Do your work responsibilities and recreational choices involve a lot of computer use? Are you in the habit of updating social media through the day? Are you finding it weirdly difficult to concentrate on this paragraph?
If the answer to all three questions was in the affirmative, this might not be a coincidence.
A number of studies from around the world this year have found a disturbing link between computer use by adults and a range of mental disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), aggression and anxiety.
The research adds to previous findings showing a correlation between some forms of mental illness and screen time, but one critical aspect remains unknown. Which came first: the computer or the health issue?
So far, no one can say for sure. Computer use might cause damage to mental health. On the other hand, people with damaged mental health might be drawn to computer use.
“Causation is a five-million-dollar question,” said Professor Vladan Starcevic from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Sydney.
And it’s a question with massive implications. As more and more of everyday life moves online – including mundanities such as shopping, form-filling, communication and, ironically enough, mental health treatments – any potential role for screen time in causing or exacerbating psychiatric illness is of central importance.
Further complicating the research are seemingly simple matters of terminology. Most studies link conditions such as ADHD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with “excessive” computer use, and speak of “internet addiction”.
Both terms, however, have lately come under fire as being too broad and too vague.
“The very first thing is how do you define the amount of time spent on computers as excessive?” said Starcevic.
“What might have been considered excessive years ago would not be considered that way now. The time spent online is not a good criteria.
“What matters more is the negative consequences of the time spent online. Those consequences could include the neglect of other activities and responsibilities, and so on. Then we can talk about problematic internet use, or a disorder.”
Rational and reasonable questions about how much time spent in front of the computer is safe, therefore, become nonsensical.
It’s a position strongly supported by Norwegian psychiatrist, Professor Cecilie Schou Andreassen, who, with colleagues, published a major study earlier this year and concluded that the idea of internet addiction “as a unified construct is not warranted”.
Andreassen, from the psychology faculty at the University of Bergen, surveyed 23,500 adults ranging in age between 16 and 88. She and her fellow researchers looked at patterns of social media use, video gaming, and symptoms of psychiatric illness.
The study found a strong link between “addictive technology use” and the symptoms of ADHD, OCD, anxiety and depression.
However, the results showed significant differences in patterns of screen use and symptoms depending on age and gender. Younger adults showed more psychiatric symptoms than older people. Women were more likely to be addicted to social media use, while men tended to get hooked on video gaming.
Gender differences also emerged in a smaller scale study presented in November this year. The research, led by Monica Zepeda of the California State University, found that women indulging in “problematic internet use” recorded lower life satisfaction and low self-esteem, while men with the same habits were more likely to report feeling oppressed by society.