In previous posts I have discussed the challenges of naming, classifying and defining the phenomenon that this commonly known as Internet addiction, and therefore the attempts that have been made to assess 'it.' In this article I will highlight the related challenge of trying to estimate the prevalence of the problem.
Despite the difficulties inherent in the endeavour, there has been a surge of research interest across the world attempting to estimate how prevalent 'Internet addiction' is. Despite the well documented increase of individuals presenting to clinics with Internet related problems, not least in my own, King et al. (2011) have warned of the inclination to overestimate the severity and extent as a result of the poor methodological design within studies. Byun et al. (2009) support this claim in a metasynthesis of quantitative studies conducted between 1996 and 2006, and discovered that a large proportion of studies are flawed by a serious sampling bias, due to inconsistent identification criteria recruitment methods. However, several years have elapsed since the cut-off point within the Byun et al. (2009) study and many more quantitative studies have since been conducted, necessitating the need for a contemporary replication of this study (Shorrock, 2013).
One of the earliest studies emerged from the Americas, where Greenfield (1999) collaborated with ABCNews.com to survey active Internet users. Of the 17 000 respondents, it was claimed that 6% fitted their Internet addiction profile. Although merited as one of the largest psychological surveys, across a broad cross-section of the population, the survey relied solely on self-reported data. More recent reputable United States studies (Aboujaoude, Koran, Gamel, Large & Serpe, 2006) generalised from their findings that at least one in eight Americans experienced significant distress associated with Internet addiction.
Young and Abreu (2011) review disturbing findings from the most recent Statistical Report on Internet addictive behaviour in China (Cui, Zhao, Wu, & Xu, 2006) conducted by the China Youth Association for Internet Development. Of the 162 million users of the Internet in China, 100 million are younger than 24 years old; of which 9.72% - 11.06% are classified as serious addicts (an estimated 10 million young people). Other researcher within China, Taiwan and South Korea offer prevalence estimates ranging as low as 1.6% (Kim et. al, 2006). Whilst others research (Geng et. al, 2006) supports the Cui et al. (2006) and Aboujaoude et al. (2006) studies revealing a prevalence of 11.3%; indicating a cross-cultural correlation in the case of the latter. Using the Pathological Internet Use (PIU) scale on students in the United Kingdom, 18.3% were considered to be pathological Internet users (Niemz et al, 2005). It is also well documented that British children and young people are heavy users of the Internet and other new technologies (see, for example, Ofcom, 2008). Again, these studies are now outdated, and the knowledge base would benefit from a robust cross-cultural meta-analytical study of recent findings. Also, research is scarce that explores how young people are distributing their engagement across the various resources of the Internet” (Crook, 2008, p.18) and what this may mean for education and learning.
Dr Matthew Shorrock is Clinical Director at the International Centre for Internet Addiction, offering face-to-face and online assessment and research services. Treatment programmes and clinics are also available at dedicated centres in Austria (Vienna) and the United Kingdom Manchester. Supervision, consultation and workshops are also available to health care professionals and organisations working with problematic internet use, supporting them in providing the best possible care - from prevention to 'cure'.
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