Teens and Tech: The Truth About Internet Addiction

Share on FacebookPin on PinterestTweet about this on TwitterGoogle+Share on LinkedInEmail to someone

Many people are familiar with the most common addictions, such as those to smoking, alcohol and eating. One addiction some may not be knowledgeable about, though, is Internet addiction. One out of every eight Americans suffers from Internet Addiction disorder. However, it is only discussed in 1 percent of university introductory level psychology textbooks, according to Brad Mossbager. Internet addiction has grown to a quick-rising disorder that can affect people physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. A 2012 survey compiled by the Boston Consulting Group found that 73 percent of Americans would give up alcohol if it meant staying connected to the Internet for one year.

Internet Addiction

There are many paths that stem from Internet addiction. Some of the most common include: cyber-relationships, instant messaging (IM), net compulsion, and gaming. Each of these issues is unique in its characteristics. However, there is one common theme they all share; people use the Internet as a form of escape from the real world, and teens are particularly susceptible to excessive online use.

The Internet can be an extremely useful tool but, like anything else, overindulgence can lead to personal destruction.

The Usefulness of the Internet

The Internet is an amazing, rich resource that is overflowing with useful information. Who among us hasn’t used it to research an article or school assignment, review a product, or download a new book or movie? With the good though, there is always the bad as well. Since the Internet became part of the mainstream during the 1990s, it has become an integral part of everyday lives. If one wanted, they could do everything from the comfort of their couch with just a few simply clicks of the mouse. Video chat with family and friends, play a game with someone across the globe, shop for new clothes and even receive an education. It isn’t hard to see where problems arise.

How Someone Becomes an Internet Addict

The Internet can quickly pull a teen into its unrelenting grip.  In contrast to feelings of anxiousness, loneliness or stress – common emotions for today’s teens – one finds comfort and escape online. Teens form emotional attachments with friends online, characters in a game and other activities. Another draw to the Internet is that users often feel emboldened; without being face to face with another person, one can be anyone they desire. Those who may have trouble socializing or speaking to another person in public often find their voice online. They are able to think through their responses and not feel on the spot. Nervousness is erased when talking to someone that isn’t standing before them.

The same is true for online gaming. Titles such as The Sims and World of Warcraft provide a fantasy world that allows users to be a different person or, in the case of The Sims, the same person but with an ideal life. This form of escape is perhaps the biggest draw into Internet addiction. Traditionally, teens are the target demographic for most online activities. Facebook was created for college students, but it was quickly opened up for all ages. Of the 93 percent of 12 to 17 year olds online, 73 percent have their own Facebook account (Top Ten Reviews). Now, with most teens, and even children, owning their own smartphone, they can be constantly connected online. This allows them to do all the above-mentioned activities while at school, riding in the car or even at the dinner table.

Warning Signs of Internet Addiction

There are numerous warning signs to look for if you are concerned about Internet addiction with your teen. These include:

  • Increased time spent online. This means spending increased time online in order to obtain feelings of happiness or excitement.
  • Preoccupied with thoughts of the Internet. Your teen may spend a lot of time thinking back to previous sessions or planning for the next one.
  • Failed attempts to cut back online usage. Your teen may log offline before quickly returning, and display anger, depression and anxiousness when trying to cut back on usage or cutting time online short.
  • Being online longer than planned. You may find your teen online long after they have completed their work and/or objective for being online. You may also find them still active online late into the night, forgoing food and sleep in favor of spending time online.
  • Risking damage/loss of education, relationships or physical health. Your teen may be sacrificing their health and relationships in order to spend more time on the Internet.
  • Lying to others about use of Internet or how the time is spent online. If you’ve attempted to cut back on your teen’s usage but they are sneaking around in order to spend more time online, there is a problem.

If any of these signs are present in your teen’s life, they might have an addiction to the Internet.

Effects of Internet Addiction

The greatest effects of Internet addiction reflect those of any other addiction: damage to family, friends, education and extracurricular activities. While teens with an addiction may invest the bulk of their time online, the Center for Internet Addiction states that it is more about how that time is spent. Being online for six to eight hours while at school or doing homework, where one has definite proof of productivity, is completely different from one who will spends the same amount of time in an online chat room, massive multiplayer online (MMO) game, shopping or reading their 200-plus status updates from their friends.

Such activities take the teen’s attention and desire away from more important areas of life. Many practice their addiction while at work and school, whether via their computer or on their smartphone. Many will blow through their – or their parents’ – money not just shopping online, but also on online games, website memberships, pornography and other entertainment/video services, such as Amazon Prime movies. As computers and websites expand in technology, purchasing online is easier than ever. Sites will often save your purchase information to their site, enabling anyone who uses your computer to simply click the mouse to spend money.

The Dangers

Relationships can quickly crumble as users focus their time and energy cultivating relationships created in chat rooms, gaming worlds and on social media sites such as Facebook. If a teen’s primary focus revolves around their online relationships, then their physically present connections will fall to the wayside. Friends from school will be ignored as well as family. Many peers will begin viewing a teen who spends all their time online as a loner and odd. Their ability to communicate in person will also decline.

Another study in the March 2012 Journal of Addiction Medicine found that teens who were addicted – or had increased use of – the Internet were more likely to fall into drug/substance abuse or other addictive behaviors such as self-mutilation, eating disorders or compulsive shopping.

Furthermore, studies have shown that it can actually change the makeup of the brain. The Forbes article states that, “Research has shown that people with Internet addiction have demonstrable changes in their brains – both in the connections between cells and in the brain areas that control attention, executive control, and emotion processing. Most intriguing is the fact that some of these changes are what you see happening in the brains of people addicted to cocaine, heroin, special K and other substances.”

Types of Internet Addiction

As previously stated, the Internet is like an umbrella housing many different forms addiction.

The following offers a breakdown on those that are most common:

  • Cybersex & online pornography. This area will include the viewing and/or downloading of pornographic videos and photographs. Teens may also engage in online sexual acts such as video chats, sharing sexual stories, exchanging risqué photos, fantasy role-playing, and self-pleasure.
  • Cyber relationships. This area involves addiction to chat rooms, message boards, instant messaging and social media sites, and it has the risk of leading the teen into a relationship with a stranger and/or adult.
  • Net compulsions. This area involves both online gaming and shopping. Online gamers often spend hours, if not days, in front of the computer as they are immersed in a fantasy world. Games like The Sims, World of Warcraft, and Minecraft allow users to create an entirely new persona on which they can mold an entire life (and in some cases, world). The Sims simply allows the player to manage their creation’s everyday life such as eating, showering, going to work, etc. One can pick a career and pursue new talents like painting or playing an instrument. Warcraft features a fantasy world with knights, kingdoms and ogres. You battle your way through the world with other online players. Regardless of a game’s content, the end result is the same: hours spent in front of a monitor instead of with family/friends, working or studying. Shopping is no different. Sites like Amazon and eBay allow users to purchase items for often lower prices than they can find elsewhere. Sites like this can have a huge negative impact on one’s finances.

Treating Internet Addiction

While many are working feverishly to catch up with this newest disorder – in fact, many are still fighting to get this addiction recognized as a medical disorder – there are ways to help your teen. Defeating the addiction can be difficult since many must use the Internet in one form or another every day, but there is help. Some believe that cognitive behavior therapy can help those afflicted. This is a form of psychotherapy where one replaces the undesirable behavior (e.g., Internet addiction) with a more productive thought or action. This will look different for each person and would work best with an accountability partner, one who will check in and help track your progress.

Creating external limits or concrete guidelines can also help. Have a timer set up to indicate when your teen needs to log off the computer and move on to a new task.

Again, this will require assistance. Along these lines, setting goals can be a useful way to battle this addiction.

If the addiction involves pornography, install a program to monitor computer activity. Some of these programs will send an email with reports of sites visited and the duration spent there, emails sent, and even a log of chats and instant messages. You can view site history as well as the amount of time spent on each site. While this might seem extreme, knowing someone is looking over your teen’s shoulder can quickly curb unwanted behaviors.

Getting Your Teen Support

Finally, there are also support groups, addiction treatment programs and therapists who specialize in Internet addiction. Newport Academy can help. We specialize in equipping teens with the tools and knowledge needed to beat their addictions, and we’re here to help you and your teen find the path to recovery. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone in this, and neither is your teen. The addiction is beatable with help, patience and hard work. Call us today for more information.

Photo courtesy of Hannah Wei for unsplash.