Problematic Internet Use, Gaming May Point to Students Experiencing Mental Health Symptoms

College students whose academic performance has been negatively impacted by internet use or computer gaming are at higher risk of mental health problems than students without problematic internet use/computer gaming behaviors, according to a report in Depression & Anxiety.

“These findings suggest that querying students about whether their internet use or computer gaming has negatively affected their academic functioning might be a strategy for identifying students at risk for [mental health] problems,” wrote Courtney Stevens, Ph.D., of Willamette University and colleagues. “This approach may be particularly useful as internet use is likely less stigmatized than other [mental health] symptoms or diagnoses and because students and universities tend to gauge outcomes not by [mental health] status but through students’ ability to function academically.”

Stevens and colleagues analyzed data from 43,003 undergraduates aged 18 and older who participated in the 2017 American College Health Association‐National College Health Assessment—a 30-minute survey on such topics as substance use/abuse, sexual health, physical health, and more. As part of the survey, students were specifically asked about the past-year frequency of 11 mental health symptoms, including hopelessness, loneliness, overwhelming anxiety, sadness, anger, intentional self-harm, and attempted suicide. Students were also asked about problematic internet use, which the authors defined as “internet use and computer gaming negatively impacted academic performance.”

About 10% of students reported problematic internet use/computer gaming over the previous 12 months (with most indicating the most serious consequence of this behavior was receiving a lower grade on an exam or important project).

Overall, 93% of the students surveyed reported at least one of the 11 mental health symptoms during the year. Students reporting problematic internet use/computer gaming exhibited consistently elevated rates of all mental health symptoms relative to students not reporting problematic internet use/computer gaming. For instance, students who reported problematic internet use/computer gaming were more than twice as likely to report feeling “hopeless,” “so depressed it was difficult to function,” “overwhelmed,” “exhausted,” “very lonely,” or “very sad” in the past year. Similarly, students who reported problem internet use/computer gaming were about 1.5 times as likely to report that in the past year they had engaged in intentional self‐harm, had seriously considered suicide, or attempted suicide.

“Whereas screen time monitoring has been discussed extensively for young children, there is little guidance for older adolescents or college students where screen time and internet use are normalized and generally unscrutinized,” the authors continued. “Colleges may wish to consider offering workshops or other educational strategies to help students develop self‐awareness and regulatory strategies for engaging with internet use in a healthy way.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “CBT Intervention May Reduce Addictive Internet Use.”

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