Swansea University co-research finds Internet addicts at greater risk of illness

Scientists from Swansea and Milan Universities have found that excessive internet usage may damage immune function.

Internet UseThe research, conducted by Professor Phil Reed and Rebecca Vile from Swansea University, Dr Lisa A Osborne from Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board, and Dr Michela Romano and Professor Roberto Truzoli from the University of Milan, found that people who have greater levels of internet addiction problems catch more colds and flu bugs than those who are less addicted to the internet.

The study evaluated 500 people aged 18 to 101 years old.  It found that those who reported problems with over-using the internet also reported having more cold and flu symptoms than those people who did not report excessive use of the internet.

Around 40% of the sample reported mild or worse levels of internet addiction – a figure which did not differ between males and females.  People with greater levels of internet addiction had around 30% more cold and flu symptoms than those with less problematic internet usage. 

Previous research has shown that people who spend more time on the internet experience greater sleep deprivation, have worse eating habits and less healthy diets, engage in less exercise, and also tend to smoke and drink alcohol more.  These behaviours can harm their immune system and increase vulnerability to diseases.

Professor Phil Reed of Swansea University's College of Human and Health Sciences said: “We found that the impact of the internet on people’s health was independent of a range of other factors, like depression, sleep deprivation, and loneliness, which are associated with high levels of internet use and also with poor health”.

The study suggested that those who are addicted to the internet may suffer from great stress when they are disconnected from the net, and this cycle of stress and relief associated with internet addiction may lead to altered levels of cortisol – a hormone that impacts immune function. 

Professor Reed added: “It may also be that those who spend a long time alone on the internet experience reduced immune function as a result of simply not having enough contact with others and their germs.”

The study also found that people reported using the internet on average for six hours a day, but a sizable minority of the sample used it for over 10 hours a day – most often connected with social media sites.  There were also differences in the way in which men and women use the internet – women using the internet for social media and shopping more than men, and men reporting more use of the internet than women for gaming and pornography.

Professor Roberto Truzoli from Milan University said: “The results on internet usage, apart from being gender stereotypical, were not connected to its impact on immune function. It does not seem to matter what you use it for, if you use it too much, you are more susceptible to illness.  However, the mechanisms responsible for you getting ill may differ, depending on how you use the net”. 

The findings follow a recent study also conducted by the same team which found that individuals with a problematic use of the Internet become more impulsive after exposure to the Internet.  In 2013 Swansea University and the University of Milan also found that young people who use the Internet for excessively long periods can suffer similar withdrawal symptoms to substance mis-users.