With kids ages 8 to 18 spending on average 44.5 hours per week in front of screens, parent are increasingly concerned that screen time 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 new 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 etc. Dr. Kimberly Young, Director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, identified the following potential warning signs for children with pathological internet use:
Internet addiction among children is a growing concern. Online access is a vital part of the modern world and an important tool in the education of our children. 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 of their real life are no longer present, and all the things one wishes he or she could be 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 to developing inappropriate or excessive online habits. Because they feel alone, alienated, and have problems making new friends, they turn to invisible strangers in online chat rooms looking for the attention and companionship missing in their real lives. They may come from families with significant problems, and 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.”
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 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 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 yet, get sidetracked with a lecture on disrespect. Acknowledge your child’s feelings but stay focused on the topic of his or her internet use.
It will help to begin your discussion by reminding your child that you love him or her and that you care about his or her happiness and well-being. Children often interpret questions about their behavior as blame and criticism. You need to reassure your child that you are not condemning him or her. Rather, tell your child you are concerned about some of the changes you have seen in his or her 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 accounting of just how much time he or she spends 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.
Checking history folders and internet logs, learning about monitoring software, and installing filters all require a degree of computer savvy. It is important for every parent to learn the terms (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.
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 simply trying to control him or her – you are working to free them of a psychological dependence.
Make the computer visible– Move your child’s personal computer out of his or her bedroom.