Internet addiction in teenagers can lead to emotional issues, but pre-existing emotional issues don’t lead to an internet addiction, a new Australian study has found.

The study, led by the University of Sydney Business School’s Dr James Donald, aimed to test two hotly-contested theories: whether compulsive internet use leads to difficulties in regulating emotions over time, and whether underlying emotion regulation issues lead to compulsive internet usage.

The four-year longitudinal study, the first of its kind to examine the connection between internet addiction among adolescents and emotion regulation difficulties, saw more than 2,800 students from Years 8 to Years 11 across 17 Australian high schools take part.

The findings, published in the peer-reviewed journal Emotion, reveal that an internet addiction in teenagers can lead to difficulties in emotion regulation, including with things like setting long-term goals.

“We observed a pattern of behaviour over time that suggests internet addiction leads to emotion regulation problems, but not the reverse,” Dr Donald said.

“Despite a lot of anecdotal evidence and popular opinion on this, we know little about how compulsive internet use impacts young peoples’ emotion regulation and vice versa.

“We were surprised to find the negative effects of compulsive internet usage on things like the ability to set goals and understand one’s emotions, remained stable across all four years of the study.”

But the researchers found no evidence that existing issues with emotion regulation were predictors of obsessive behaviour online.

In collaboration with researchers from the Australian Catholic University, the University of Sydney academics found that this compulsive internet usage is likely to have more severe effects on “effortful” forms of emotion regulation, such as difficulties in pursuing life goals and understanding your own emotions.

The internet use has less of an impact on other forms of emotion regulation, according to co-author Professor Joseph Ciarrochi.

“Our research shows compulsive internet use has little impact on less complex emotional processes like self-acceptance and awareness,” Ciarrochi said.

“A 12-month period of compulsive internet use might not be as harmful as we first thought. ”However, if this behaviour persists into a teenager’s later years, effects compound and emotional dysregulation can become a problem.”

Programs aiming to teach teenagers about general emotion regulation skills, such as those provided by schools, are not as effective as reducing compulsive behaviour online and limiting time spent on the internet, the report found.

The risks of obsessive internet usage have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Donald said.

“Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, high school students are more reliant on the internet than ever before,” Donald said.

“The internet is both a site of learning and play, which makes it difficult for parents to monitor.

“While it might be difficult for parents to control internet access, our study suggests that parents and schools have an important role to play in teaching their kids about healthy internet use, monitoring the activities they engage with online and ensuring they have meaningful and engaging offline activities that provide balance.”

The report comes after the World Health Organisation last year voted to classify video game addiction as a real psychological disorder.

The disorder, defined as a “pattern of gaming behaviour characterised by impaired control over gaming”, affects “only a small proportion of people” who play games.