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The relentless desire for “escape” from anxiety or seemingly intractable real-life problems triggers the addiction, and over time the problem compounds.
Self-regulation is difficult enough as it is. As minors’ and even young adults’ brains are not fully developed, they will find it an extraordinarily difficult task to quit once they are hooked.
Parents may ask why certain people who display symptoms of anxiety, depression, etc. choose to live their fantasies online. I have included five factors explaining the rise in “Internet addiction” over the past 15 or so years.
I. Instant Gratification – The Time Factor
Turning on a PC, smartphone, or tablet takes a minute or two. Subconscious habits are reinforced in many homes where electronic devices are never turned off at all, or only shut down right before bedtime. With a few touches or mouse clicks, the user can enter the virtual domain(s) of his or her choice. This applies to both social media platforms as well as online games.
The Internet is the uncontested king when it comes to delivering instant gratification due to its unparalleled speed (which has come a long way since the Dot Com days) and massive network. Contrast this with non-digital activities such as reading a book, learning an instrument, or playing a team sport, which all deliver superior, long-term benefits but also require more upfront effort; the difference is akin to night and day.
II. Vivid Interaction – The Engagement Factor
Unlike the comparatively dull and slow-paced reality, Internet media constantly morphs and evolves based on users’ inputs. This represents a massive break from old, traditional media (radio, TV, and newspaper) where communication is one-way.
Millions, perhaps billions, of new content (text, images, videos, and audio files) are uploaded every day to sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Reddit. You could spend your entire lifetime combing through a week’s worth of information – news updates, celebrity gossip, friend statuses, etc. – and still only scratch the surface.
In a similar vein, millions of boys and young men face off against one another in online multiplayer games, where each match is almost guaranteed to be different from the ones before. This “novelty factor” combined with “in-game” achievements (medals, “ranking up,” etc.) is quite effective at snaring youthful minds into wasting hundreds or thousands of their hours chasing after fake glory.
Psychologists and therapists who understand the nature of screen addiction point to the “variable reward” factor; that is, it’s not the text message, image post, or the game itself that’s captivating. It’s the thought of having something new thrown your way when you get online.
III. Reinventing Yourself – The Anonymity Factor
In real life, disguising one’s social status and inferiority is extremely difficult. On the other hand, users have the option to remain anonymous online, providing a veil of protection sorely lacking in real life. This “new identity” allows people to act out their fantasies.
For example, someone who works a “lowly retail job” could pose as a social media star by attracting many followers and creating worthy content to share. This would erase the “real life” suffering and replace it with online success.
Addicted gamers (especially those who play the MOBA and MMORPG genres) can also obtain success in the virtual realm. Achieving higher rankings, obtaining rare items, and socializing with a close network of “online friends” can certainly boost self-esteem where none existed offline.
IV. Cheap Entertainment – The Monetary Factor
Internet media is free or inexpensive to access. Consider these factors:
- Over the past 20 years, the prices of consumer electronics have seen massive deflation. Competition among sellers and manufacturers has driven down the cost of computers and most software. Only companies that have gone to great lengths to protect their brands (such as Apple) can still command high prices in the market.
- Monthly Internet costs in the USA are not cheap by international standards but are affordable enough that most households will unquestioningly pay for Internet access.
- The cost of electricity to maintain the use of electronic devices is negligible.
- Second-hand markets like eBay and Craigslist allow users to purchase used electronics at a great discount.
- The most popular social media platforms are all free to use, with no tangible costs (other than time, which admittedly many people neglect to consider).
- Pornography can be viewed for free.
- PC, video, and mobile games are often free or cheap enough that even those without employment can easily afford them.
When you calculate the total cost of using electronics to access the Internet based on price per hour, you’ll find a figure in the single digits. Lower prices tend to translate into higher demand, all other things equal.
As the vast majority of minors are not wealthy nor do they possess high spending power by any stretch of the imagination, this “cheap entertainment” aligns perfectly with their economic incentives.
Traditionally, young people turned to cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, sex, and drugs to alleviate their pains. Unlike those options, the Internet performs the same functions without breaking the bank.
V. The Comfort of Home – The Convenience Factor
In North America, and especially the suburbs, most community centers are inaccessible without a vehicle. Students would have to walk more than 30 minutes, take a bus, or ask a friend for a ride assuming their parents aren’t available to pick them up. As most kids cannot legally drive themselves (nor would their parents willingly allow them to), they are likely to turn to Internet use to fill in the time gaps.
Many parents unwittingly encouraged Internet addiction by refusing to allow their kids to “play outside” out of paranoid fear. Since the late 1980s, the phenomenon of “helicopter parenting” has, in my humble opinion, wrought massive psychological destruction upon younger generations.
“Helicopter parenting” is where the parents try to oversee the most minute details and aspects of children’s lives, thus denying them most of their autonomy. One of my friend’s parents disallowed my friend from walking to the park less than half a mile away even when she was 15 years old. (!)
This has, unfortunately, created an atmosphere where children are “afraid” to try anything new or seemingly risky, preferring instead to remain “safe.” Helicopter parenting has not only stunted the growth of children (who learn through trial-and-error and failure) but created bad incentives such as staying at home and browsing YouTube for hours without end every day as a method of relieving boredom.
I have discussed the intrinsic factors that make digital media so alluring. Obviously, Internet addiction does not manifest purely because Internet use can be entertaining. However, there are many reasons people might choose the Internet as the preferred outlet for their woes, including 5 of the main ones listed above.
Parents can and should take action along the lines of the following:
- Educate yourself and your kids on the subject of Internet use and addiction
- Promote the right incentives to steer your children away from bad screen habits/excessive use
- Suggest activities that involve creative, technical, and/or social aspects to fill “free time”
- Vigorously enforce Internet “downtime,” but allow autonomy in choosing activities (provided they are not dangerous or potentially addicting)
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