Teen Internet
Addiction

Definition & Background

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An Internet addiction is an addiction like any other: it is defined by a compulsive loss of impulse control resulting in damage to the user and his or her relationships, schoolwork, or employment. Online gaming, compulsive use of social networking, and marathon Internet surfing sessions are all included in this powerful addition. Symptoms are comparable to other behavior addictions, most similar to pathological gambling. Because Internet addiction is relatively new to society, there is less research on it than more established addictions, such as drug and alcohol abuse. However, researchers believe that like other additions, it often masks other problems such as depression, low self-esteem, social anxiety and may even stand in a surrogate for other addictions.

Internet Addiction Statistics

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Nearly every study performed on the topic has found not only a direct correlation between age and Internet addiction, but also one between age and neglect of work. That is to say that teenagers and young adults are more likely to be addicted to the Internet than any other age group, and among all people suffering from this addiction, teenagers and young adults are more likely to neglect work (school or employment) than older adults with similar addictive behavior. In fact, in the most widely recognized study of its kind, age was the only factor that was a direct and constant contributor to this addiction across all other factors.[1]

While this may be good news, suggesting that teenagers and young adults might grow out of their addiction (or reduce their intake) as they age, because this is a new "genre" of behavior, this data might simply reveal that teenagers and young adults are "early adapters." What this means, essentially, is that they may have found this addiction before the rest of the population. If this is the case, today's Internet-Addicted teenagers and young adults may carry it with them into adulthood. In fact, Stanford University's School of Medicine found that nearly one in eight Americans suffers from at least one sign of problematic Internet abuse (although this does not in and of itself constitute addiction).[2]

Internet abuse is so widespread that the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association, is reported to be considering adding it to its next release, alongside such issues as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorders.[3]

Indeed, as children and teenagers are still developing their brains, they may grow accustomed to the speed and flashy graphics associated with the Internet and actually adapt their physiology, developing problems such as ADHD, and becoming generally more impatient than people raised without the instant gratification offered by the Internet.

Harmful Effects

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One aspect of Internet addiction, which is statistically slanted toward boys and men, is online gaming. According to Professor Mark Griffiths, a Psychologist at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, "Online gaming addiction… is a real phenomenon and people suffer the same symptoms as traditional addictions." In one of his surveys, he found users who played online video games for over 80 hours per week, an amount he called, "excessive."

Griffiths was asked to comment upon reports that a young man had died of heart failure after playing video games for 50 straight hours, with only a few brief breaks for the restroom. The young man in question had been recently fired from his job, due to his inability to tear himself away from his online games. According to Professor Griffiths, "[The games] completely engross the player. They are not games that you can play for 20 minutes and stop."[4]

For many, time spent on social media sites such as MySpace and Facebook, has the same deleterious effect on a user's ability to simply stop. According to Dr. Kimberly Young, Director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, PA, many teenagers have come to recognize on their own that their Facebook behavior is hurting their grades, college applications, and social life. However, she warns that withdrawal is difficult as well: "It's like an eating disorder. You can't eliminate food. You just have to make better choices about what you eat… and what you do online."

Nonetheless, for many, the addiction is highly emotional, especially for those unsure of their place in the world or just in their social circles. As Rachel Simmons, an educator who wrote "The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence" explained, "You're getting a feed of everything everyone is doing and saying… You're literally watching the social landscape on the screen, and if you're obsessed with your position in that landscape, it's very hard to look away."

That said, many teens have come up with their own coping strategies, such as deactivating their accounts, or giving a trusted friend or sibling a password, and only allowing themselves access once in a while. Others are entering into social pacts with friends to not use the site. [5]

In addition to the psychological, physiological, social, and mental health problems associated with Internet Addiction, children and teenagers who spend too many hours online are simply not exercising their minds and bodies at a crucial time in their lives, when they should be engaging in sports and other age-appropriate physical activities with like-minded peers.

Recognizing Computer Addiction Symptoms in your teen

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While cause and effect is still being established, researchers have known for at least 14 years that heavy Internet users risk losing a significant other, job, school, or career opportunity because they prefer spending time on the Internet to more social interaction. According to one self test available (see: External Resources), symptoms of Internet Addiction include:

  • Failed attempts to control behavior
  • A heightened sense of euphoria while involved in computer and Internet activities
  • Neglecting friends and family
  • Neglecting sleep to stay online
  • Being dishonest with others
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, anxious, or depressed as a result of online behavior
  • Physical changes such as weight gain or loss, backaches, headaches, or carpal tunnel syndrome, and
  • Withdrawing from other pleasurable activities

Helping Your Child Overcome an Online Addiction

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As with any withdrawal, weaning your child off the Internet will be painful for him or her – and as you might imagine, your teen might make it as difficult as possible for you, in an attempt to dissuade you from trying to change his or her behavior. Start by limiting the amount of time your child spends online. If he or she is accustomed to spending eight hours per weeknight on the Internet, try limiting use in the first week to six hours per night and working steadily down. Encourage your teen to go to social events and plan play dates for your younger children.

If you, yourself, spend too much time on the Internet, this can be a great opportunity to introduce family outings and activities. Read to your younger children instead of letting them idle away on the Internet. If forcing your child to stop abusing their time on the Internet causes serious distress, take them to a licensed therapist. They may well be suffering from other emotional problems which their Internet use has masked. But mostly, remember that of all the addictions out there, an Internet Addiction is not the worst, and with love and attention from you, your child can and will learn to disengage – even if it takes some time.

External Resources

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