Dose-Dependent Effect of 'Internet Addiction' and Sleep Problems

Pauline Anderson

June 25, 2021

More evidence suggests the severity of internet addiction (IA) is directly related to the severity of sleep problems in youth.

Results from a study of more than 4000 adolescent students show IA severity was linked to less sleep and to daytime sleepiness. In addition, boys aged 12-14 years who were addicted to computer games vs social media networking were the most affected.

Sleep issues could be "easily detectable manifestations of pathological internet addiction," investigator Sergey Tereshchenko, PhD, Scientific Research Institute for Medical Problems of the North, Krasnoyask State Medical University, Krasnoyarsk, Russia, told Medscape Medical News.

These sleep problems require attention and correction, Tereshchenko added.

The findings were presented at the virtual Congress of the European Academy of Neurology 2021.

New Phenomenon

IA is a relatively new psychological phenomenon and is most prevalent in "socially vulnerable groups," such as adolescents, Tereshchenko said.

He cited numerous studies that have "convincingly demonstrated" IA is comorbid with a broad range of psychopathologic conditions, including depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

There is also growing evidence, including from systematic reviews in 2014 and 2019, that IA affects a wide range of sleep parameters.

However, most studies in adolescents have used only one psychometric tool to assess addiction, revealing only the "general IA pattern" and not the type of IA, Tereshchenko noted.

Adolescents may not be addicted to the internet itself but to certain behaviors like gaming or social networking, he said.

The "undoubted advantage" of his team's research is the use of more than one tool, making it possible to "verify the predominant content of the addiction," he added.

The investigators previously assed general prevalence of IA in adolescents in Siberia and found about 6.8% of participants displayed pathological IA behavior — and that gaming addiction is more common in boys whereas addiction to social networking is more common in girls.

This prevalence rate is lower than in the Philippines (21.1%), Hong Kong (16.4%), Malaysia (14.1%), China (11%), and South Korea (9.7%), but slightly higher than in Japan (6.2%).

IA prevalence among adolescents in Europe ranges from 1% to 11%, with an average of 4.4%, said Tereshchenko.

Siberian Students' Sleep

The current study included 4344 students aged 12-18 years (average age, about 15 years) from 10 public schools in three large cities of Central Siberia (Krasnoyarsk, Abakan, Kyzyl). There were slightly more girls than boys in the study sample.

Participants completed the Russian language version of the Chen Internet Addiction Scale (CIAS), which covers five symptomatic criteria for addictive behavior: withdrawal symptoms, signs of tolerance, compulsive use, psychological or physical problems, and difficulty managing time.

In this questionnaire, respondents rate several statements regarding the effect of internet use, each on a 4-point Likert scale: not at all (1 point), a little bit (2 points), moderately (3 points) and extremely (4). The total score ranges from 26 to 104.

A CIAS score of 26-42 indicates adaptive internet use, 43-64 indicates maladaptive internet use, and 65 and above indicates pathological internet use (PIU), which was classified as "internet-addicted."

The researchers also used the nine-item Social Media Disorder Scale, as well as the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index to assess nighttime sleep.

Among other questions, teens were asked how long it usually took them to fall asleep, and when they typically went to bed and woke up on school nights.

For daytime sleepiness, investigators used the targeted Pediatric Daytime Sleepiness Scale questionnaire, making them among the few research groups to use this psychometric instrument, Tereshchenko noted.

After parental consent was given, students completed the tests at the end of the day's lessons. Total test time was about 45 minutes.

Sleep Disturbance

Initial study results showed that compared with the other groups, adolescents with PIU tended to go to bed later, wake up later, take longer to fall asleep, sleep less at night, have more nighttime awakenings, and have more daytime sleepiness.

Sleep quality was the most impaired in boys aged 12-14 years who are addicted to internet computer games.

"In this group, 5 of the 6 sleep assessment parameters we studied were changed," Tereshchenko reported.

Decreased total nighttime sleep was more common in older adolescents.

On average, boys and girls aged 15-18 years got less than the recommended 8 hours of sleep per night. Boys with IA got only about 6.4 hours per night and girls with IA got about 6.6 hours.

Interestingly, IA is generally more prevalent among teen girls than boys in Russia, which is not the case in Europe and North America, Tereshchenko noted.

Mechanisms linking IA and sleep disorders are not clear, but the relationship is probably multifactorial and perhaps interrelated, creating something of a "vicious circle," he said.

"Sleep disturbances, which reflect psychosocial problems, depression, and anxiety-phobic disorders, can precede and contribute to IA. On the other hand, sleep disturbances such as insomnia can lead to increased use of the internet in the evening and at night, further exacerbating the problem," said Tereshchenko.

Research is lacking on useful treatments for youth with IA, but these kids would likely benefit from behavioral therapy approaches, he added.

No Escape?

Commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, Maurice M. Ohayon, MD, DSc, PhD, director of the Stanford Sleep Epidemiology Research Center, Stanford University, California, said the topic of youth IA is "very important."

Previous research in this field has shown a major impact from IA not only on sleep but also on mood — with irritability, depression, and even thoughts of suicide being possible red flags, said Ohayon, who was not involved in the current study.

Interestingly, his own research has also found that young teenage boys are most at risk for gaming addiction.

Although internet gaming has some positive effects, such as fostering leadership skills and relationships, it has become increasingly violent and isolating, with more adult professional gamers preying on younger players, Ohayon said.

"The major problem is that it's putting children in a virtual world from which it's difficult to escape," he added.

Ohayon also noted concern about future developmental effects in kids who play video games for hours on end without coming out of their bedroom and with no physical contact with fellow players.

Parents should intervene before this situation occurs and limit the time their children spend on the gaming console, he said.

Congress of the European Academy of Neurology (EAN) 2021: EPR302 session on sleep disorders. Presented June 21, 2021.

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