Physical activity may reduce depression in those prone to internet overuse and emotional regulation difficulties

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In a recent study published in Scientific Reports, researchers examined the mediating function of web addiction in the association between alexithymia and depressive symptoms and the moderating influence of physical exercise.

Study: The mediating effect of internet addiction and the moderating effect of physical activity on the relationship between alexithymia and depression. Image Credit: GaudiLab/Shutterstock.comStudy: The mediating effect of internet addiction and the moderating effect of physical activity on the relationship between alexithymia and depression. Image Credit: GaudiLab/Shutterstock.com

Background

Alexithymia, a personality characteristic associated with emotional impairment, is frequently connected to depression in undergraduates.

This syndrome can make it harder to establish interpersonal interactions, making people feel less socially supported with weaker communication skills. Transitioning to university requires more flexible schedules and broader social groups to overcome a significant challenge.

The link between alexithymia and depressive symptoms exists in both clinical and non-clinical populations, and depression serves as a mediator between alexithymia and other risk behaviors. Alexithymia sufferers may demonstrate extreme internet addiction, which grows with age and grade.

Reregulating the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function and encouraging physical exercise might help to ease the significant link between online addiction and depressive symptoms.

About the study

In the present study, researchers investigated the links between alexithymia presence and depressive symptoms among undergraduates, the regulating impact of web addiction, and potential moderation by physical exercise.

The researchers conducted the study in October 2023 at two institutions in the western region of Hunan Province, China.

They used online addiction as a regulatory factor between depressive symptoms and alexithymia and exercise to regulate the association between web addiction and depressive symptoms, elucidating the underlying mechanisms linking alexithymia to depression.

The analysis comprised 594 valid replies, with an average age of 19 years. The sample included 250 males (42%) and 344 females (58%). The researchers used the replies to conduct descriptive, correlation, and regression analyses and build mediation and moderation models.

In total, 676 students completed electronic questionnaires within 20 minutes. The team used the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20) to determine the extent of alexithymia and the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS-21) to evaluate depressive symptoms.

The researchers assessed online addiction levels using the online Addiction Test (IAT) and the Physical Activity Scale, established by Liang Deqing, to assess physical activity.

The team performed correlation analysis and used descriptive statistics to characterize the participants' demographic characteristics and the primary interest variables, adjusting for age and sex.

Results and discussion

Alexithymia showed significantly positive associations with depression and online addiction, whereas physical exercise had a significantly negative link with online addiction and depressive symptoms among undergraduates.

Internet addiction was significantly and favorably connected with sadness and strongly adversely associated with physical exercise among college students. Exercise has a significant negative correlation with depression in undergraduates.

Internet addiction amplified the connection between alexithymia and depression, whereas physical exercise acted as a moderator, weakening the correlation.

After adjusting for confounders and adding moderating factors, alexithymia continued to strongly and positively predict the extent of depression among undergraduates.

The mediation assessment showed alexithymia positively and significantly predicted online addiction in college students, whereas internet addiction serves as a mediating factor between alexithymia presence and depression levels in students.

The moderation assessment showed that physical exercise adversely predicts depression, as do interaction terms between web addiction and exercise among students.

Alexithymia is associated with decreased emotional control and an elevated risk of depression in undergraduates. This illness can result in decreased social assistance and higher degrees of depression.

Internet addiction mediates this association since trouble detecting emotions contributes to disturbances in real-world relationships, prompting individuals to seek social fulfillment online.

Based on the compensatory internet usage hypothesis, unpleasant social interactions and emotions force individuals to avoid the web to cope but worsen their internet addiction.

Long-term exercise can minimize online addiction and depressive symptoms, balance parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system functions, and enhance sleep quality. To address the link between depression and alexithymia, one must assess internet addiction and promote active participation in physical tasks.

The study investigated the link between depressive symptoms and alexithymia in college students, indicating that excessive internet use may moderate the relationship as an emotional coping mechanism.

Physical exercise reduces the predictive value of web addiction for depression. The findings indicate favorable associations between alexithymia, internet addiction, and depression but negative relationships with physical activity. 

After adjusting for demographic factors, internet addiction mediates the link between anxiety and depression in college students, whereas physical exercise modulates the association.

Future studies could analyze longitudinal information to explore causal correlations, integrate objective and subjective data to increase evidentiary credibility, and include cross-regional designs to improve understanding of the association between these factors.

Journal reference:
Pooja Toshniwal Paharia

Written by

Pooja Toshniwal Paharia

Pooja Toshniwal Paharia is an oral and maxillofacial physician and radiologist based in Pune, India. Her academic background is in Oral Medicine and Radiology. She has extensive experience in research and evidence-based clinical-radiological diagnosis and management of oral lesions and conditions and associated maxillofacial disorders.

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