Internet Addiction May Mask Teen Depression

Can't get your teenager off the computer long enough to come to dinner? It could be a tip-off to more than typical adolescent behavior: Your teen could be depressed, researchers say.

The more depressed an adolescent is, the more time he or she will spend on the Internet, says researcher Sang Kyu Lee, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Hallym University in Chunchon, Korea.

His study, presented here Monday at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, included 425 middle-school students. All were given a test of Internet addiction that asked such questions as whether you feel preoccupied with the Internet, whether you repeatedly make unsuccessful efforts to cut back on use, and whether your online travels are a means of escaping from problems.

The study shows that about 11 percent of the teens were "highly addicted to the Internet," Lee says. "Less than one-third were in the no-risk group."

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Internet Addiction May Mask Depression

Then, the kids were all administered a test to gauge symptoms of depression.

The teens most addicted to the Internet scored highest for depression, he says. The group with the lowest addiction tendencies scored the lowest.

When they looked at specific behaviors, the researchers found that the Internet addicts tended to be novelty seekers, with low attention span and low goals, Lee says.

The findings held true regardless of sex, age, and the grade point average, he adds.

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A Vicious Cycle

So which comes first: the depression or the Internet addiction? The study doesn't really answer that question, but Lee says it's a vicious cycle.

"Depression makes teens more preoccupied with the Internet," he tells WebMD. "Depressed children set small goals. Then since their goals aren't that high, they search for small rewards, which they find on their Internet," he says.

But all that time alone makes teens isolated, contributing further to their depression, Lee says.

Diab Almhana, MD, who has a private practice in the Cleveland area, tells WebMD that one of his patients fits the general profile.

"The teenager, a very smart 10th-grade student, started playing on the computer. He spent more and more time online, eventually into the wee hours of the night. As he stopped sleeping and going to school, he became more and more addicted -- and more and more depressed.

"He doesn't look depressed, but he is," he says. "Isolated and depressed."

In the end, it doesn't really matter which comes first, Almhana says. The important thing is to recognize the signs. "A teen who is spending too much time online could be at risk," he says.

Click here to read Web MD's coverage of potential genetic causes for depression.

By Charlene Laino, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: American Psychiatric Association 2005 Annual Meeting, Atlanta, May 21-26, 2005. Sang Kyu Lee, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry, Hallym University, Chunchon, Korea. Diab Almhana, MD, psychiatrist, Avon Lake, Ohio.