It’s easy to understand why there has been an explosion of Internet use in recent years. The Internet provides around-the-clock entertainment, affordable up-to-date information on almost any topic imaginable, social networking sites that allow for both public and anonymous communication, and email or online chat that lets us keep in contact with family and friends, even if there are in another time zone.
Most people are able to work in online time into their lives in a balanced healthy manner, but others develop a stronger addiction. It can often replace work, school or even friends and family with countless hours surfing the Web, instant messaging and blogging or playing Internet video games. It is though that as many as 10 percent of Internet users may be considered addicted.
Experts feel that people who abuse the Internet are generally struggling with other problems, possibly anxiety or depression, and new data lends credibility to their theory. In Taiwan in September of 2005, Cheng-Fang Yen, MD, PhD, of Kaohsiung Medical University Hospital in Taiwan, and colleagues conducted a prospective study of 2,293 seventh-graders. The average age was 12 and they were all from 10 junior high school in southern Taiwan.
The students were asked to fill out questionnaires that asked whether they had attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, social phobia or abnormal feelings of hostility. Then, at 6, 12 and 24 months later, they were questioned about the time they spent on the Internet, including the number of hours they spent on the Internet and the sorts of sites they searched and frequented. After only two years, roughly 11 percent of the students were addicted to the Internet.
Likely to be deemed addicted were: males, those who spent more than 20 hours a week on the Internet and teens who played online games. Boys and girls with ADHD had a 72 percent increased danger of developing unhealthy addiction on the Internet and those who showed significant hostility had a 67 percent increased risk. Though these factors did not affect boys, girls with social phobias and those experiencing depression were also at greater risk.
Senior fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, Michael Gilbert, says it makes perfect sense why the Internet would appeal to children with these types of issues. “If you have a child that is hyperactive, the Internet can move at their pace. If you have a child that is depressed or has social phobias, they can get in contact with other kids dealing with the same kinds of issues,” he said. “They can go into artificial worlds, like “Second Life,” where they can live out fantasies or take on different persona’s. For kids who have anger or hostility problems, the Internet give them a chance to play out their aggression there.”
The potential exists for childhood computer addiction to become a major public health problem because computer use is now a way of life in the United States. Prevention all the more critical as the Internet becomes more intertwined in everyday life and eliminating it’s use is unrealistic. Pediatricians and mental health professionals should question their teenage patients about their online usage.
Internet addiction is a continuously growing problem, especially with the unfolding boom of social media websites and dependent personalities are at the most risk of developing this condition.
This is especially important for children with mental health conditions. The American Psychiatric Association does not currently recognize Internet addiction as a separate disorder. There is debate about whether to include Internet addiction as a separate illness in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due in 2012, which determines which mental illnesses are covered by insurance.