When Kelly wasn't in school, she was constantly checking Facebook to keep up with the events in her teen world. Jason's mom recognized his online addiction when he continually created videos late into the night, regardless of the house rules. Chris enjoyed online courses but easily got pulled into role-playing games — his mother confesses that it wasn't long before Chris was addicted to them. For teens, Internet obsessions and addictions come in many forms, including blogs, gambling, social news sites, social media sites, gaming, pornography and more.
In 2012, the American Psychiatric Association officially announced that "Internet use disorder" might make an appearance in the next edition of their diagnostic manual. Their studies likened the neurological effects of online addictions to the effects experienced by people addicted to cocaine, heroin or other substances. Obvious changes in the brain and its dopamine levels could be charted as online use grew into a preoccupation resulting in increased tolerance levels. Users developed a need to spend more and more time online, and when the Internet was taken away, individuals experienced withdrawal symptoms.
Managing vs. quitting
The Internet has become an increasingly essential tool in communication and work or school tasks. Since most of us use the Internet at some point during the day, managing Internet use is critical because quitting it is seldom a reasonable option. But in the busyness of family life, how do parents stay alert to what teens are doing online and to when their Internet use may be creeping into an unhealthy obsession or even addiction?
It's important to look at the big picture of your teen's life. Has she turned to the Internet to create a fictitious image of someone she believes must be better than who she really is? Is your teen bored? Might she be struggling socially, or is she isolating herself? Is she being bullied? Are there events or other changes in routine or behavior that could be connected to an increased interest in the Internet?
It's essential that you nurture a relationship that invites your teen to come to you when she is hurting or confused and needs to talk. Support her in discovering offline social activities where she can build confidence by engaging in her interests and utilizing her talents. Don't be afraid to monitor your teen's online activity while training her to step into responsible and healthy Internet use. And keep the conversation going about all she is doing in life — including what she is doing with her time on the Internet.
Watching for signs of addiction
Dr. Hillarie Cash, co-founder of reSTART, and Dr. Kimberly Young from the Center for Internet Addiction suggest that parents watch for the following warning signs of Internet addiction:
craving more time on the Internet
lying to conceal extent of involvement
using the Internet to escape or to relieve feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness or depression
displaying irritability when attempting to cut back
neglecting friends and family
withdrawing from other activities
neglecting sleep to stay online
underperforming at work or school
showing physical changes in weight or care of self
The presence of three or four of these warning signs suggest abuse, and five symptoms suggest that addiction is likely.
Encouraging healthy alternatives
If your teen shows signs of abuse or addiction, take it seriously. Practically speaking, consider moving the computer to a family space, adding filtering software or taking the computer away. And don't forget the iPhones, Androids, iPads and other Internet-accessible devices. If necessary, seek professional help.
To overcome online abuses or addictions, teens need definitive time away from the computer, as well as encouragement to pursue healthy replacements and a training time or boundaries for healthy Internet management. Activities, sports, healthy relationships, jobs, volunteer work and ministry can all be a part of that pursuit.
We want our teens to become adults who are engaged in living a full life and influencing the world for Christ. Helping them to reach that goal may include our commitment to monitoring Internet use, nurturing their gifts and talents, and leading by our example of healthy online activity. Behavior-changing management is essential in this world of easy access and online addictions.