Sunday, March 25, 2012

Internet Addiction

The front page of today's Washington Post featured a story about South Korea scaling back their plans to have all textbooks be online by 2015.  The concern?  Students' lack of engagement with the real world and internet addiction:
"'The concern about the digital textbook,' said Kwon Cha-mi, who runs the digital program at one of the pilot elementary schools in Seoul, 'is that young students won’t have as much time to experience real life and real things. They’ll just see the whole world through a computer screen.'" (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
The article goes on to state:
"About one in 12 students between ages 5 and 9, according to a government survey, is addicted to the Internet, meaning they become anxious or depressed if they go without access." (www.washingtonpost.com)
Internet addiction is not yet an official psychological disorder, although it is being considered as an addition to the upcoming DSM-V.  Research on the topic amongst adolescents is fuzzy, with an estimate of perhaps 1.4% to 17.9% of children being affected worldwide, higher in Eastern countries than in Western countries.  How does one exactly define internet addiction, though?  When does internet use become a problem?

The internet and digital use is now a fixture in our lives.  Case in point, I am currently writing this sentence on a laptop computer utilizing the internet.  We use it to access information, to keep up with friends, to view entertainment, to play games, and to document our lives.  We, as adults, have more than likely not always had this level of technology available--I grew up in the era of the Apple IIe and the game Oregon Trail, before social networking, before online gaming, before Wikepedia, the lovely online-encyclopedia that helped me to hyperlink "Apple IIe" and "Oregon Trail."  Kids today have never known a world without it--they have grown up with Facebook and Twitter being a part of their lives.  They have always been able to play video games with their friends without being in the same room or even the same house.  They have always had access to a world's worth of information, some positive and reliable, some negative and false.  Without access to the internet, some kids become part of the Digital Divide, and I have come to believe that, for better or for worse, online and mobile social networking and texting is now a large part of adolescent social life, with kids possibly being at a disadvantage without those tools.  All kids must be able to use the internet as part of their daily lives.

Addiction, though, is defined in terms of tolerance, withdrawal, and interference with either one's occupational/educational or social lives.  Thus, if a child seems to need more and more time online or with the cell-phone, that might be a point of concern.  If a child, upon losing internet access or their cell-phone, becomes uncharacteristically angry, combative, anxious, or depressed beyond what might be expected, this could also be a point of concern.  If, in conjunction with more time spent online, a child's grades start to decline or they are less connected to the outside world than they have previously been, this might also be a reason for concern.  Certainly, a combination of two or three of these would be red flags.  I have come across adolescents who fall into these criteria in my time as a school counselor.  I have worked with children who are failing to come to school and who are failing classes because they are up until 3 a.m. every night playing online multi-player combat games.  I have seen kids who come apart at the seams when their cell-phones are taken away for a few days.  There are some online assessments for internet addiction, but their validity is sometimes questioned, as there can be many individual nuances to diagnosing someone with internet addiction disorder (IAD).  An adolescent may spend a lot of time online, but if they have always been drawn to books and websites that follow their interests, their grades have remained unchanged, and the rest of their functioning (eating, sleeping, mood) is steady, then there may not be a reason for concern.  Teens may seem to spend a great deal of time texting each other and using Facebook, but this focus on social communication is fairly normal--remember how much time we spent talking on the telephone, with our parents constantly yelling at us to get off?  We are looking for signs that are effecting an adolescent's levels of functioning and indicate a change from previous relationships and behaviors.

What can we do as school counselors?  What can we tell parents if they are concerned?  First, I firmly believe that we, as a society, need to begin conversations at an early age with kids about appropriate uses of technology as well as modeling for them a healthy balance of technology use.  If we ourselves are shackled by our computers, iPhones, Android phones, and tablets, unable to interact on a personal level with other human beings, we are not setting a great example for children.  Further, we can use issues in the media, making sure they are age-appropriate, to talk to kids about the importance of balancing technology use with real-world interactions, as well as how there are appropriate and inappropriate uses for the internet, texting, etc.  As an example, cyberbullying comes to mind.  This would be a great topic for a small group or classroom counseling lesson.  For parents, Dr. Christakis from the American Academy of Pediatrics has the following tips:
  • Limit the amount of time children can spend online. Differentiate between use that is school-related vs. purely entertainment based.
  • Do not put a computer in your child’s room. Instead, computers should be in an area of the home where you can easily monitor what your child is doing online.
  • Find out what your child likes to do online. Certain reality-based games like World of Warcraft are particularly addictive because they draw you into what Dr. Christakis describes as “a second life.” 
  • Certain children are at higher risk for Internet addiction, such as children with attention problems, depression, anxiety and social isolation. Monitor these children more carefully. (source: aapnews.aappublications.org)
If you believe there are strong concerns that a student may be addicted to the internet, it is important to share them with the family and recommend that they seek additional help.  There are now many clinicians who are trained in ways to address internet use problems, so it may be beneficial to have the family search for one in your locale.

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