What Is Internet Use Disorder And Who Does It Affect?

University of Padova's Tania Moretta discusses her new research on Internet use disorder and what can be done to prevent it.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 15, 2021

A new paper appearing in Frontiers in Psychology offers insight into an emerging psychological condition known as Internet use disorder. According to the research, Internet use disorder is characterized by excessive or poorly controlled urges and behaviors relating to Internet use that causes distress and/or interferes with normal life functioning. It is more likely to affect people who exhibit obsessive-compulsive symptoms.

I recently spoke with the lead author of the paper, Dr. Tania Moretta of the University of Padova in Italy, to discuss this research in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of Internet use disorder and what did you find?

Two elements, first the sudden and fast technological revolution has changed radically our habitual behaviors. We have started to be exposed to a new way to read, speak, write, receive external feedback/stimuli, interact with others, and perceive external environments without a parallel fast evolution in knowledge about the implications on our psychological processes and mental health. Thus, the first inspiration was my interest to address this knowledge gap and the luck of sharing this interest with Prof. Giulia Buodo at the Department of General Psychology, University of Padova, Italy, thanks to whom I could learn about clinical psychophysiology and start experiments on psychophysiological mechanisms of problematic Internet use.

The second element was my interest in understanding the motivations that underlie human decisions in health and psychopathological conditions like addictive behaviors. This interest was born when I was a student thanks to the University course of Prof. Cristina Orsini in Sapienza, University of Rome, Italy. From that moment I decided that understanding our motivational system functioning when we engage in maladaptive behaviors would become my main motivation!

Again, I had the luck of meeting Doctors and Professors who gave me the possibilities and knowledge to do that and for this, I will always be grateful to Dr. Gianluca Baldassarre and Dr. Marco Mirolli, and all people I have met at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, CNR in Rome, to Prof. Cristina Ottaviani, Prof. Marc Potenza, Dr. Shubao Chen, and Prof. Zsolt Demetrovics and all the people I met in these years at Sapienza, University of Rome, at the University of Padova, and Yale University.

About what I found, studies and projects conducted with my colleagues mainly highlighted that Internet-related problematic behaviors share core psycho-physiological mechanisms with addictive behaviors, although some peculiarities are to be noted and deserve further investigation.

Overall, I would like to stress the importance of reaching a conceptualization of problematic Internet use, which is the first step for a standardized diagnosis. A standardized and reliable diagnosis is a prerequisite for implementing effective treatments and prevention programs.

How do researchers/clinicians define Internet use disorder?

Despite the growing number of studies in this context, there is not yet an agreement on the conceptualization of Internet-related psychological problems. The reasons for this lack of consensus can be found in existing research gaps and controversies surrounding Internet-related behaviors.

Psychological problems related to Internet use were first labeled as Internet Addiction Disorder, defined by Prof. Kimberly Young in 1998 as an impulse-control disorder that does not involve an intoxicant. Since then, several different labels have been used in the scientific literature to capture Internet-related problematic behavior. Currently, the dominant perspective conceptualizes problematic Internet use as a condition involving the excessive or poorly controlled urges and behaviors relating to Internet use that leads to subjective distress and/or interference in major areas of life functioning. It is a heterogeneous construct that may include a multitude of features relating to sexual, social networking, and gaming behaviors.

Is Internet use disorder more common in men or women?

Even though many studies reported that problematic Internet use is more common in men than in women, others failed to detect any significant sex difference in PIU symptoms or severity. It has been hypothesized that men and women differ in terms of specific online activity they develop a problem to rather than frequency of problematic Internet use. Recently, a review by Baloğlu, Şahin, and Arpaci (2020) showed that since the majority of studies in this field are on young people more studies considering different age ranges and cultural contexts will clarify possible sex differences in the problematic use of the Internet.

Is it your belief that Internet use disorder is a cause or a consequence of other problematic psychological traits and characteristics? Or is it both a cause and a consequence?

Although several studies so far have evidenced an often-complex association between some psychological traits and problematic Internet use, the cause-effect relationship has remained elusive. Indeed, cross-sectional designs, which dominate this research field, do not allow for the exploration of longitudinal and possibly bidirectional relationships between the variables of interest. For example, in a recent review, my colleague Giulia Buodo and I have studied the nature of the relationship between problematic Internet use and loneliness. Because only a few studies have directly addressed this issue through longitudinal designs, it is not yet possible to surely claim the direction of this relationship. However, it seems that any potential vicious cycle linking problematic Internet use and loneliness starts with excessive Internet use, which then increases loneliness because of withdrawal from face-to-face interactions. In turn, increased loneliness would potentiate Internet use to compensate for poor offline social interactions, and thus trigger a "snowball effect."

Is there any data to suggest Internet use disorder, or related disorders, have gotten worse as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Many studies and some of our results not yet published have shown a relationship between high pandemic-related distress and more Internet-related problematic behaviors. This relationship could be explained by the fact that problematic Internet use seems to be characterized by poor emotion regulation and less capacity to flexibly respond to challenging situations leading individuals with problematic use to exacerbate these maladaptive behaviors. Of note, this is true for people at risk of developing/ who were already characterized by problematic Internet usage. For other people, results suggested that using some online applications for social connection worked as a protective factor during the lockdown.

Your study was run on Italian adults. Would you expect to find any differences had this study been conducted in other parts of the world?

This is the research question of a project I am working on with Prof. Marc Potenza, Dr. Shubao Chen, and Prof. Zsolt Demetrovics. This project involves more than 15 Nations from four continents and aims at testing differences in individuals with problematic Internet use from different parts of the world. I would expect some differences, but I would prefer to talk about that after looking at the project findings!

What might an intervention or clinical treatment for internet use disorder look like?

Based on current knowledge of this problematic behavior, an intervention should consider increasing emotion regulation capacity and awareness of the problematic behavior, coping with negative affect, and motivating individuals to consider goals different from Internet usage as the targets.

Do you have any practical advice for people who are concerned about the amount of time they spend on a screen or on the internet?

In the case in which the amount of time spent online obstructs your daily life in terms of the need to keep using the Internet and difficulty to stop its use whenever you want, craving of being online when it is difficult to access the Internet, using the Internet harms your daily activity, work/study, and significant relationships my suggestion is to not ignore these symptoms and looking for help from a mental health professional/service.

Do you have plans for future research on this topic?

Sure, many plans. Among them is the project in which my colleagues and I will study whether problematic Internet use differs among different cultural contexts. Moreover, I believe that it is time to sum up the results obtained over the past 20 years and reach an agreement about problematic Internet use conceptualization and diagnostic criteria. This agreement would be necessary to compare future findings and develop prevention programs and targeted treatment options.