Is internet addiction a real problem? Or is it a label we give to a behaviour we find confusing and problematic for our relationships with young people? Psychologist Liesje Donkin provides advice on the concept of ‘internet addiction’ and how to support young people whose internet use is problematic.
…young people spend more time online due to the use of the internet as a source of support, and a way to develop their identity
Working with young people I constantly hear parents complaining about the amount of time that their young people spend online. Comments like "they can't live without Facebook", "I can't get them off the computer", and "they're addicted to being online" are common.
When considering if someone is addicted or dependent on something, we look at whether their use of the thing interferes with their ability to work, their relationships, and how they cope when they can't access that thing. Does not being able to access it make them feel agitated? Do they spend a lot of time and energy thinking about it? Are they spending more time online than intended? And is the use of the internet continuing despite causing more problems than benefit?
Whilst these are common features of all addictions, there is no formal recognition of online addiction yet. Some research has indicated that people who heavily use the internet and develop addiction-like behaviour are more likely to develop depression, and experience negative effects on their work, social and psychological functioning1,2. Others argue that high levels of internet use may be symptomatic of underlying mental health conditions3-5 with the internet being the medium people use to access the thing that they are truly addicted to (eg. Gambling, shopping, or sex)3.
What is agreed is that there is increasingly problematic internet use. Across the world the rates of problematic use is rising - 1.0-18.3% of adolescences in Western countries6-9 and 13.7%-18.4% in Asian countries10,11. In South Korea there has been a spate of deaths relating to unwillingness to stop playing an online game, which has resulted in internet addiction being considered a significant mental health issue. In China this has led the government to pass laws restricting time spent on online games.
Despite this, there is not clear evidence that internet addiction does exist. What is known is that young people are at increased risk of developing problematic behaviours related to internet use as young people spend more time online due to the use of the internet as a source of support12,13 and a way to develop their identity14. However, this doesn't mean that spending time online is going to lead to developing dysfunction; in many ways it can be beneficial, with research showing that time online can build social networks and support, and does not generally take the place of offline activities. Therefore, young people's online behaviour may positively influence life offline - which is the opposite to an addiction.
If you are worried about a young person's internet use, there are several practical strategies you can recommend to young people and parents: