A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Helsinki has found that young people who experience higher levels of loneliness could have an increased risk for internet addiction.
These findings come nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, a time during which adolescents have missed out on a great deal of socializing. Instead, they have spent more time home by themselves, which the researchers say could ultimately lead to extensive time on the internet.
“In the coronavirus period, loneliness has increased markedly among adolescents,” said researcher Katarina Salmela-Aro. “They look for a sense of belonging from the internet. Lonely adolescents head to the internet and are at risk of becoming addicted. Internet addiction can further aggravate their malaise, which can cause depression.”
Compulsive internet use can turn problematic
For the study, the researchers monitored 1,750 study participants’ internet use from the time they were 16 through the time they turned 18. In addition to time spent on the internet, the researchers evaluated the teens’ social and home lives and analyzed how these factors ultimately impacted their mental health.
The study found that loneliness played a big role in how the teens utilized the internet; those who felt isolated on a regular basis were more likely to spend excessive amounts of time in front of screens.
It’s also important to note that loneliness didn’t just stem from not seeing friends. The researchers found that kids who came from homes with inattentive parents were also more likely to turn to the internet to pass a large majority of their time.
The biggest concern with compulsive time spent on the internet was the impact it had on the participants’ mental health. Teens who spent a large portion of their time on the internet were also more likely to struggle with depression than those who spent less time online.
Teens can grow past internet addiction
The researchers found that a lot of internet time during the teenage years doesn’t always correlate to the same patterns during adulthood. While this is true in some cases, they explained that once teens grow beyond their adolescent years, their internet habits tend to grow and evolve with them.
“It’s comforting to know that problematic internet use is adaptive and often changes in late adolescence and during the transition to adulthood,” said Salmela-Aro. “Consequently, attention should be paid to the matter both in school and at home. Addressing loneliness too serves as a significant channel for preventing excessive internet use.”