How much internet is too much internet?

Even after two decades of the web, in which it's become an inseparable part of our daily lives, just what should define "problematic internet use", or PIU, is still unclear.

But there was more than enough evidence to show that over-use could lead to big problems, ranging from relationship breakdowns and work problems to back strains, sleeplessness and even physical collapse.

A University of Auckland researcher has begun investigating what toll PIU is having here in New Zealand, where more than 90 per cent of adults use the net at least once a day.

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Delia Cotoros-Goodall's new study aimed to get a better picture of how Kiwis were using the internet, and at which point surfing the net became a serious health risk, potentially worsening underlying conditions like depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

"There has not been any agreement in terms of where to draw the line between what's okay and what's not."

She described the current state of research on the topic as muddled and already outdated.

Some older measures of PIU considered someone as "addicted" if they spent 20 or more hours online each week - but that included use at work and school.

"Our society has evolved so much that we have entire jobs dependant on the internet, so 20 hours total per week seems to be a very outdated number."

Types of PIU ranged from "general", characterised by aimlessly spending time surfing websites, to "specific", where users were being drawn online to feed habits like gambling, shopping or social networking.

"From what I found, all the previous measures were developed by academics who came up with the questionnaire based on what they've observed in people - which means a lot of the questions represented what the researcher believed to be a problem."

Cotoros-Goodall has since developed her own measure, combining general PIU and three scales addressing online shopping, gambling and watching pornography.

She had already carried out focus groups with a random sample of 70 internet users, discussing what behaviours would be indicative of someone who has a problem.

"This was the first study to ask internet users in New Zealand what they consider to be problematic use in this day and age."

Her next step was to validate the measure in a national context, and explore the relationship between internet use and various psychopathology scales.

She hoped this might ultimately build a picture of the issue in New Zealand, detailing its prevalence and effects.

NetSafe chief executive Martin Cocker said PIU was a topic of increasing study worldwide, and one his organisation had explored through several of its recent research reports.

For parents concerned about their childrens' use, NetSafe recommended setting parental controls on devices, putting restrictions on modems or routers, or routinely changing the Wi-Fi password and only giving access once chores or homework were completed.

People aged over 18 who want to be part of the new study can complete it online, or email Cotoros-Goodall at d.cotoros@auckland.ac.nz.

Problematic Internet Use

• Generally described as a person's inability to control their use of the internet, which can lead to problems at home or work, or worsen existing conditions like substance abuse and depression.

• Researchers commonly classify PIU as general, where a user will spend large amounts of time surfing from site to site, and specific, where their constantly surfing gambling or shopping sites is feeding addictive behaviours.

• Although the concept spans back to 1996, when academics first developed measures aimed at assessing whether someone's use of the internet, there hasn't been and consensus on where to draw the line.