Internet addiction and the dangers that excessive computer gaming poses to children and adolescents are receiving fresh attention with the scheduled premiere of the documentary “Web Junkie” on PBS Monday.
The documentary highlights an alarming trend in China. There are similar patterns in South Korea, where the government estimates roughly one in 10 children between the ages of 10 and 19 are addicted to the Internet.
But to see the issue up close, we don’t have to look any further than home soil, or sometimes home itself.
We love our tech — our smartphones, tablets, social media and the Internet — and increasingly more of us are confronting the hard truth: that we love it too much. A 2014 study determined that about 16% of 18- to 25-year-olds are involved in compulsive Internet use.
Some of us could feel powerless in our relationship with it. But addiction?
Although Internet addiction is not formally recognized in the United States as a mental illness, there is a growing concern among medical practitioners and health officials here who see the need to offer therapy and treatment centers for it, and treat the phenomenon as something more complicated than simply a social problem.
The DSM-5 diagnostic “bible” for researchers, clinicians, patients and insurers, updated in 2013, does include Internet Gaming Disorder in its appendix as requiring further study. This is an important step. But while experts rightly debate whether to add a category for Internet addiction to the DSM-5, the rest of us need to come to terms with this issue ourselves — and now.
Research and our own experiences have shown that excessive tech and Internet use can create dependence and addiction, neurologically and physically. From birth through adolescence, children are especially vulnerable because the brain develops through patterns of use and through human relationships. New tech and Internet-centered cultural norms, habits of excessive use and the way the brain and psyche can quickly make bad habits compulsive has turned this social phenomenon into an urgent health concern.
Unfortunately, research lags behind our nimble adaptation to the Internet, as well as swiftly evolving digital technology.
But in my clinical practice and my talks around the world to audiences of parents, educators and children, I’ve noticed a trend when I hear people of all ages describe the impact of tech and Internet habits on their families, marriages and children. It’s the language of addiction:
“It’s tearing our family apart. It’s ruining our marriage — I feel like I do not exist. I can’t get my child to stop.”
Parents tell me about the child who lies about the time spent online or gaming, and who becomes restless, angry or depressed when unable to engage in those activities:
“You’d think I was taking heroin from an addict.”
Children of all ages describe a feeling of loss because their parents are more interested and more responsive to their screens than to them. They aren’t fooled; they feel the disconnect:
“My mom’s addicted to her phone. My dad tells me not to drive and text, but he does it.”
We all might joke about our “habit” — being an online “junkie” or trying to cut back and suffering “email withdrawal.” Laugh or lament about it, but we use the language of addiction because that’s how it can feel.
Beneath it all is the deeper damage that tech and Internet dependence can cause. Excessive use can become a source of chronic tension, compromised physical health, emotional distress, decreased performance at work and school, and an obstacle to emotional intimacy.
Science has already established that early or excessive use of screens and digital devices affects us neurologically, some people more than others. It’s different for everyone, and you need to understand your own wiring.
The signs of tech and Internet dependence or addiction include obsessive or compulsive gaming, social media or Internet activity; and heightened restlessness, irritability, anger, anxiety or withdrawal when access to it is limited or denied.
Someone more vulnerable may use gaming or excessive time on the Internet or social media use as a coping mechanism, for instance, to deal with emotional turbulence or social anxiety and fill psychological needs.
What parents, teachers, health professionals and so many others can already see from children and adults who display an extremely problematic relationship with tech and the Internet is that they need help, whether it’s cognitive behavior therapy, wilderness programs, insight-oriented therapy or treatment centers that combine approaches.
As researchers learn more about which parts of the brain are stimulated — which pleasure points in the brain interact with technology and the Internet — they’ll be better able to provide improved diagnostic capabilities and treatment options.
For now, we as a society would be wise to look at the extensive treatment and recovery programs underway in China and Korea, such as Korea’s development of a curriculum to teach children as young as 3 years old how to protect themselves from overusing digital gadgets and the Internet.
The signs of this problem are everywhere in this country. The extremes merit our attention. Those addicted are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, the first to drop of oxygen deprivation. They reveal to us a danger that is real and present in our own lives — and in our children’s.
Parents need to ask themselves: “What kind of childhood memories do we want our children to have?” Children respond well to clearly explained guidelines on tech and Internet use, and do best with parents who enforce them consistently. Parents of infants and toddlers would do well to pay attention to guidelines that are available, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of no screens of any kind for infants under 2 years old.
Parents can also think about what they want their children to be doing in their free time. Ideally, it would include: reading for pleasure, unstructured creative play, time outside and face-to-face social time. Parents and children need to learn tech-healthy habits of no screens at the dinner table or in the bedroom when it’s time to sleep. Most important is that every family has ongoing conversations about how, when, where, why and for how long it’s OK to be on screens.
Tech dependence and Internet addiction suck the oxygen out of our living, breathing, in vivo engagement with real life. And complete abstinence is not an option.
But we are not helpless. We can acknowledge the problems with our new norms at home, work and school. There’s nothing here we can’t improve. The biggest danger is denial.
What are we waiting for?