Adolescents and young adults comprise the age group (13 – 24) most susceptible to Internet addiction due to the massive changes and additional responsibilities they bear in their lives. With smoking and illicit drug use (except maybe cannabis) at historically low levels, is it possible that social media (for females) and gaming (for males) have filled in the gap?
Addiction is a Coping Mechanism
What leads to any sort of behavioral or substance addiction?
Drugs are one of many possible “outlets” that can help the user relieve despair, angst, loneliness, chaos, or other emotions that tend to be most pronounced during adolescence and young adulthood. Someone who does not have these psychological problems is extremely unlikely to become addicted since they see no reason to continue their habits.
Suppose your son or daughter is studying hard to become a doctor and smokes a joint at a party during her third year in college. That cigarette isn’t going to turn him or her into an addict any more than throwing $30 into slot machines in Vegas turns any normal tourist into a gambling addict.
That “sense of purpose” and self-respect is what keeps addiction at bay. People who maintain positive values and direction in life will quite firmly resist addictions even if they get “hooked” onto something for a short period of time.
Now we turn our attention to Internet addiction. What exactly is “Internet addiction,” and how does it affect adolescents and young adults?
Defining “Internet Addiction”
“Internet addiction” is not formally recognized by the DSM-V, the holy grail of American psychiatry, and thus there is no definitive standard agreed upon by psychiatrists to determine whether or not someone is suffering from “Internet addiction.” However, given the increase in problematic Internet use (whether for gaming, social media, pornography, etc.) we will provide an informal definition.
“Internet addiction” encapsulates pathological, difficult-to-control consumption of the most common forms of digital entertainment including social media, video gaming, streaming services (Twitch.TV), pornography, online gambling, online shopping, and web surfing. We consider “gaming addiction” as a sub-category of “Internet addiction” given their close relationship and the fact that most (problematic) gaming takes place online.
Extreme instances of Internet addiction include a Korean couple who allowed their baby to starve to death while they raised a virtual one and a loser of a video game tournament killing two people in a vengeful shoot-out.
A more common scenario that many parents, perhaps even you, can relate to is the teenage son who goes to school, comes back home, finishes homework, and then spends the remainder of his free time (typically 4 to 6 hours on a school day) playing an online multiplayer game like Fortnite or League of Legends with “virtual friends.”
This type of behavior more typically characterizes a “mild” addiction. Someone who has a severe problem will skip classes altogether and show almost no motivation toward future endeavors at all.
While we are not suggesting parents ought to ban video games or social media entirely, which would be difficult to enforce anyway, it is important to determine if Internet/digital content is used for “pathological” purposes.
Are they playing games purely for fun, or are they using it to relieve themselves of a problem area in life?
If it is the latter, then tread cautiously, since addiction is lurking around each and every corner.
Often times when I ask how 16-year-olds how long they spend online for non-productive purposes, they severely underestimate their actual duration. Most teenagers can easily and discreetly hide the amount of time they spend online by pretending to be productive on a PC (“I’m doing homework!”) or using screen devices secretly after bedtime.
The True Price of Internet Addiction
Here are some statistics to bear in mind:
#1: Children age 8 – 18 spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes online every day.
Given that the study was conducted in 2010, and the intensity of Internet use continues to climb every year, it is likely that the figure now exceeds 8 hours/day (the equivalent of the recommended sleep time).
Now ask yourself: if you took a time machine back to 1975, would your parents allow you to watch 8 hours of TV a day? No, of course not. So why is the parental reaction today so muted in response?
This wide range is due to the fact that there is no definitive standard to determine if someone is clinically addicted or not. We believe that the median of these figures, or 4.85%, is very close to the “true” percentage of those with Internet addiction problems if we use a metric that is neither too loose nor stringent.
#3: Mental health among teens and young adults is in severe decline. Among young adults (18 – 25) and adolescents (13 – 17), more than 13% have suffered a major depressive episode in the past 12 months.
When you look back at the 2000 – 2010 decade, this figure averaged 8%. This represents an astounding ~62% increase (8 to 13 percent).
It would be foolish to lay the blame solely on excessive (and compulsive) Internet use. However, as you shall soon see, Internet use certainly contributes to it.
And it is NOT prudent to ignore it until the problems become too great to handle.
Compulsive Internet users tend to exhibit the following:
- Greater likelihood of depression
- Significantly higher levels of anxiety
- Poor communication and socialization skills
Each merits their own discussion below.
Depression is no laughing matter, yet the relationship between Internet addiction and depression is opaque. Does depression cause Internet addiction, or does Internet addiction cause depression? This is a chicken-and-egg question where it is possible that both scenarios can occur.
Regardless, it is proven that (recreational) Internet use beyond 1 hour per day lowers the overall mood and happiness of the user. The pattern actually follows an almost-linear relationship where every additional hour (beyond 1 hour) decreases happiness by a constant amount.
Now visualize that the typical teenager (or Internet addict) goes online for 7 or more hours per day, deep in the red zone where mood drops off a cliff. Decreasing Internet use leads to improved moods, so we know this is a cause-effect and not simply a correlative relationship.
Internet addiction creates higher levels of anxiety. Consider the following:
- Social media websites like Facebook and Instagram encourage users to share the “best moments” of their lives, creating the illusion that others are “living the grandiose life.” This, in turn, makes the user feel inadequate and insecure. Users often judge their persona’s “success” based on the number of likes and amount of positive attention.
- Online gaming is fun, competitive, and can spiral out of control easily. In some genres, players compete to earn higher levels and points in (ELO-based) ranking systems. In others, such as the MMORPG genre, games such as World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 provide players the opportunity to team up with other players to take on challenges. “Online friends” supplant real ones, leading to a lack of socialization necessary to stay mentally fit.
- Online shopping binges for the purpose of relieving pain and worry leave the user in greater amounts of debt.
- Obsessed web surfers often fixate on negative news headlines and gloomy opinions. Compulsive web surfers tend to seek out articles that confirm their personal biases and pre-determined beliefs, leading to further negative thoughts about themselves (and society in general).
A mild level of anxiety is expected in everyday life; learning how to cope is key.
Moderate or high levels of anxiety may trigger additional mental health problems and perpetuate the cycle of Internet addiction. (Anxiety -> more time spent online to relieve anxiety -> too much time wasted to focus on productive work or activities -> more anxiety -> … )
Face-to-face communication has severely declined over the past 10 years. It may not seem obvious why this trend has catastrophic consequences until you consider the following:
- Job interviews require good communication skills. Lack of confidence and the inability to read cues is an oft-cited reason employers or hiring personnel will deny an otherwise qualified candidate for the job position.
- Meaningful friendships are built upon connection. Those who cannot communicate properly will have a much harder time making friends and are much more likely to be lonely. Today’s generation of young adults are lonelier than ever before (compared to previous generations of young adults). Why is this a problem, you ask? Those who are lonely and lack meaningful social networks are 50% more likely to die early.
- Lack of “Emotional intelligence.” Successfully navigating social groups requires negotiating skills, including “positive assertion.” Positive assertion means standing up for yourself (and like-minded people) and expressing your opinion without coming off as hostile or antagonistic. Unless they find themselves in a job or career where socialization is unnecessary, they have a very hard life ahead of them.
Physical Health Impacts
The most concerning physical effects of excessive Internet use and addiction:
- Lack of exercise
- Sleep disruption
- Elevated cortisol levels
Time is a finite resource. Every hour (beyond a reasonable limit, say 90 minutes/day) of Internet use is one hour that cannot be dedicated to activities such as exercise. Exercise boosts mood, reduces stress, keeps weight at normal or acceptable levels, and reduces the risk of contracting chronic diseases that tend to surface during middle age.
Neglect exercise and you open a whole can of worms.
It is important to instill, at a very young age, the mindset that exercise is MANDATORY and not OPTIONAL. Sadly, this mindset is lost in most households given the average 7+ hours spent per day online by a typical American teens.
Screen use, especially before bedtime, is a major cause of sleep problems. “Blue light” interferes with the brain’s natural ability to generate melatonin and disrupts the cycle of “deep sleep.” “Deep sleep,” also known as non-REM sleep, is necessary to feel refreshed and energized in the morning. The power to focus and “get stuff done” efficiently is also attributable to receiving enough “deep sleep.”
Excessive Internet use (via screen devices) increases blood cortisol levels. Cortisol is the human “fight-or-flight” hormone that triggers spikes in blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar. Elevated cortisol levels are not healthy:
And chronically elevated cortisol levels have been tied to an increased risk of serious health problems, including depression, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, high blood pressure, heart attack, dementia, and stroke.
“Every chronic disease we know of is exacerbated by stress,” says Dr. Robert Lustig, emeritus professor in pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “The Hacking of the American Mind.” “And our phones are absolutely contributing to this.”
“Real Life” Consequences
- If the user is in school, poor academic performance may lead to dropping out of school
- If the user is already working, lackluster productivity and a greater chance of being fired from the job
- Financial hardship
- The decline in self-confidence and self-esteem
- Strained family relationships
- Loss of time, the most precious resource of them all
A final problem worth mentioning is the potential for misdiagnosis.
Given that “Internet Addiction” is not officially recognized, mental health professionals (at least in the USA) often do not screen for this problem and may attribute a person’s ailments to other conditions.
To use a relatable example, the rise in ADHD (Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder) diagnoses among school-age children is particularly troublesome. ADHD appears in about 5% of children in countries with compulsory schooling, yet ~10% of school-age students here in the US are diagnosed with ADHD.
The ADHD diagnosis rate in the USA is roughly double that of other countries and strongly suggests the presence of overdiagnosis unless you wish to believe that American kids are inherently more hyperactive than their international counterparts.
Misdiagnosis is costly and time-consuming. It will lead to dead-ends and “false positives” that do not resolve the actual problem.
What Can You Do?
Parents in America take an almost Puritanical stance against drug use, alcohol consumption, smoking, etc. for fear of unsavory consequences. While most of this is merited, perhaps the real tragedy is not enough attention devoted to a home-grown problem.
Compulsive Internet use is certainly nowhere as damaging as drug abuse or alcoholism, but it is more widespread and likely to be ignored.
What can you, as a parent, do?
One solution is to try and fix the problem yourself – family discussions, greater engagement in activities, enforcement of rules, and planning for daily routine changes.
This is the least expensive in monetary terms but most expensive in time. Very few people have experience dealing with Internet addiction (a recent phenomenon), so their “solutions” are largely based on speculation and trial-and-error.
Based on my experience, parents often make the mistake of believing that their children have the same ideas/values as they do, which leads to miscommunication and misalignment.
For instance, a family I talked with a while ago had a 19-year-old son (let’s call him “Brandon”) who failed half his classes during his second year in college. I eventually probed the issue further, and it turned out that the parents pushed him to college “in order to make lots of money later.” The problem is that Brandon wasn’t keen on making money – or at least money wasn’t high on his priority list.
In Brandon’s mind, he was being forced to work hard for a goal he didn’t care about. So of course, his poor academic performance reflected that mindset. Why would someone “work hard” for something (“lots of money”) they don’t even want?
It’s easy for parents to dismiss this type of thinking as “naive” and “childish.” However, keep in mind that young adults have almost no “real life” experience to draw from. It is far more productive to focus on their values (often times, “freedom” and “community” are brought up) to ensure
A second option is to go into counseling or therapy.
Before you go into counseling or therapy, be sure to know exactly if the sessions address the root causes of Internet addiction.
Therapy is essentially designed to treat mental health problems by ridding of “negative thought patterns” (CBT is quite the popular method), while counseling is designed to address specific problems.
Therapy and counseling will work for some but not others. If there are several problems that remain unaddressed, then counseling won’t be sufficient.
A third option is to work with us.
Unlike traditional “treatment” options, we focus on the non-medical side: values, social environment, communication, and life skills (including career/employment goals) required to navigate our increasingly complex world. It is necessary to reduce the level of chaos/disorganization and introduce some structure of daily life to combat Internet addiction.
Some common areas we focus on through our consultation:
- Discovering values and positive mindsets
- Aligning goals and actions with values and mindsets
- Learning how to socialize effectively
- Self-esteem and competence through repeated action
- Setting meaningful “life goals” (employment, family, achievements)
- Mellowing parental pressure/expectations
- Exploiting and leveraging personal strengths
- Seeking “validation” offline
These themes tend to come up frequently when we talk with parents, so we get straight to the point.
Internet addiction is unique in that abstinence is almost impossible – the Internet is far too integrated into our everyday lives. However, we will help you use the right tools to make moderation a reality without the need for “tech rehab” or focusing exclusively on “mental health.”
To learn more about what we do, please visit the following pages: