with Internet-addicted behavior. And no wonder, observed the study's authors: "Internet behavior is characterized by rapid response, immediate reward and multiple windows with  different activities, which may reduce feelings of boredom or delayed aversion in adolescents with ADHD.

The study was conducted by psychiatrists from Kaohsiung Medical University Hospital in Taiwan.

-- Melissa Healy

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