Is Internet addiction the main cause of today’s at-risk crisis? It's a topic most people shy away from, but it's one that our society needs to address. Everyday more and more teens are getting hooked on the Internet and the effect of surfing may be taking its toll on our youth.
There’s no question that Internet use among teens is on the rise. The Internet has quickly become the number one medium of entertainment our children are busy with each day. Worse, not only are teens spending one to several hours a day surfing the web, the content they are viewing has become progressively violent and contains more explicit material than ever before. According to a U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention study of 1,500 youth aged 10 to 17:
-More than one-third of youth Internet users (34%) saw “inappropriate” material online they did not want to see.
-The increase in exposure to unwanted material occurred despite increased use of filtering, blocking, and monitoring software in households of youth Internet users.
-Online harassment of youth has increased by 9% over the last five years.
-28% of solicited youth said an incident left them feeling very or extremely upset and in one-quarter of all solicitation incidents, youth had one or more symptoms of stress, including staying away from the Internet or a particular part of it, being unable to stop thinking about the incident, feeling jumpy or irritable, and/or losing interest in things.
These statistics should raise an alarm for parents concerned about their children’s development. Here's why: For many teens, surfing the Internet has become an addiction, and like all other addictions, teens who use the Internet too much may require a therapeutic approach that can wean them away from this form of self-destructive behavior.
I know it may take a slight leap of creativity to connect overuse of the Internet to drug abuse, but here are the similarities: Like addiction to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or caffeine, Internet addiction is marked by symptoms of increasing tolerance, withdrawal, mood changes, and interruption of social relationships. Children and adolescents who have become addicted to the Internet will require increasing amounts of time online in order to feel satisfied. When they do not have access to the Internet, they may have symptoms of withdrawal, which include anxiety, depression, irritability, trembling hands, restlessness and obsessive thinking or fantasizing about the Internet.
Independent of the depressing effects of excessive Internet use, the most devastating impact of Internet addiction may be the decreased amount of quality time teenagers spend with their parents. Just like other addictions, the Internet addict probably suffers from emotional and physical isolation from his or her friends and family and spends little time involved in healthy relationships which are the basis for positive emotional development.
As I outline in my book “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach,” the lack of quality time spent with parents may also be the most significant factor leading to at-risk behavior. In fact, I once asked a group of high school juniors and seniors at a well-known Jewish day school what they felt were the most important issues teens face. These were the students’ answers according to their own ranking, starting with the most important:
-Disappointment and anger with parents
-Dislike of teachers
-The intense desire to be accepted and fit in with friends
-The desire to be adults and the fact still they were under parents’ control
-The internal pressures of trying to develop and act on personal values as opposed to those of parents and friends
-The powerful forces of media encouraging experimentation with inappropriate relationships and alcohol
-The enormous physical and psychological changes that occur at this time of life
Surprisingly, issues like physical changes, peer pressure, and drug use were placed low on the students’ list, whereas the issues of poor relationships with their parents and teachers were ranked highest. In general, these teenagers seemed alienated from their parents and felt that their teachers had somehow let them down. Add to this, a teenager’s sense of isolation from parents and family members, and the connection between Internet use and the at-risk crisis becomes more and more apparent.
Study after study is showing that a strong parent-teen relationship is the key to addressing the at-risk crisis and the Internet may be a major culprit pushing teenagers further away from maintaining healthy relationships with their parents. For example, a comprehensive research brief published by Child Trends, entitled Parent-Teen Relationships and Interactions Far More Positive Than Not, showed a direct correlation between the quality of the parent-teen relationship and the impact the relationship has on a teenager’s life.
Similar conclusions were also reached by two other studies: a Columbia University study in September 2002, found that “isolation from parents make affluent students more likely to become depressed, and to smoke, drink and abuse drugs,” and a National Institute on Drug Abuse 1999 study showed that “Family-focused programs have been found to significantly reduce all the major risk domains and increase protective processes” and that “even those [families] with indicated ‘hard-core’ problems can benefit from family-strengthening strategies.”
In addition to the damage the Internet may cause to family relationships, excessive Internet usage can also be masking more difficult problems that teenagers are facing. It may therefore be necessary to seek outside help for a child with Internet addiction. Next week, we’ll discuss strategies that can help teenagers get off the Internet.