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MONTREAL, Quebec — Many kids today have never experienced life without the internet. Advances in technology, such as smartphones and apps, allow us to answer questions, interact with each other, and even entertain ourselves all with the click of a button. Previous research has shown the risks that comes with overusing of technology. Now, in a recent study, researchers have uncovered a link between depression and problematic internet use (PIU) among teens.

In Helsinki, Finland, study authors collected data from 1,750 teens over the span of three years. The international team analyzed the data to determine possible causes of PIU, whether it varies in older teens (16-19 years-old), and the effects of PIU on that particular age group.

Loneliness may be a root problem

The researchers found three primary reasons for PIU, one of which is loneliness. Previous studies have also found loneliness to be a determinant of PIU. Described as having a need for personal relationships that satisfy, loneliness can be a factor for those who lack friendships that are gratifying. Another definition of loneliness is the perception that one is alone, which can lead to feelings of isolation.

Another determinant of PIU researchers discovered is the quality of parental guidance and discipline. The researchers found that teens with parents who show interest and care displayed lower levels of PIU, whereas, those with neglectful parents showed higher PIU. The researchers noticed that maternal and paternal behavior had different effects on internet use.

Maternal care, in particular, displays a connection to lower PIU, indicating that good mother-child interactions may reduce the desire to excessively use the internet. Conversely, neglect from the father shows a link to greater PIU. Researchers believe this is because a teen’s capacity to create personal boundaries is affected by a lack of discipline and limitations.

Who is most at risk for problematic internet behavior?

When analyzing the effect of gender on PIU, girls were less likely to participate in PIU than boys. Previous studies have found that boys are more susceptible to compulsive behaviors and may have other alternatives such as watching videos on YouTube, gaming, or pornography. Similar studies have found that girls are more inclined to use the internet for socialization.

Consequences of PIU include symptoms of depression, increased substance abuse, and decreased academic achievement.

“Our study tries to understand this relationship in a bi-directional or reciprocal way,” says István Tóth-Király, a Horizon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Substantive-Methodological Synergy Research Laboratory at Concordia University, in a release. “We think that PIU and depressive symptoms are likely to be co-occurring instead of one determining the other. They likely reinforce one another over time.”

Increases in substance abuse and an overall decrease in academic achievement were also found to be consequences of PIU. Both seem to co-occur with PIU.

According to Tóth-Király, teens in the middle of adolescence tend to use the internet more than any other time. The study found that teens seem to decrease their internet time as they mature and create boundaries for themselves.

Romantic relationships may also play a role in the decrease of internet use. Tóth-Király notes that although it may seem like an overuse to parents, being on the internet for long periods of time is not always harmful.

“If adolescents spend a lot of time on the internet but it doesn’t really impact their mental health or their grades or doesn’t seem to have any substantial negative consequences, then we cannot really say this is problematic behavior,” the lead study author concludes.

The findings appear in the journal Child Development.

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