As parents and caregivers, understanding how to differentiate between ‘normal’ internet use and compulsive use is critically important for knowing when to seek help for concerning behavior. Internet usage naturally ebbs and flows to accommodate other activities and interests among healthy internet users, but this is markedly different than the behavior of youth who spend virtually all of their waking hours, week in and week out, behind an internet connected screen, ignoring relationships, homework, and the world.
Not all youth face the same risks of addiction. Kids and teens who have been uprooted from their friends, feel socially isolated, lonely, have less empathy, or are impulsive by nature are at greater risk . Youth struggling with ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), social phobia, hostility and depression are also at a greater risk for developing an internet addiction.
In the news this week was a new study on internet addiction, also called problematic internet use. Talking about this article, Internet addiction- Neuroimaging findings, is a great way to start a conversation regarding the importance of creating and maintaining a healthy balance between time spent online, use of other media, school, sports, friends, family time, and other commitments.
The study looked into internet addiction through brain imaging. Researchers could see visible evidence of internet addiction disorder, and that it shares the same emotional and physical profiles as substance addiction and behavioral addictions -like gambling, food, work, exercise, cutting, and a variety of internet-related behaviors.
Here are key warning signs of compulsive internet use . Ask each family member to test how well they score on the following risk points .Keep in mind that while any one sign may be concerning, multiple signs are more likely to indicate a problem.
- Stay on the internet for much longer than intended, or not notice how much time passed while you were online?
- Get infatuated with the internet; or specific internet destinations?
- Make the decision to reduce the amount of time spent online, and then fail to achieve that reduction?
- Spend money on internet devices or online that should be used for other necessities?
- Escape into the internet to avoid responsibilities, escape painful feelings or troubling situations?
- Think frequently about the internet or an internet activity when not using it or constantly look forward to the next opportunity to be online?
- Have failed attempts to control your behavior, including aggressive behavior?
- Check messages compulsively throughout the day?
- Spend time online when you should be doing other things?
- Have a heightened sense of excitement while involved in internet activities?
- Become agitated or angry when not online or online time is interrupted?
- Prefer to spend time online rather than with friends or family?
- Feel restless when not online?
- Lie to others about the amount of time you spend online?
- “Sneak” online when no one is around?
- Feel guilty, ashamed, anxious, or depressed as a result of online actions?
- Sacrifice sleep to spend time online?
- Have physical changes like weight gain or loss, backaches, headaches, pain in arms, wrists and hands?
- Withdraw from activities you previously enjoyed?
- Feel depressed?
Now, tally up those scores and take a moment to discuss each family member’s risk profile. Are there aspects of your child’s, or your, online use that may be problematic? Talk about ways your family can improve the balance of online time and other activities. This may include adding management tools to help monitor time spent online, the sites visited and so on. It may also mean checking phone bills to see whether calls, texts or data usage is occurring at inappropriate times – for example after bedtime, or during school. Perhaps you set up ‘internet free’ times where no one uses internet tools.
If your child (or you) struggle with a less-than-healthy attachment to the internet and want to reduce your dependency, here are some recommended steps:
Identify the areas in your child’s life (or your own) that are suffering because of the amount of time spent, and the behaviors taken, online. Are grades slipping? Is your child failing to get enough sleep? Are they missing out on participating in healthy physical activities? Are they depressed?
Set specific time limits. Set an alarm to go off and end your child’s (or your own) time online when it rings. If this is a struggle, get a friend to call and chat, or meet up to help break the urge to stay online.
Set aside "internet-free" parts of the day – for students school might be a great place to start. A study from 2009 found that 25% of teen’s cell phone messages are sent during class , and both texting and cell phone ownership have skyrocketed since then.
Uninstall a game if it keeps drawing your child (or you) back in, and give the game away if that isn’t enough to prevent them from compulsive playing.
Restrict access to websites that your child compulsively visits by installing blocking or time limiting software –keep the password secret so your child can't bypass the filter.
Help your child schedule more fixed times to hang out with friends, volunteer somewhere, get a job, or start a new project.
If these steps are not enough, seek out resources for internet addiction recovery in your area.