Internet Addiction Disorder - What Can Parents Do for Their Child?

Children and internet addiction

With kids ages 8 to 18 spending on average 44.5 hours per week in front of screens, parents are increasingly concerned that compulsive internet usage is robbing them of real world experiences. Nearly 23% of youth report that they feel "addicted to video games" (31% of males, 13% of females.) These are the results of a study of 1,178 U.S. children and teens (ages 8 to 18) conducted by Harris Interactive (2007) that documents a national prevalence rate of pathological video game use.

Dr. Douglas Gentile, Director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University reports, "Almost one out of every ten youth gamers shows enough symptoms of damage to their school, family, and psychological functioning to merit serious concern."

Beyond gaming, kids are filling their free time with other internet activities: social networking, instant messaging (IM), blogging, downloading, gaming, etc. Dr. Kimberly Young, Director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, identified the following potential warning signs for children with pathological Internet use:

  • Loses track of time while online

  • Sacrifices needed hours of sleep to spend time online

  • Becomes agitated or angry when online time is interrupted

  • Checks email or online messages several times a day

  • Becomes irritable if not allowed access to the internet

  • Spends time online in place of homework or chores

  • Prefers to spend time online rather than with friends or family

  • Disobeys time limits that have been set for internet usage

  • Lies about amount of time spent online or "sneaks" online when no one is around

  • Forms new relationships with people he or she has met online

  • Seems preoccupied with getting back online when away from the computer

  • Loses interest in activities that were enjoyable before he or she had online access

  • Becomes irritable, moody or depressed when not online

The emotional costs of childhood internet addiction

Internet addiction among children is a growing concern. Online access is a vital part of the modern world and an important tool in our children's education. In addition, it is a highly entertaining and informative medium. However, these very qualities also make it an enticing escape for many children. They can be anyone in an online chat room, or play thrilling and challenging games against other players from all corners of the globe. With the click of a mouse, they can enter a different world where the problems they perceive in their real lives are no longer present, and all the things one wishes he or she could be, do, or experience are possible.

Like addiction to drugs and alcohol, the internet offers children and adolescents a way to escape painful feelings or troubling situations. They sacrifice needed hours of sleep to spend time online and withdraw from family and friends to escape into a comfortable online world that they have created and shaped.

Children who lack rewarding or nurturing relationships or who suffer from poor social and coping skills are at greater risk of developing inappropriate or excessive online habits. Because they feel alone, alienated, and may have problems making new friends, they turn to invisible strangers in online chat rooms looking for the attention and companionship missing from their real lives. They may come from families with significant problems at home, or experience bullying or difficulty socializing in school and extracurricular activities, so they cope with their problems by spending time online.

Socially, they learn to instant message friends rather than develop face-to-face relationships, which can impact their way of relating to peers. As one principal explained:

The internet is hurting their ability to work in groups. Our teachers struggle to get them to participate in any kind of team assignments; instead they would all rather stare at the computer. When I observe them talking to one another in the hallway, I see young girls who are socially aggressive or inappropriate, and I can’t help but think that the internet is socializing them in ways that emotionally stunts them and makes it difficult for them to deal with others in the real world.

How to stop your child's internet addiction

Address the problem

In a two-parent household, it is critical that both parents present a united front. As parents, each must take the issue seriously and agree on common goals. Discuss the situation together and, if necessary, compromise on desired goals so that when you approach your child, you will be coming from the same page. If you do not, your child will appeal to the more skeptical parent and effectively create division between you.

In a single-parent household, the parent needs to take some time to think about what needs to be said and to prepare for the likely emotional response from the child. A child who is addicted to the internet or becoming addicted to it will feel threatened at the very idea of curbing computer or screen time. A single parent needs to be prepared for an emotional outburst laden with accusatory phrases designed to make the parent feel guilty or inadequate. It is important not to respond to the emotion—or worse: get sidetracked with a lecture on disrespect. Acknowledge your child’s feelings but stay focused on the topic of his or her internet use.

Show you care

It will help to begin your discussion by reminding your child that you love them and that you care about their happiness and well-being. Children and teens often interpret questions about their behavior as blame and criticism. You need to reassure your child that you are not condemning them. Rather, tell your child you are concerned about some of the changes you have seen in their behavior and refer to those changes in specific terms: fatigue, declining grades, giving up hobbies, social withdrawal, etc. Assign an internet time log—tell your child that you would like to see an account of just how much time they spend online each day and which internet activities they engage in.

Remind them that, with television, you can monitor their viewing habits more easily, but with the internet, you need their help and cooperation to become appropriately involved. Put them on the honor system to keep the log themselves for a week or two to build trust between you. If they balk at this idea or clearly lie in their log, you are likely dealing with their denial of addiction.

Become more computer-savvy

Checking history folders and internet logs, learning about parental monitoring software, and installing filters all require a degree of computer savviness. It is important for every parent to learn the terminology (both technical and popular) and be comfortable with the computer, at least enough to know what your child is doing online. Take an active interest in the internet and learn about where your child goes online.

Set reasonable rules and boundaries

Many parents get angry when they see the signs of internet addiction in their child and take the computer away as a form of punishment. Others become frightened and force their child to quit cold turkey, believing that is the only way to get rid of the problem. Both approaches invite trouble—your child will internalize the message that they are bad; they will look at you as the enemy instead of an ally; and they will suffer real withdrawal symptoms of nervousness, anger, and irritability. Instead, work with your child to establish clear boundaries for limited internet usage. Allow perhaps an hour per night after homework, with a few extra weekend hours. Stick to your rules and remember that you’re not trying to control your child or change who they are—you are working to help them free themselves from a psychological dependence. Finally, make the computer visible. Create a rule that non-homework-related computer usage should only happen in more public areas of the home, where your child is more likely to interact with you or other members of the household.

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