SAN DIEGO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – The concept of Internet addiction is imperfect, but it has validity and describes an impairing but treatable problem, according to Diana D. Deister, MD .

“Timely diagnosis can lead to good treatment and symptom improvement,” she said at the annual meeting and scientific symposium of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry.

Frameworks for the diagnosis of Internet addiction (IA)/pathological Internet use (PIU) vary but are based mostly on DSM-IV substance abuse and dependency criteria, DSM-IV pathological gambling, or other models. “There are many different checklists and diagnostic instruments you can use, and common synonyms include pathological Internet use, problematic Internet use, and compulsive Internet use,” said Dr. Deister, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “They may not all refer to the exact same problem you might encounter in clinical practice.”

Prevalence rates of IA/PIU among adolescents vary widely across the globe, from 1%-2% up to the high teens – depending on how addiction is defined. The rate among college students is thought to range from 6% to 35% ( Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2011;165[9]:797-805 ). According to Dr. Deister, IA is associated with male gender, younger age, higher family income, and Internet use variables such as the amount of time spent online, and the use of social and gaming applications. Psychosocial factors associated with the condition include impulsivity, neuroticism, loneliness, and low self-esteem, while comorbid symptoms include depression, anxiety, insomnia, and psychopathology in general.

The Internet Addiction Diagnostic Questionnaire, developed in 1998 by Kimberly S. Young, PsyD , is widely used in research and consists of eight yes or no questions ( Cyberpsychol Behav. 1998;1[3]:237-44 ). Answering “yes” to five out of the eight questions gives you a diagnosis of IA. “There are no preferred symptoms that everybody has to have in order to make the diagnosis, so this is more like the current SUD diagnosis for DSM-5,” Dr. Deister explained. “And there’s no time criteria.”

Clinicians can secure a more detailed assessment of IA symptoms by using the Internet Addiction Test ( IAT ), which Dr. Young developed in 2013. This tool consists of 20 questions rated on a five-point Likert scale based on frequency, where 0 stands for “not applicable” and 5 stands for “always.” Questions include “How often do you find that you stay online longer than you intended?” “How often do you block out disturbing thoughts about your life with soothing thoughts of the Internet?” And “How often do you feel depressed, moody, or nervous when you are offline, which goes away once you are back online?” A score of 80-100 is considered to meet criteria for IA, a score of 50-79 is considered borderline IA, while a score of below 50 is considered not pathological. Variations of this test can be found in the medical literature, including the Internet Process Addiction Test ( Behav Sci. 2015;5:341-52 ), which contains subscales of Internet use: surfing, online gaming, social networking, and sex.

Dr. Deister noted that imaging studies of brain pathways in IA have demonstrated that mesolimbic dopaminergic projections to the nucleus accumbens from the ventral tegmental area are involved, as well as diminished activity of the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. In a tract-based spatial statistics study, researchers used diffusor tensor imaging (DTI) to study the white matter integrity in 18 adolescents with IA, and 18 age- and gender-matched controls ( PLoS ONE. 7[1]:e30253. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030253 ). Compared with controls, the IA group scored higher in the IAT, the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders scale, and Family Assessment Device measure. DTI scans demonstrated widespread reductions of fractional anisotropy (FA; a measure of white matter health) in major white matter pathways. In addition, significantly negative correlations were found between FA values in the left genu of the corpus callosum and the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders, and between FA values in the left external capsule and in the IAT.

“The reason these white matter tracts could be important is that there have been previous studies showing that you can improve the health of your white matter tracks through exercise and physical therapy,” Dr. Deister said. “So it may be that this knowledge could lead to new treatments for some of these patients.”

One study of the dose dependence of IA symptoms found that adolescents who met criteria for addictive Internet use, compared with those who met criteria for borderline-addictive Internet use, had higher rates of peer problems (adjusted odds ratio, 7.14 vs. AOR, 5.28); conduct problems (AOR, 22.31 vs. AOR, 4.77); hyperactivity (AOR, 9.49 vs. AOR, 5.58); and emotional symptoms (AOR, 19.06 vs. AOR, 2.85; Int J Adolesc Med. 2014;26[3]:369-75 ). Multivariate regression analysis revealed that Internet addictive behavior was independently associated with using the Internet for retrieving sexual information (AOR, 1.17) and for participating in games with monetary rewards (AOR, 1.90).

Dr. Deister said IA and aggression go hand in hand. A study of 714 middle school students in Seoul, South Korea, showed a linear association between aggression and IA ( Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2015;18[5]:260-7 ). A separate qualitative study of 27 university students in the United States found that the consequences of Internet use led to decreased physical activity, decreased sleep, decreased face-to-face time with other people, and poorer academic performance and concentration ( PLoS ONE. 2015;10[2]:e0117372 ). Another study found that trait anhedonia at baseline predicted greater levels of compulsive Internet use, addiction to online activities, and greater likelihood of addiction to online/offline games ( Comput Human Behav. 2016;62:475-9 ).

Treatment for IA takes all the usual forms, but outcome studies are limited. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for IA was first developed as a 12-week model with a familiar design of behavior modification, cognitive restructuring, harm reduction, and relapse prevention, Dr. Deister said. One study of treatment outcomes that used CBT in 128 IA patients found that 95% of patients were able to manage symptoms at the end of 12 weeks of treatment, while 78% sustained recovery 6 months after treatment ( J Behav Addict. 2013;2[4]:209-15 ). Meanwhile, a meta-analysis of 12 studies related to IA found that medications and psychotherapy were found to be effective for improving IA status, time spent online, and depression and anxiety symptoms ( Clin Psychol Rev. 2013;33:317-29 ). A more recent intention-to-treat analysis of IA disorders in adolescents and adults found that patients referred to treatment showed significant improvements in compulsive Internet use over time ( J Behav Addict. 2017;6[4]:579-92 ). Differential effects were found depending on patients’ compliance, with high compliance generally resulting in significantly higher rates of change.

Dr. Deister reported having no financial disclosures.