Problematic use of the Internet is a unidimensional quasi-trait with impulsive and compulsive subtypes
CITATION: Tiego, J., et al. 2019. Problematic use of the Internet is a unidimensional quasi-trait with impulsive and compulsive subtypes. BMC Psychiatry, 19:348, doi:10.1186/s12888-019-2352-8.
The original publication is available at https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com
Background: Problematic use of the Internet has been highlighted as needing further study by international bodies, including the European Union and American Psychiatric Association. Knowledge regarding the optimal classification of problematic use of the Internet, subtypes, and associations with clinical disorders has been hindered by reliance on measurement instruments characterized by limited psychometric properties and external validation. Methods: Non-treatment seeking individuals were recruited from the community of Stellenbosch, South Africa (N = 1661), and Chicago, United States of America (N = 827). Participants completed an online version of the Internet Addiction Test, a widely used measure of problematic use of the Internet consisting of 20-items, measured on a 5-point Likert-scale. The online questions also included demographic measures, time spent engaging in different online activities, and clinical scales. The psychometric properties of the Internet Addiction Test, and potential problematic use of the Internet subtypes, were characterized using factor analysis and latent class analysis. Results: Internet Addiction Test data were optimally conceptualized as unidimensional. Latent class analysis identified two groups: those essentially free from Internet use problems, and those with problematic use of the Internet situated along a unidimensional spectrum. Internet Addiction Test scores clearly differentiated these groups, but with different optimal cut-offs at each site. In the larger Stellenbosch dataset, there was evidence for two subtypes of problematic use of the Internet that differed in severity: a lower severity “impulsive” subtype (linked with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), and a higher severity “compulsive” subtype (linked with obsessive-compulsive personality traits). Conclusions: Problematic use of the Internet as measured by the Internet Addiction Test reflects a quasi-trait - a unipolar dimension in which most variance is restricted to a subset of people with problems regulating Internet use. There was no evidence for subtypes based on the type of online activities engaged in, which increased similarly with overall severity of Internet use problems. Measures of comorbid psychiatric symptoms, along with impulsivity, and compulsivity, appear valuable for differentiating clinical subtypes and could be included in the development of new instruments for assessing the presence and severity of Internet use problems.