Family functioning, attachment styles and problematic Internet use in adolescence <br> Sonia Mangialavori, Claudia Russo & Marco Cacioppo

Family functioning, attachment styles and problematic Internet use in adolescence
Sonia Mangialavori, Claudia Russo & Marco Cacioppo

Family functioning, attachment styles and problematic Internet use in adolescence


by Sonia Mangialavori, Claudia Russo & Marco Cacioppo

LUMSA University of Rome 


Abstract: The increased use of Internet in the last decade has led to problematic behavior that can affect people’s individual and social functioning, especially among teenagers. The aim of this study was to explore the relation among Problematic Internet Use (PIU), attachment styles, and perception of family functioning in adolescence. Two hundred and sixty-six Italian adolescents (Males = 57.1%; Mage = 16.01; SD = 0.90) were involved and asked to fill-in a self-report questionnaire. The results of correlation’s analysis highlighted that preoccupied and fearful attachment styles and the problem solving dimension were significantly and positively related to PIU. Whereas, as regards family functioning dimensions, the ability to establish clear and defined roles, a clear and empathic affective response, an affective involvement and a general family functioning appear to be in significant and negative association with PIU. In line with these results, it would be recommendable the development of family-focused prevention programs for all adolescents at risk of PIU before they develop a full Internet Addiction. Further research on this topic is needed to develop a specific, autonomous, and comprehensive diagnostic process for PIU to avoid conceptual and treatment overlap between PIU and other kinds of addictive behaviors.

Key Words: Problematic Internet Use, Family Functioning, Attachment Styles, Adolescents



In the last fifteen years the number of Web-users, especially in adolescence, has increased exponentially, becoming a real generational phenomenon (Stavropoulos et al. 2016). Today’s adolescents have been defined as “digital natives”: an expression coined for the first time by Prensky (2001) to indicate all those who were born and raised in a society in which the Internet has revolutionized the lives of individuals both by sustaining culture and democracy through the sharing of information and knowledge and by facilitating interactions between gender, ethnic groups, social classes and geographical boundaries. Despite these positive aspects, the overuse of the Internet, especially in adolescence, has negative consequences related to a greater risk of developing psychopathologies such as depression and anxiety (Lin et al 2011; Schimmenti et al. 2013). Adolescence is the lifespan characterized by physical changes, as well as significant psychological and social changes (Palmonari 2011). These changes allow teenagers to reach new skills and a personal lifestyle useful to become an adult. Nevertheless, these transformations represent potential risk factors for the development of problematic behaviors (Ciairano et al. 2007). Among these problematic behaviours there is the Problematic Internet Use (PIU) and the problematic use of its devices (such as social media, applications for online gaming). Even if PIU differs from the Internet Addiction for its less pervasive and serious characteristics, is a behaviour worthy of relevance as a possible precursor of a real addiction. The concept of Internet Addiction was first introduced in 1998 by Kimberly Young, who pointed out that the excessive use of Internet can cause personal, family and professional problems similar to those documented in other addictions (e.g. gambling, addiction to psychoactive substances, alcohol, etc.). However, several authors criticized this definition as too much based on the model of pathological addictions and too restrictive to capture the entire population of Web-users who could use the Internet in a dysfunctional way (for more details see Anderson et al. 2017). Even if there is not yet a general consensus on this topic, we often prefer to use the label Problematic Internet Use (PIU), meaning an inability to control one’s own use of the web, that causes negative consequences in daily life (Spada 2013). A recent review (Anderson et al. 2017) has highlighted how there is not a clear and univocal definition of PIU. With the purpose to clarify this phenomenon during adolescence, the authors propose their own dimensional model. According to this model, all behaviours would vary along a continuum, in this case from low levels of Internet Use (IU) to high levels of IU. Despite there is not a shared consensus about this conceptualization of PIU, the negative consequences that an overuse of Internet could have on the daily life are evident, especially during adolescence (Cacioppo et al 2019). Some authors have focused more on the contribution of individual factors such as age, gender, attachment styles and personal values (Gámez-Guadix et al. 2015; Odacı & Çıkrıkçı 2014; Russo et al. 2019), while others have preferred to investigate the impact that environmental and family factors could have on PIU (Chen et al. 2015; Wartberg et al. 2014). The results of these studies showed that during adolescence, male gender, insecure attachment styles, a problematic family functioning and with personal self-enhancement values are the most risk factors for PIU.
A recent comparison between young patients with an Internet Addiction and controls showed that patients had an insecure attachment and evaluated their family functioning as more negative than controls. Moreover, they reported problems in every dimension evaluated by the Family Assessment Device (FAD, Epstein et al. 1983). Based on these results, the authors highlighted the importance of taking into account both attachment and family functioning dimensions in the treatment of patients with Internet Addiction. Indeed, both intra-individual and inter-individual levels (such as family factors) are associated with problematic use of the Web. In the light of the results of Şenormanci and colleagues (2017), the main aim of this study is to analyse the association among attachment styles of adolescents, their perception of family functioning and PIU. In particular, in line with the international literature it was hypothesised that:
H1: an insecure attachment (preoccupied, fearful and dismissive) is positively and significantly associated with PIU.
H2: Dysfunctional family functioning is positively and significantly associated with PIU.


Participants and Procedure

Participants were 266 adolescents born and living in Italy (57.1% males), aged from 15 to 19 years (Mage=16.01, DS=0.90). The participants were involved thanks to the collaboration with some Roman High Schools. Before their participation into the project, parents and adolescents gave their informed consent. Participants completed a pencil-and-paper questionnaire during regular school hours in the presence of a research assistant. The questionnaire took approximately 30 minutes to complete. The study was carried out according to the Italian laws of privacy and informed consent (Law Decree DL-196/2003) and according to the Italian Association of Psychology ethical guidelines.


Attachment Styles. The Relationship Questionnaire (RQ, Bartolomew and Horowitz 1991) was used to evaluate the attachment styles. It is a self-report questionnaire composed by 4 single items, on a 7-point Likert scale (1=”Doesn’t describe me at all”, 7=”Accurately describes me”). Each item is composed by a brief description of the different attachment patterns. The RQ can be used among adults (Bartholomew and Shaver 1998) as well as among adolescents (Pace et al. 2016). An example of item (secure attachment) is: “It is easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on others and having others depend on me. I don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept me”.
Family Functioning. The Family Assessment Device (FAD, Epstein et al. 1983; Italian Validation by Roncone et al. 1998) was used to measure family functioning. It is a self-report scale composed by 60 items, on a 4 point Likert scale (1=”Strongly agree”, 4=”Strongly disagree”). Each item consists by a brief description of the members of a typical family and their functioning. The FAD measures, through 6 sub-scales, the 6 dimensions of the McMaster family functioning model (Epstein et al. 1983) and also provides an additional measure about general family functioning. The 6 subscales are: Problem Solving (6 items), which measures the ability of each family to cope with problems both within and outside the family context; Communication (9 items), the prevailing communicative style within the family that can be clear and direct or vague and indirect; Roles (9 items), evaluates the ability of the family to establish rules of conduct among its members; Affective Response (6 items), refers to the ability of family members to respond to situations in an emotionally appropriate way; Affective Involvement (7 items), the ability of family members to be involved and interested in the activities of other family members; Behavioural Control (9 items), refers to the ability of the family to maintain behavioural standards. General family functioning is measured by the average of 12 items.
Problematic Internet Use. The Young’s Internet Addiction Test (Y-IAT, Young & Rogers 1998; Italian validation by Faraci et al. 2013) was used. The scale is composed by 20 items, on a 5-point Likert scale (1=”very rarely”; 5=”very often”). It evaluates withdrawal, social problems, time management, performance and substitution of reality among web-users. The total score can vary from a minimum of 20 to a maximum of 100. Those who score less than 40 are classified as non-problematic users, those who score between 40 and 69 are considered borderline users, and finally, a score between 70 and 100 indicates a problematic user.

Data Analysis

Preliminary analysis. We described the study variables in term of means, standard deviations, and range.
Associations between study variables. We adopted the bivariate Pearson correlation, to investigate the associations between the attachment styles, the family functioning and the participants’ PIU.


Table 1 reports the results of the descriptive analysis of the study variables.
Tabella 1. Descriptive statistics of study variables









Attachment styles




















Family functioning




Problem Solving












Affective response




Affective involvement




Behavioural Control




General family functioning




Problematic Internet use








Considering the cut-off of Y-IAT is >70, our participants didn’t show high levels of PIU.

Table 2 reports the results of correlation analysis.
Table 2. Pearsons’ correlation coefficients of study variables














Stili di Attaccamento













1. Sicuro













2. Spaventato













3. Preoccupato













4. Evitante


























5. Problem













6. Comunicazione













7. Ruoli













8. Risposta Affettiva













9 Coinvolgimento Affettivo













10. Controllo Comportamentale













11. Funzionamento Generale













Uso Problematico di Internet


























**p < .01, *p < .05.
IAT=Internet Addiction Test

Results showed as the preoccupied and fearful attachment styles, as well as the Problem Solving, were in a significant and positive association with PIU. Whereas, Roles, Affective Response, Affective Involvement and General Family Functioning were in a significant and negative association with PIU.

Discussion and conclusion

The main aim of this study was to analyse the association among attachment styles, family functioning and PIU during adolescence, which the purpose to integrate both attachment and family systemic theories.
Our findings are in line with the previous results of international literature. Indeed, fearful and preoccupied attachment styles were significantly and positively associated with a problematic use of the Internet in adolescence (Cacioppo et al. 2019; Şenormanci et al. 2014). Several previous studies have shown how an insecure attachment style (especially the preoccupied and fearful ones) could lead adolescents to use the Internet to cope with their feelings of loneliness, as well as the fear about real interactions (Laghi et al. 2013; Schimmenti & Caretti 2010), and it seems to play a role in the onset of PIU during adolescence (Schimmenti et al., 2013). As regards the dimensions of family functioning, only Problem Solving is positively associated with PIU. According to Epstein and Bishop (1983), the dimension of problem solving refers to the family’s ability to overcome difficulties, which challenge the family’s integrity and functioning. From a theoretical point of view, problems are divided into two types: instrumental and affective. The category of “instrumental problems” refers to difficulties that arise in the management of material and practical issues of daily life such as the management of money, the choice of place to live, the supply of food, clothing, etc.. The problem of “affective problems”, on the other hand, concerns problems that arise in the management of emotions, feelings and relationships. The authors underline that families who have difficulties in solving instrumental problems are unlikely to be able to deal with the affective ones, on the contrary, families who have difficulties in finding a solution to the affective problems do not necessarily have difficulties in solving the instrumental ones. Since the dimensions of affective response and affective involvement were negatively associated with a problematic Internet use, it could be possible that adolescents with PIU evaluated their family as more able to overcome practical problems rather than affective ones. This affective deficit could be related to adolescents’ PIU, because they could use Internet to seek information and solve issues related to everyday life. Moreover, our results pointed out that adolescents’ PIU was more frequent in families with poorly defined or extremely rigid roles, difficulties in experiencing a wide range of emotional responses consistent with the stimulus both in intensity and duration and a low affective involvement. Given the bi-directional nature of correlational analysis, it is also possible to hypothesize that an overuse of Internet could modify the permeability of family’s boundaries, changing the flow of information between family members (Lin &Tsai 2002). Another interpretation could be that an adolescents’ overuse of the web can alter family functioning, leading to relationship problems among family members (Carvalho et al. 2015). Furthermore, our results are in line with the findings of Şenormanci and colleagues who found out that even patients with Internet Addiction evaluated their family functioning as more problematic than controls did. This study is one of the few that tries to relate the PIU by adolescents to attachment styles and family functioning. Specifically, the role of attachment styles, in particular the preoccupied and fearful ones, appears important, because it helps to explain aspects of vulnerability of the adolescent which can lead him/her to take refuge in Internet reality (Park et al. 2008). Therefore, a secure attachment and dimensions of family functioning, such as emotional closeness, clear and empathetic listening and the ability to modify the patterns of mutual interaction between family members, play a decisive and protective role for the risk to develop PIU. Whereas, a dysfunctional family context seems to be more associated with the risk of PIU in adolescence as well as unhealthy communication within the family system. For this reason, it would be recommendable the development of family-focused prevention programs for all adolescents at risk of PIU before they develop a full Internet addiction. The strength of this study is that it related both individual factors such as attachment styles and familiar factors to PIU in adolescents, whereas previous studies focused on a clinical sample of young adults with a diagnosis of Internet Addciction (Şenormanci et al. 2014). Regarding the study limitations, the correlational design does not allow to establish cause-effect relationships between the variables, but only associative links. Moreover, further studies are needed to investigate more deeply the relationship between the dimension of Problem Solving and the PIU, for this reason the result obtained in this study needs to be interpreted with caution, given also its weak correlation. Also, according with Billieux et al. (2015) more research on this topic would be needed to develop a specific, autonomous, and comprehensive diagnostic process for PIU to avoid conceptual and treatment overlap between PIU and other kinds of addictive behaviors.


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