‘Problematic net usage an emerging mental health condition’

NIMHANS study assessed patterns of Internet usage among adolescent students of institutes in South India

A recent study by doctors from NIMHANS has found that ‘Problematic Internet Use’ (PIU) is rapidly emerging to be an ever-growing and significant mental health condition among adolescent students.

The study, aimed at examining Internet usage behaviours, problematic Internet use (PIU) and its association with psychological stress among adolescents, has been published in the Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry early this month.

15-18 years

A team of doctors led by Manoj Kumar Sharma from the Department of Clinical Psychology, who heads the Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT) Clinic at NIMHANS, studied patterns of net usage among 682 adolescents including 495 female students aged between 15 and 18 years. The online-based study was conducted from July 2020 to December 2020 among participants in high school and senior secondary levels from institutes in South India.

“Inappropriate and excessive use of the Internet involves compulsive Internet use, PIU, pathological Internet use, and Internet addiction. In this study, the term PIU, can be understood as use of the Internet that creates psychological, social, school, and work difficulties in an individual’s life,” Dr Sharma told The Hindu.

“We collected patterns of Internet usage and socio-demographic data through online and socio-demographic methods. Along with this, the Internet Addiction Test (IAT) was employed to assess PIU, and symptoms of psychological distress were evaluated with the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10),” he said.


Among the 682 adolescents, 36.6% (248) met the criterion on IAT for mild Internet addiction/PIU, 31.96% (218) for moderate Internet addiction/PIU, and 2.93% (20) for severe Internet addiction/PIU. PIU was higher among adolescents who accessed the net several times a day and had experienced psychological stress, the study found.

The primary use of the net by adolescents was to access social networking sites (344 participants showed this behaviour), social media applications (by 401 participants), and online gaming (by 129 participants). Gender was not found to be significantly associated with addictive use.


In addition, stepwise regression analysis indicated that adolescents experiencing psychological stress were at higher risk for PIU, and stress also predicted engagement in PIU.

Dr. Sharma said PIU was present among a substantial proportion of adolescents, which might hinder their academic performance and progress over some time, and can impact their psychological health adversely. “These adolescents are likely to benefit from the early identification of PIU, which can facilitate the timely implementation of psychotherapeutic intervention strategies for PIU in school settings,” he said.

“PIU and psychological stress are interrelated in many ways. The psychological stress originating from Internet usage can create an unfavourable impact on adolescents. These impacts vary from academic progress to competence, career goals, and non-academic intellectual involvement, hindering skill development. Thus, there is a need to evaluate PIU among adolescents,” he explained.

Evidence-based studies have shown that unfavourable developmental outcomes such as depression, social isolation, and unproductive use of time are caused by PIU among children and adolescents. Although there are substantial studies on PIU, there is no established understanding of the various pathways leading to PIU among adolescents. This emergent problem among adolescents acquires a crucial status, as establishing the determinants of PIU is the first step toward planning prevention and intervention programs, the study stated.

Screening at school

“Adolescents must hence be screened in school settings or mental health settings for PIU and psychological stress as there is a significant possibility that they coexist and can intensify each other. Programmes for early intervention can be offered to adolescents if health care efforts are directed towards early identification and suitable referrals of psychological care in specialized centres,” the doctor said.

“Our findings can be of value to a broad group of health professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, psychosocial counsellors, and mental health professionals in school and primary health settings, to comprehend the existence of this emerging phenomenon and the reciprocal relationship between stress and PIU,” Dr. Sharma asserted.

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Sagar Biswas

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