Back in 1994 at the dawn of the internet age, no one ever dreamed it would catch on so big and lay claim to so many of us. Flash forward and now we can’t imagine the world without cyberspace. But all teens know is a world of instant access. It is how they connect, socialize, pass time, gather information, and entertain themselves. But it’s more than that: for some teens, the internet has become an addiction.
Defining internet addiction
The essence of addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is uncontrollable, compulsive drug seeking and use, even in the face of negative health and social consequences. Clinical diagnosis of various addictions involves use of diagnostic codes. However, internet addiction does not appear in the list of mental disorders in the bible used by clinicians: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1994, the DSM-IV was revised in July 2000. The current edition is DSM-IV-TR. The next revision, DSM-V, will come out in 2012. But the American Psychological Association has formally recognized internet addiction as a disorder.
In 2003, the term internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) was coined, referring to a condition where people who compulsively and excessively use the internet, achieve a “high” from such use, and continue to use the internet despite serious negative consequences. In essence, the internet controls their lives, causing severe disruptions.
Interestingly, China issued the country’s first diagnostic definition of internet addiction in 2008, according to a report in China Daily. According to the Chinese definition, internet addicts are classified as those who spend at least six hours online a day and have shown at least one symptom in the past three months. The Chinese doctors said symptoms of internet addiction include yearning to get back online, mental or physical distress, difficulties in concentrating and sleeping, and irritation. In the same announcement, Chinese doctors indicated that 80% of addicts could be cured with treatment, which usually lasts about three months. But no specifics on treatment were released. Earlier surveys of Chinese youth found that 10% of internet users suffer addiction, and about 70% are male.
How widespread is internet use?
With the ubiquity of computers, it’s almost impossible to know the real numbers. However, a 2005 Pew Center report on teens and technology found that about 75% of all online teens (about two-thirds of teenagers overall) used IM, and nearly 50% used it daily. A 2007 Pew Research Center study showed that 89% of teens used the internet at least once a week, with 61% saying they logged on every day. All that time spent online wasn’t doing homework, either. The Pew results showed that most of the time teens spent online was devoted to private communications — such as IM, email and chat.
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Generations Online in 2009, the percentage of American teens aged 12-17 online in 2008 is now 93%, compared with 87% of this age group in 2005. The report says teen users are more likely than older users to read other people’s blogs and to write blogs of their own, to use social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.) and to create profiles on those sites. They use social networking sites to keep track of their friends and to update their own activities on the sites so others can stay informed, and to communicate with them. As for favorite teen online activity, the report says it is game playing, with 78% of teen internet users aged 12-17 saying their favorite online activity is playing games. The second most popular online teen activity is emailing, with 73% of teens surveyed saying they use email. Interestingly, emailing has lost some ground since 2004 when 89% said they used email. The vacuum has been filled with IM, social networking and blogging, according to Pew researchers.
What is clear from the Pew research is that internet usage by teens is more widespread than ever. Some 80% of teens aged 12-17 have broadband internet access at home. Furthermore, it isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
Symptoms of teen internet addiction
Consistent with some of the signs that Chinese doctors identified, teens suffering from internet addiction will most likely exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:
- Excessive time — Your teen devotes increasing amounts of time to the internet. This involves all forms of internet activity, from instant messaging (IM), to email, surfing sites, participating in chat rooms and researching or doing schoolwork. Ironically, many parents fail to curb their teens’ internet usage because they believe their child is doing schoolwork when, in fact, the teen is using the internet for other purposes. Some teens have become so hooked on the net that even poor grades or the loss of an after-school job doesn’t hamper their obsession with being online.
- Withdrawal from friends, activities — As the teen spends more and more time online and not in the physical company of others, the pattern emerges that he or she withdraws from friends and normal activities.
- Lies — Asked about the amount of time spent online, what they were doing, or confronted with evidence on cell phone bills for texting, IMs, or downloading, your teen gives you elaborate and fabricated dissertations — all in an attempt to divert your attention from the fact that he or she is spending way too much time online.
- Fatigue and other physical symptoms — Your teen looks and acts sleep deprived. You see dark circles or puffiness under their eyes, or bloodshot eyes. They seem tired all the time, due to the fact that they stay up late or get up early so they can be on the internet.
- Denial – I don’t have a problem. Your teen will argue that he or she doesn’t spend too much time on the internet. It’s for school. Everybody does it. It’s no big deal. These words, or something similar, will become commonplace the longer your teen spends on the internet.
- Poor grades or job performance — Evidence of decreased attention paid to activities and responsibilities due to increased time spent on the internet shows up in poor grades your teen gets or his or her job performance that suffers.
- Emotional outbursts — When asked about time spent online, your teen may erupt in an emotional outburst, be angry or irritable whenever they’re not online.
Diagnosis for internet addiction
Addiction researchers, in the absence of an official DSM diagnosis, have proposed a set of criteria for internet addiction. The following criteria are based on diagnostic standards for pathological gambling.
In diagnosing internet addiction, the patient must meet all of the following criteria:
- Preoccupation with the internet — The person is either thinking about the last online activity or planning ahead for the next cyber session.
- Requires more time to be satisfied — The person needs to devote more and more time to being on the internet in order to feel the same satisfaction.
- Inability to stop — The person has tried, but failed, in past attempts to cut back, control, or stop their use of the internet.
- Emotional changes — The person exhibits restlessness, moodiness, depression, or irritability when attempting to cut down or stop using the internet.
- Stays online longer than intended — Despite intending to stay online only a certain period of time, the person repeatedly stays on past the intended deadline.
In addition, the patient must meet at least one of the following criteria:
- Uses internet as escape — The person tries to escape from problems or relieve an unpleasant mood (such as anxiety, depression, guilt or helplessness) by using the internet.
- Lies to others about internet use — In a desperate attempt to conceal the extent of their internet involvement, the person consistently lies to parents, friends, therapists and others.
- Jeopardy or loss — Consistent use of the internet by the person has put at jeopardy or caused the loss of a relationship, job, career or educational opportunity.
Types of treatment for internet addiction
Professional counseling often proves effective in moderating internet addiction. Such counseling may utilize various approaches, modeled after treatment for other addictive behaviors. Psychological intervention may involve changing the environment in which the teen normally interacts with the computer. It may involve altering the associations the teen has with the internet, or decreasing the reinforcement he or she receives from nonstop internet use.
Identifying triggers involved in internet addiction is another area where psychological counseling is important. Such triggers are the thoughts and feelings that precede the teen’s use of the internet.
Training in social skills development or communications is also recommended, as many teens that have become addicted to the internet are socially withdrawn and lack the ability to communicate easily with others on a face-to-face basis.
As with other addictions, recognition that relapse is a common occurrence means that effective treatment will also concentrate on relapse prevention skills. This means identifying situations that may trigger the teen’s falling back into excessively using the internet and putting together an action plan for dealing with such situations — thereby avoiding or reducing the possibility of relapse.
One point that is also common to other types of addictions holds true for internet addiction as well. Left untreated, internet addiction can consume more and more of your teen’s time and energy, physical and emotional consequences may ensue, and relationships, grades, job and career opportunities may suffer.
What parents can do
This is a tricky situation. Parents want to encourage their teens to become independent, while still retaining core family values and remaining an integral part of the family unit. Part of the maturation process involves separation and growth. Raging hormones, peer influence, societal trends, underlying emotional, behavioral or substance abuse problems may all contribute to a teen’s difficulty in being able to distinguish or curtail inappropriate behavior. When it comes to internet addiction, then, parents need to tread lightly — but be firm.
Unlike addiction to alcohol or drugs, total abstinence is not generally recognized as an effective treatment for internet addiction. While some treatment professionals may argue that abstinence is effective in curbing internet addiction, we, as parents, know that cutting off the access to the internet for our teens is simply not practical. First of all, even if the access is removed at home, there’s always availability at school, at the public library, at a friend’s house, on the cell phone or other mobile devices. By cutting off all access, you will only alienate your teen — which is not something you really want to do.
What, then, is appropriate in helping to stabilize inordinate use of the internet by your teens? Most addiction experts who are gaining expertise in treating internet addiction say that learning how to use the internet in moderation is — or should be — the main objective in treatment.
Parents may find that getting some form of professional treatment for their teen will prove beneficial. This may be private counseling or a type of support group that deals specifically with internet addiction. To rule out an underlying medical condition or aggravating mental disorder, have your teen examined by the family physician. If there is a biological dimension to the internet addiction, such as anxiety or depression, the physician may prescribe an anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication.
As nurturers, role models and the authority figures, parents also need to be understanding and supportive of the teen’s emotional needs, especially in trying to reduce their child’s dependence on the internet.
Other suggestions include:
- Engage your teen in family activities that do not involve computers or the internet.
- Participate as a family in recreational pursuits or hobbies that get the teen out of the house — and away from the internet.
- If the teen has a cell phone, restrict IMs or downloading.
- Insist that the teen be a part of the family unit for a certain period each evening. This could be prime time, or right after dinner.
- Have your teen do his or her homework in the kitchen, family room, living room or den — where you can interact with and occasionally monitor any internet activity.
- Take the computer out of the teen’s bedroom.
- Make casual use of the internet a privilege — and tie it to achievement of good grades in school.
- Help the teen identify another pursuit or activity that he or she is passionate about and encourage participation in such an activity.
- The parent that is the same gender as the teen should spend quality one-on-one time with that teen. Go places together, engage in conversation, laugh and have fun together. This does not take the place of family activities, however, as both are important.
Still confused? Don’t be. Seek the advice and counsel of a professional, educate yourself as much as possible on internet addiction, and work together with your teen to help moderate the amount of time spent on the internet. Be supportive, loving, and be there for your teen. This will make all the difference in the world.
By Suzanne Kane