The Relationship between Autism, Anxiety and Internet Addiction

Addictions.......they are crazy!

There is a body of evidence to suggest that the notion of an internet addiction disorder (IAD) has some construct validity. The concept of IAD is based on observation and findings that some individuals display signs of problematic internet related behaviours similiar to those observed for other behavioural addictions, such as gambling. Excess use of the internet has been found to produce severe disruption to an individuals everyday functioning, of particular note, social and work commitment. Moreover, individuals who show signs of IAD also demonstrate a need to engage in greater amounts of internet-related activities over time. Nonetheless, perhaps most concerning is the fact that individuals who score highly on psychometrically - measured tests for internet addiction, display signs of withdrawal when they stop using the internet, manifesting as reduced mood and increased levels of depression.

A number of psychological problems and personality traits have been documented as having associations with problematic internet behaviours, including lack of inhibition and problems in making self-controlled choices. It has also been shown that individuals scoring highly on internet addiction tests also score highly in terms of anxiety, with clinical presentations of anxiety and depression understood as comorbid symptoms originating from high levels of internet use.

A group of individuals who have displayed high levels of internet usage are those who are socially isolated, and those who report social anxiety. These latter behaviours are related to characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and it has been shown that those with ASD engage in internet usage to a high extent. However, there is often two sides to every has been argued that the internet is a very important tool for individuals with broad autistic phenotype (social abnormalities, pragmatic language difficulties, rigid personality and desire for sameness) in that it may help them to engage social interactions that they would not otherwise engage in if they were to employ traditional social means. For example, I have patients who are highly engaged in online gaming, whereby their friendship groups are strictly derived from this mode of engagement - with some patients travelling to meet their friends interstate. In contrast, I have patients who indulge in gaming-binges, for 10 to 12 hours per day, or stay awake until 4 a.m. in the morning attempting to finish a section of a game. In these individuals I have observed that video game dependency is associated with psychological and social stress, such as lower academic grades, less sleep time limited leisure time activities, increased absenteeism from school, and sadly intention to commit self-harm and/ or suicide.

Research studies have highlighted that there exists a strong association between autism traits in the general population and internet addiction, mediated by the presence of anxiety and depression. A recent paper published in the Journal of Research in Autism Spectrum Disorder found a significant relationship between both autism traits and levels of anxiety with internet addiction , such that the higher the autism and/or anxiety score, the more likely the participant was to report higher levels of problematic internet usage.

What is interestingly, is that the above research makes the speculation that non-ASD individuals diagnosed with anxiety may dispose that individual to express their social interactions virtually. This may be satisfactory or preferable for those individuals - meaning that high levels of internet use may not be a problem for them. However, it is as true to speculate that these same high levels of internet behaviour in lower anxious individuals, who are happy to also engage in face to face interactions, may be problematic over time.

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