Background: Prospective associations have been found between high use of information and communication technology (ICT) and reported mental symptoms among young adult university students, but the causal mechanisms are unclear. Our aim was to explore possible explanations for associations between high ICT use and symptoms of depression, sleep disorders, and stress among young adults in order to propose a model of possible pathways to mental health effects that can be tested epidemiologically.
Methods: We conducted a qualitative interview study with 16 women and 16 men (21-28 years), recruited from a cohort of university students on the basis of reporting high computer (n = 28) or mobile phone (n = 20) use at baseline and reporting mental symptoms at the one-year follow-up. Semi-structured interviews were performed, with open-ended questions about possible connections between the use of computers and mobile phones, and stress, depression, and sleep disturbances. The interview data were analyzed with qualitative content analysis and summarized in a model.
Results: Central factors appearing to explain high quantitative ICT use were personal dependency, and demands for achievement and availability originating from the domains of work, study, social life, and individual aspirations. Consequences included mental overload, neglect of other activities and personal needs, time pressure, role conflicts, guilt feelings, social isolation, physical symptoms, worry about electromagnetic radiation, and economic problems. Qualitative aspects (destructive communication and information) were also reported, with consequences including vulnerability, misunderstandings, altered values, and feelings of inadequacy. User problems were a source of frustration. Altered ICT use as an effect of mental symptoms was reported, as well as possible positive effects of ICT on mental health.
Conclusions: The concepts and ideas of the young adults with high ICT use and mental symptoms generated a model of possible paths for associations between ICT exposure and mental symptoms. Demands for achievement and availability as well as personal dependency were major causes of high ICT exposure but also direct sources of stress and mental symptoms. The proposed model shows that factors in different domains may have an impact and should be considered in epidemiological and intervention studies.