Internet Addiction: How Much is Too Much Time Online?

Kids ages 8 to 18 now spend an average of 10 hours and 45 minutes a day, seven days a week with media. That translates into 75 hours and 15 minutes per week, nearly twice as many hours as their parents put into full-time jobs according to research published by the Kaiser Family Foundation in January 20101.

For youth on the high end of the scale, spending this much time with media - online and offline - robs them of real world experiences and may result in lower grades, increase their risk for depression, cut into the time needed for sleep, and more.Within these averages, there are significant differences and knowing where your child or teen falls within these ranges is the first step in understanding whether or not you want to adjust the amount of time they spend online, or if you suspect a larger problem is brewing. A full 21% of youth are defined as heavy media users who spend more than 16 hours with media a day. Another 63% are defined as moderate users who use media 3-16 hours a day. Youth who fall into the light user category are those who consume less than 3 hours of media a day.

Of those media hours, the internet now takes up about half of the time. For most kids and teens their online use is relatively well managed as they balance media use with school, sports, friends, and other commitments. Yet for a small percentage of youth, the need to be online can become compulsive, uncontrolled, or pathological, this type of maladaptive behavior is sometimes called internet ’addiction’.

Whether compulsive internet use fits into the formal category of addiction or not, there is clear evidence demonstrating that some users develop a compulsive need to be online that interferes with their daily activities, their relationships, and their health2 . Though researchers are far from fully understanding the cause and effect relationship between internet use and maladaptive behavior (and to the extent these relationships may run both ways), evidence suggests that the risk to youth for developing these issues is much greater than it is for older users3 .

When Internet use is too high

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.

Usage may spike because your child has a big homework project to finish, they are setting up a social network, just started playing a new game, has a new boy/girlfriend to chat with, is missing a friend, or for some other short-term interest. While potentially time-consuming and engrossing, this is very different behavior than that 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.

If you are unsure whether your child or teen falls into the latter category, compare their behavior to the list of warning signs below. As you review the list, keep in mind that if a child or teen exhibits a one (or a few) of these behaviors, it may or may not be cause for concern. For example, plenty of teens prefer to spend time online rather than with family, we all lose track of time online on occasion, and if you're waiting for a particular message, you may check your messages very frequently. On the other hand, if you read through this list and most of these signs are visible in your child, it may be time to consider the best course of action.

Warning signs of compulsive internet use4 :

  • Preoccupation with the internet; or specific internet destinations

  • Defensive about time spent online

  • Spends money on their devices or online that should be used for bills, groceries, and other necessities

  • Failed attempts to control behavior, including aggressive behavior

  • A heightened sense of euphoria while involved in computer and Internet activities

  • Loses track of time while online

  • Sacrifices needed hours of sleep to spend time online

  • Becomes agitated or angry when not online or online time is interrupted

  • Checks messages compulsively throughout the day

  • 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

  • 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

  • Escapes into the internet to avoid responsibilities, escape painful feelings or troubling situations

  • Depression


References
1Generation M2 Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/8010.pdf
2http://www.webmd.com/depression/news/20100204/internet-addiction-linked-to-depression
3Various research studies have reported internet addiction rates for youth ranging between 1.4% to 17.9% in both Western and Eastern societies.
4Compiled from: http://www.safetyweb.com/internet-addiction#References, http://www.video-game-addiction.org/symptoms-computer-addiction-teens.html, and Kimberly Young, Director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, identified the following potential warning signs for children with pathological Internet Addiction

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