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Internet addiction in youth linked to adverse experiences during childhood, says study

The findings come amid concerns among health researchers that large proportions of college students and other young people in India spend long periods on the Internet, leading to disruptions in study or work

G.S. Mudur New Delhi Published 31.01.24, 07:23 AM
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Young people who’ve had four or more adverse experiences during childhood are nearly four times more likely to become Internet addicts, India’s first study to explore how adverse childhood experiences influence Internet usage has suggested.

The study has found that the risk of addiction to the Internet in young people increased if they had been exposed to multiple traumatic experiences when they were children. However, a single exposure to sexual abuse also raises the risk of Internet addiction.


The findings come amid concerns among health researchers that large proportions of college students and other young people in India spend long periods on the Internet, leading to disruptions in study or work. A technical review in 2021 of 50 studies from 19 states in the country had found that 20 per cent to 40 per cent of college students were at risk of Internet addiction.

In the new study, researchers have probed possible links between Internet addiction and exposure during childhood to alcohol abuse, drug abuse, violence, mental illness, bullying, parental death or separation, and sexual abuse, among other potentially distressing events.

They noted Internet addiction levels of 52 per cent among young people with no exposure to such experiences, 61 per cent among those exposed to one to three such experiences, and 80 per cent among those with four or more such adverse experiences.

“The greater the exposure to such distressing events, the higher the risk of Internet addiction,” said Kallur Nava Saraswathy, professor of anthropology at the University of Delhi who led the new study published in the Journal of Medicine, Surgery, and Public Health.

Saraswathy and her collaborators at the Public Health Foundation of India examined Internet usage habits and childhood experiences in a sample of 285 people aged between 18 and 25 years. Among the study volunteers, 80 had no adverse childhood experiences, 169 had exposure to between one and three adverse experiences, and 36 had exposure to four or more adverse experiences.

The researchers estimated that young people with childhood exposure to four or more adverse experiences have a statistically significant 3.8-fold increased risk of Internet addiction compared to those with no such adverse exposure.

Exposure to single experiences did not increase the risk, except when the experience involved sexual abuse. Young people exposed to sexual abuse during childhood had a 1.9-fold increased risk of Internet addiction, the study has found.

Clinical psychologists aren’t surprised by the findings.

“Addiction to Internet platforms is fairly widespread among adolescents and young adults — we have seen it disrupt studies or work and it contributes to social isolation,” said Arti Anand, a clinical psychologist at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi, who was not associated with the new study.

For some people, Anand said, the Internet provides “an escape” from their real-world concerns. “But many people who have social anxiety or low self-esteem could also get addicted as they feel they cannot be judged as they remain anonymous on the Internet,” Anand said.

Multiple studies in other countries have earlier suggested the possibility that Internet addiction might be the outcome of factors ranging from genetic predisposition to social and cultural circumstances that drive people to Internet platforms.

“Our findings would need to be validated through larger studies but they suggest that trauma-informed initiatives which take adverse childhood experiences into account might help lower the burden of Internet addiction,” Saraswathy said.

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