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The Effects of Internet Addiction on Kids: What Parents Need to Know

The effects of internet addiction can be devastating to children and teens.

In the modern world, we need the internet for daily life. Work, school, banking, shopping, social connection, and more are done either fully online or with online components. Regular internet use is both common and necessary. But it can become a problem when it crosses the line from regular use to addiction. And the effects of internet addiction can be especially damaging to children. If you’re a parent, here’s what you need to know about internet addiction – and how you can protect your child.

What is Internet Addiction?

Just being online a lot does not make an internet addiction. Plenty of people are online for most of their day and are fine. It becomes an addiction when the time online is excessive and compulsive. The “excessive” part means that they’re spending so much time online that it’s having negative impact on their life. And “compulsive” is that despite the consequences of their internet use, they are unable to reduce their internet use to non-excessive levels, even if they want to.

It’s important to note that right now, “internet addiction” is not an actual diagnosis. Some psychologists and mental health professionals are advocating for Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) to be considered a disorder, but it has not yet been recognized officially. Gaming Disorder, or video game addiction, commonly considered a sub-type of internet addiction, is listed in the International Classification of Diseases. But scientists are still debating if it is its own separate disease or just an effect of other disorders.

Just because Internet Addiction Disorder isn’t recognized as an official disorder doesn’t mean the effects of internet addiction aren’t harmful or damaging. And since being young is one of the major risk factors for internet addiction (the others are a history of mental health issues, a history of substance abuse or addiction, and genetic predisposition), children and teenagers are particularly at risk of the harmful effects of internet addiction.

Types of Internet Addiction

Since “internet addiction” isn’t an official diagnosis, there are no officially recognized types or sub-types of internet addiction. But people often sort internet addictions depending on what, in particular, the person is compulsively doing on the internet. These are some commonly-mentioned types of internet addiction:

  • Online gambling: Addiction to gambling through websites and apps.
  • Cybersex/online sex: Addiction to explicit role-play or explicit conversations in chat rooms. Online porn addiction is often included in this type.
  • Video game: Addiction to playing video games or online games.
  • Social media: Addiction to checking, viewing, and/or posting on social media.
  • Information-seeking: Addiction to seeking information through online reading or searching.

There are millions of things to do on the internet, and most of them have the potential to become an addiction. Internet addiction is defined by obsessive, compulsive use, not by what in particular someone is doing online. You shouldn’t assume that someone is addicted to social media, for example, just because they spend a lot of time there. But you also shouldn’t assume they aren’t addicted just because they’re not doing any of these things online. In this case, behavior is the bigger sign.

Signs of an Internet Addiction

Since internet addiction is characterized by behavior patterns, not what someone is doing online, it’s important to know what kind of behavior you will see in someone with an internet addiction. Many of these signs are similar to what you would see in someone addicted to drugs or alcohol.

As we previously discussed, someone who is addicted to the internet will use it excessively. They will spend the majority of their time online. They may also find themselves spending more time online than they intended. This could cause them to neglect relationships with family and friends or cause problems in work or at school. Someone who is addicted will keep spending the majority of their time online despite the negative effects.

Internet addiction is also compulsive. They may try to limit their use and fail. It’s common for them to feel guilt, shame, or frustration about how much time they spend online. They may care deeply about the problems its causing and want to stop, but can’t. They may also lie about how much they are online. If they don’t have access to their devices, they could experience psychological withdrawal symptoms like being anxious, on edge, or hostile.

Effects of Internet Addiction on Children and Teens

The effects of internet addiction, or any type of addiction, are terrible for anyone. But they can be especially devastating for children and teenagers, for many reasons. And the effects can be progressive, getting worse as the problem continues without intervention.

Excessive time spent online decreases academic performance in general. Most people think the big issue is spending time online instead of doing homework. That is a concern. But “checking habits” – constantly reaching for, thinking about checking, or actually checking a smartphone or other device – can lead to distraction in class and poor school performance.

Even though young people often use the internet to connect, some research shows that excessive use can be isolating. Not only can isolation cause mental health problems like depression, lack of social interaction during this critical point in their lives can hinder a child’s social development. They may struggle to recognize facial or nonverbal cues and have a more difficult time building relationships in the future.

Internet addiction can also have physical effects. Screen time has been shown to decrease sleep quality, and internet addicts may stay up late on their devices. Sleep disruptions like this have health consequences and also hinder the development of children and teens’ growing brains. Excessive device use can also cause headaches and vision problems. In addition, internet addicts tend to have poor eating habits and may even neglect their personal hygiene.

Finally, internet addiction can have terrible effects on emotions and mental health. It decreases children and teens’ focus and attention span. It increases their need for constant stimulation, drives them towards instant gratification, and makes them more impulsive. The compulsive element and being disconnected from offline reality can cause distress. And there is some research that it increases the risk of developing anxiety or depression.

Protect Your Child from the Effects of Internet Addiction

As a parent, there are steps you can take to protect your child from the effects of internet addiction. You may even be able to prevent the addiction in the first place (but depending on your child’s risk factors, that may not always be possible). Start by having conversations. Know what’s age-appropriate for your child. Talk with them about digital devices and social media. Ask how different types of platforms and content make them feel. If you can help them identify when internet use becomes problematic, that’s a huge first step.

Another important thing to do is to lead by example. A recent study showed that when parents are always online, their teenagers are more likely to become addicted to the internet. Kids imitate their parents. If you’re always on your phone, they will always be on their phones. If you are concerned about your child being addicted to the internet, consider taking up (and encouraging them to take up) hobbies that don’t require being online or planning family activities that don’t involve technology.

Using a parental control software can also be helpful. Parental control software allows you to take some control of your children’s online experience. You can track what sites or apps they’re on and for how long, filter out age-inappropriate content, block entire apps and websites, set usage rules (such as blocking games after a certain time on school nights), and more. If your children are young, you can protect them from online dangers while you teach them to protect themselves. For older children, you can help them set limits if they struggle to do it themselves.

If You’re Concerned Your Child is Already Addicted

If you’re concerned that your child is already addicted to the internet, start by assessing the extent of the issue. Are all their basic needs being met? Do they sleep enough, eat healthy, and get exercise? How is their academic performance? Do they spend time socializing in person? It’s always a good start to have conversations. Ask them how they feel about their internet use and how different platforms and content make them feel. You can also express your concerns and explain why their time online worries you.

If your child is already suffering the negative effects of internet addiction, it may be time to get professional help. Talk to a doctor about treatment options. They may be able to recommend behavioral therapy, mental health counseling, family therapy, self-help groups, “digital detox” (a period of time with no internet access whatsoever), medication, or other interventions that can help.

Another tool that may help is parental control software. Parental control software allows you to track what websites or apps your child is on and how long they spend there. This can give you data to discuss with your child and help them manage their addiction. It can also let you set rules, such as turning off social media access after a certain time, block downloads of new apps or programs, or even limit screen time altogether.

The key to managing the effects of internet addiction is moderation. You can’t fully ban your kids from the internet – often they need it to do their schoolwork, and it can have negative social consequences, especially for teens. We need the internet to function in the modern world, and there’s nothing wrong with using it. It’s only when it takes over our offline lives that it becomes a problem.

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