Increased internet use linked to higher anxiety in teens, research shows

In a recent study published in BMC Public Health, researchers examined the prevalence of anxiety and Internet addiction among adolescents during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in Vietnam.

Study: Prevalence of internet addiction and anxiety, and factors associated with the high level of anxiety among adolescents in Hanoi, Vietnam during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image Credit: DisobeyArt/Shutterstock.comStudy: Prevalence of internet addiction and anxiety, and factors associated with the high level of anxiety among adolescents in Hanoi, Vietnam during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image Credit: DisobeyArt/Shutterstock.com

Background

Adolescence is a transitional period characterized by significant emotional, physical, social, and cognitive changes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful for adolescents due to uncontrollable stress factors such as school closures, fear of disease, a lack of social connections, and changes in family and social settings.

The psychological impact of the pandemic might have been more significant for adolescents than adults, given their vulnerability. Anxiety disorder remains one of the most common mental health problems in adolescents.

Further, the Internet has a profound impact on this subpopulation, and its addiction often leads affected people to neglect responsibilities and lose interest in other activities.

Social isolation measures imposed during the pandemic have increased internet usage and addiction risk. Studies suggest that adolescents are prone to excessive internet use, which may have adverse effects.

Furthermore, adolescents struggling with internet addiction have greater odds of experiencing mental health issues. Excess internet use also limits real-life social interactions.

About the study

In the present study, researchers estimated the prevalence of anxiety and Internet addiction among Vietnamese adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Secondary and high school students from Ha Noi, Vietnam, were included, and online surveys were administered from October to December 2021. The seven-item generalized anxiety disorder (GAD-7) assessment was used to determine anxiety levels.

Students were asked to rate the severity of their symptoms over the last two weeks. The Internet addiction diagnostic questionnaire was adapted to assess addiction. Participants were asked to indicate if they could not live without the Internet and smart devices, used them to cope with stress, or lied to their parents about time spent online.

They also indicated that they were angry when parents regulated the time spent online and preferred to spend time on the Internet rather than with family or friends.

Students were asked whether their families experienced food insecurity or whether their parents were unemployed due to COVID-19. Participants also specified if they experienced family domestic violence during the pandemic.

Findings

Overall, 5,315 students aged 11–17 were included. Most participants (92%) lived with parents, 7.6% had a single parent, and 0.4% lived alone. About 53% of students were rural residents. Over 27% of students living with families experienced food insecurity during the pandemic, and a similar proportion of participants reported spending over eight hours online daily.

Approximately 25% of participants had one of their parents unemployed due to COVID-19. Around 12% of respondents experienced domestic family violence.

Nearly 55% of students indicated they could not live without the Internet and smart devices, and 58% used the Internet and smart devices as coping mechanisms for stress and unwanted events.

Over 7% of participants had severe anxiety (GAD-7 score > 14), 22.8% had moderate levels (score 10–14), and the remainder had minimum (score: 0–4) or mild levels of anxiety (score: 5–9).

The prevalence of high anxiety levels (score ≥ 7) increased significantly with an increase in time spent online. Females were more likely to experience high levels of anxiety than males.

Further, participants who experienced family domestic violence showed an increased risk of experiencing high anxiety compared to those who did not experience domestic violence.

Students who spent four to eight hours online every day had significantly greater odds of having high anxiety levels than those who spent less than four hours.

Conclusions

The researchers noted that 30% of students experienced high levels of anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 13.8% of the sample had no positive indicators of internet addiction, and the remainder had some form of addiction.

Specifically, approximately a third of the sample showed at least three positive indicators of internet addiction, and over a quarter spent more than eight hours online every day.

The odds of having high levels of anxiety increased with the time spent online and the number of positive indicators of addiction. Together, the findings indicate gender, excessive online activity, food insecurity, internet addiction, and family domestic violence as factors associated with high levels of anxiety.

Overall, the study underscores the need to implement school- and family-level measures to promote and balance Internet and smart device use among adolescents.

Journal reference:
Tarun Sai Lomte

Written by

Tarun Sai Lomte

Tarun is a writer based in Hyderabad, India. He has a Master’s degree in Biotechnology from the University of Hyderabad and is enthusiastic about scientific research. He enjoys reading research papers and literature reviews and is passionate about writing.

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