In just a few years, internet connectivity moved from a luxury item to a must-have service. It is now so common that many people rely on it to do their shopping or acquire their daily news and entertainment. More than 85 percent of U.S. people are online every day, thanks to inventions like cellphones and widely available public Wi-Fi connections, and 31 percent are online "nearly continuously." What effect does this always-on mentality have on youngsters growing up with technology at their fingertips? Is it possible for children to become addicted to the internet? Here's everything you need to know.
Your children may have an Internet addiction if they appear anxious or absentminded when not using a computer, have lost interest in previously enjoyed activities, stay up late playing games online or on social networking sites, have irregular sleep patterns, have more virtual friends than real life friends, or neglect important schoolwork to be online.
If your children have an Internet addiction, first determine whether they are spending so much time online to avoid a problem. Those that are lonely, depressed, bored, or furious may frequently go online to escape their sensations. Move computers to a communal area of the house and consider limiting the usage of mobile devices that connect to the Internet. Set a password for the computer so that youngsters do not have unauthorized access to the Internet. Programs that assist parents in limiting the amount of time their children may spend online are quite beneficial.
With kids ages 8 to 18 spending on average 44.5 hours per week in front of screens, parents are increasingly concerned that compulsive internet usage 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 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."
What Is Internet Addiction?
As a parent or guardian, you may worry that time spent in front of various screens is robbing your child of real-world, in-person interactions and experiences. Many kids must use the internet for school, especially with the widespread adoption of remote learning due to COVID-19. And when they’re not using technology to learn, children are online gaming, watching videos, sharing on social media and chatting with friends.
While these activities can be beneficial, if you aren’t diligent about monitoring your child’s internet use and online activities, your family could fall prey to the dark side of technology. Here are some possible red flags of a young person’s growing internet addiction.
Routinely losing track of time while playing or socializing online, Sacrificing hours of sleep or neglecting other crucial activities, such as chores and homework, to use the internet, Lying about time spent online, or going behind your back to circumvent any restrictions you’ve put in place, Becoming angry, agitated or irritable if you limit their screen time or access to their devices, Prioritizing online relationships instead of getting together with real-life friends and family, and Acting moody or depressed when they aren’t online
The Social-Emotional Toll of Childhood Internet Addiction
While many people have convincingly argued that internet access is a fundamental human right especially during a pandemic it also offers an escape from real-life problems and complicated feelings. Kids who are feeling lonely or vulnerable, or who have underdeveloped social skills, may be at a higher risk for developing inappropriate relationships or spending excessive amounts of time online.
Internet addiction is a valid concern in many families, particularly in situations where children cannot relate to their peers, lack other outlets for self-expression or wish to exert more control over their environment. However, as a parent or guardian, you play an influential role in your child’s relationship with technology, and you can place restrictions on how and when they use it. Internet addiction among children is a growing concern. Online access is a vital part of the modern world and an important tool in our children's education. 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 they perceive in their real lives are no longer present, and all the things one wishes he or she could be, do, 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 of developing inappropriate or excessive online habits. Because they feel alone, alienated, and may have problems making new friends, they turn to invisible strangers in online chat rooms looking for the attention and companionship missing from their real lives. They may come from families with significant problems at home, or experience bullying or difficulty socializing in school and extracurricular activities, so they cope with their problems by spending time online.
Harmful effects of Internet addiction on children
Internet addiction not only affects your child's behavior but could also get him into trouble with the law if not checked at the right time. Like drug addiction, with Internet addiction, children also start showing symptoms of behavior disorders when they are forbidden access to their devices and the Net. Here are some ways online addiction could affect your child:
Exposure to inappropriate content: Your child may not only be exposed to unwanted content but may also get trapped by becoming a contributor and a consumer of obscene content like pornography, or get hooked to violent content.
Sharing of personal information and pictures: If your child is addicted to uploading pictures on the Net, in doing so she may accidentally violate someone's privacy. She may have accessed inappropriate personal pictures through your phone or social media profiles. Also, children may be asked by agents to click on inappropriate pictures. These agents indulge in unethical practices such as uploading 'voyeuristic' pictures of women and children. Children who 'supply' these pictures unknowingly may also be hooked to the Internet to see where their pictures have been uploaded and how big a 'fan following' they have.
Exposure to violent content: A child addicted to playing violent games on the internet may be tempted to create or post violent content online. This may cause her to behave rudely or violently, and may even turn her into a bully.
Legal implications: Parents also need to understand that their child's Internet addiction runs the risk of getting into legal issues. Under the various provisions in the Information Technology Act, POCSO Act, Indian Penal code, etc., children can be booked and punished with a minimum jail term of two to three years, for committing the following offenses: Sending or publishing offensive content, Posting pictures of individuals, especially women and children without their consent, Sending repeated messages to people, Playing the role of proxy stalkers, Aiding main stalkers (who may be adults as well), and Hatching plans for violent activities including kidnapping, threatening to leak private data, extortion, hacking, etc.
For offenders between 16 and 17 years of age, the law may not consider their level of maturity or their gender when imposing strict punishment, especially if they have been part of heinous crimes. The punishment in such cases may be heavier and they may be treated like adult offenders.
Tips for Keeping Kids Safe Online
Children are still learning to navigate the world around them, and they might not realize that people may take advantage of online anonymity to create false identities or misrepresent themselves in other ways. Online, not everyone is who they seem to be, so parents and kids should stay alert.
Talk to your kids: Encourage children to tell you about what they do online, especially if they see or hear anything that makes them uncomfortable or feels like a possible red flag. Tell them to avoid sharing personal details, photos and videos on the internet. Explain in an age-appropriate way that this information may expose them to possible risks.
Monitor online activity: Understand what platforms your children use regularly, and keep track of how much time they spend online daily and which activities they engage in. You might want to have your children maintain a log of their internet use. If they resist this idea or you spot obvious discrepancies in their record-keeping, it could be time to bring up the topic of internet addiction.
Use parental controls: Familiarize yourself with privacy settings and permissions on sites and apps such as YouTube so you know how to use them correctly. Specifically, pay close attention to all apps and sites that allow direct messaging, video chats, file uploads and user anonymity.
Model the behavior you want to see: If you implement rules surrounding your child’s internet use that you don’t intend to follow, you may seem disingenuous.
How to stop your child's internet addiction
Address the problem: 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 effectively 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 or screen 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: get sidetracked with a lecture on disrespect. Acknowledge your child’s feelings but stay focused on the topic of his or her internet use.
Show you care: It will help to begin your discussion by reminding your child that you love them and that you care about their happiness and well-being. Children and teens often interpret questions about their behavior as blame and criticism. You need to reassure your child that you are not condemning them. Rather, tell your child you are concerned about some of the changes you have seen in their 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 account of just how much time they spend 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.
Become more computer-savvy: Checking history folders and internet logs, learning about parental monitoring software, and installing filters all require a degree of computer savvies. It is important for every parent to learn the terminology (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.
Set reasonable rules and boundaries: 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 trying to control your child or change who they are you is working to help them free themselves from a psychological dependence. Finally, make the computer visible. Create a rule that non-homework-related computer usage should only happen in more public areas of the home, where your child is more likely to interact with you or other members of the household.
Columnist: 1Atianashie Miracle A & 2Chukwuma Chinaza Adaobi
1,2Catholic University of Ghana, Fiapre Sunyani, Bono Region, Ghana