With nearly 300 million cell phones in use in the United States, that puts the country third overall in the world when it comes to total mobile phones in use. In a 2017 article, Bill Gates was quoted as saying that on average, a child gets his or her first smartphone at the age of 10.3 years. That same study shows that by age 12, half of those same kids have social media accounts. For parents everywhere, setting boundaries around technology and internet usage has become a way of life, and something we never could have predicted even ten years ago. However, there’s no getting around the fact that internet addiction is another (negative) aspect of this widespread internet access.

It’s no doubt that technology as a whole has become addictive in recent years. Anyone who has gone anywhere in public has been at a restaurant and has witnessed an entire family together, but not communicating as they are all looking down at their mobile devices in hand. If you haven’t witnessed this, it is possible that you might have been too focused on your own device to notice.

With children, technology and internet addiction come with greater risks and challenges. People who were born before the technology and smartphone era remember the days when you wouldn’t hear from your child, parent, friend, or colleague until they arrived at their destination and could find a landline to use to place their call. Our loved ones would hop on a plane to another country and we wouldn’t hear anything from them until they returned stateside because of the extreme expense to make an overseas call.

But now, we can get ahold of almost anyone, at any time, and anywhere. And for children and teenagers, this ability to have whatever information they want, right at their fingertips, is extremely addicting. 95% of teens in the United States are believed to have a smartphone, and 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis. Sadly, most teens don’t realize the impact that their internet addiction is having on their lives.

The risks of teen internet addiction

There are a variety of concerns that can further complicate a teen’s dependency on the internet and technology. Those concerns include:

  • Anxiety – Teens are at great risk of developing anxiety. Social pressures around dating, sex, and even gender preferences are a hot topic amongst teens, not including stresses about their future, going to college, ability to make money, and how to get a job.
  • ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (often referred to as simply ADD) impacts a person’s ability to sit still, focus, and maintain self-control. With technology, however, teens may find that the internet can actually hold their attention, and is, therefore, a place of solitude that lessens their stress level because they feel that they can actually accomplish something.
  • The need to get away from social pressures and socialization – Teenagers are full of hormones and the changes that they are going through both physically and emotionally can take a toll. With technology, teens can get away from it all and have a healthy escape from the demands of socialization and being with other people in a live environment.
  • Identity exploration – Teens are trying to figure out who they are, and they often struggle with their own identity. They are subject to pressures from school and at home and are being asked to make decisions about their future that they aren’t necessarily ready or equipped to make. Technology and the internet provide them an opportunity to explore other interests and passions, and even different personalities, as they feel safe behind the screen.
  • Co-occurring disorders – If your teen is facing other disorders such as anxiety, ADHD, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or even another form of addiction, internet addiction can compound all of the above and further hinder your child’s ability to get well or to cope.

How to know if your teen suffers from an internet addiction

Webroot, an online Cybersecurity firm indicates that children between the ages of eight and 18 spend an average of 44.5 hours per week in front of the computer, tablet, or smartphone screens. Nearly 25% of youth have indicated that they feel addicted and unable to stop going online or queuing up a video game. While internet addiction is more prevalent in males compared to females, the addiction can have equally damaging effects if not recognized and controlled.

Parents should look for these warning signs to determine if their child has an internet addiction: 

  • Loses track of time when gaming or on the internet
  • Shows signs of sleepiness or exhaustion and doesn’t get to bed at a reasonable hour (the average teen is believed to need nine to nine and a half hours of sleep, but typically get less than eight)
  • They get angry or upset when their time on the internet is interrupted or when they are expected to log off or shut down
  • They check their emails and messages excessively throughout the day to the point of it being interruptive to other activities
  • They seem unable, unwilling, or disinterested in live communication with others
  • They sneak in extra time on the internet
  • They form online friendships with people that the parents do not know
  • They are preoccupied when away from the computer
  • They no longer enjoy activities that they used to engage in before getting a smartphone or having access to a computer
  • They are irritable or moody when not online

How can parents stop or lessen the magnitude of an internet addiction

Family | Internet Addiction | Hillcrest ATC

If you have identified that your teen has an internet addiction, it is important to get in front of it right away. Parents need to confer with one another on what the rules will be going forward, and then need to present that to the teen so that it is clear that neither parent will budget, and that the rules are the rules. Do not be surprised if the teen has a negative reaction or even leaves and retreats to their bedroom, slamming the door behind them. If this happens, it simply means that your suspicions were correct and that you are correct in taking action.

Give your child a few moments to express their concerns and their point of view, but then refocus on the topic and the rules that you will be setting forth. Consistency is critical, so stay focused. While you will need to be firm with your child, you also need to understand that internet addiction is a real addiction that is caused by a chemical imbalance or causes a chemical imbalance. And, it will take some time to reintroduce balance. Demonstrate to your child that you care and that your well-being is your priority. Share with your child what the rules will be going forward, and what the consequences will be for a failure to adhere to those rules.

As a parent, you will need to become hyper-vigilant and more aware of what your teen is doing when not at school, work, etc. This might feel like you are now the one being sneaky, but it is important that you know your child’s activities so that you can help break the addiction. As with any addict, they will seek out an opportunity to get their fix. This may mean you will have to invest in technology that allows you to set parental controls on gaming systems, the television, the computer, and even their smartphone. Allow yourself to do this, and understand that your goal is to help your child. Most importantly, be sure that the rules you have set are reasonable and achievable, and will not interfere with your child’s ability to maintain relationships with friends, complete school work, etc.

Five alternatives to a digital overload

While rolling out new rules that you expect your teen to follow will be important, so too will be an introduction or reintroduction of activities that will get your teen’s focus away from the screen. Consider these five alternatives to help distract your teen from their internet addiction.

  1. Look for a past favorite activity that your teen used to enjoy, and find a way to enjoy that activity as a family. If your teen used to enjoy playing baseball, pack up the car on a Saturday morning and head to the local park for a small game of family baseball. Or, buy tickets to the next major league baseball game in your area, and head out for some peanuts and crackerjacks. Don’t be surprised if your teen pulls back, or you drag them literally or figuratively to the car. They might not appreciate the effort now, but they will later, and you will be doing your entire family a favor by spending focused time together.
  1. While this isn’t realistic for all families, plan a vacation or a weekend getaway to a place that would be interesting to your teen. A beachside community where they can catch some waves, a mountaintop where they can hit the slopes with their board, or even a local tour around your town can be interesting and stimulate conversation. Whatever activity, vacation, or weekend away that you select, make it a technology-free weekend, and practice what you preach unless the kids are in another room.
  1. Look for a way to make technology time beneficial for the entire family. If part of your rules includes a compromise that allows teens access to the internet for homework and for a limited amount of time each day, look for an activity that you can do together that includes the device or computer. If you have always wondered why your teen gets lost in a video game, ask your team to play a game with you, with the caveat that they need to take the time to explain the controllers and the rules of the game, and that they need to be willing to converse with you while playing. If they agree to this, make sure you keep an active conversation going during the game by asking questions and demonstrating genuine interest. If gaming isn’t your teen’s thing, maybe ask your teen to look for a fun recipe on Pinterest, and then take time to cook the meal together using the recipe that they selected. As in the video game scenario, use this as an opportunity to leverage technology for an educational purpose, but also an opportunity to exchange in live conversation and interaction with your child.
  1. Introduce a non-technological family activity to take place two or three times a week before everyone departs for bedtime. Pull out an old board game, or maybe buy one of the latest popular games that everyone is talking about, like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, or Contagion or Pandemic. Think of the type of game that your child would like. If they will be more into quietly strategizing on their own, then embrace that, and perhaps take the Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride approach. If they would enjoy or benefit from a group strategy, the latter two games might be a great option. Give your teen the opportunity to pick the game or evening activity, but be firm that they must participate and that it cannot involve technology. In many cases, even the grumpiest or most stubborn of teens will enjoy a board game, even if they don’t express it outwardly.
  1. Encourage your child to read a book, and even better, get a second copy of the same book and read it together. Develop your own family book club and take time to discuss the story after everyone has had a reasonable amount of time to complete the reading. Select books from a variety of genres, but subtly lean towards genres that your teen will gravitate towards, even if it is not your favorite.

The key to these distractions and alternate activities is that it is a joint effort to break the addiction. Your teen can’t do it alone, and while tough love is part of the process, so is engagement. While you may feel that you don’t have time to engage in any of the above activities, it is important that you make the time. More so, it is important that parents consider what it is that is keeping them from being able to give their children their undivided attention at certain times of the day or at times that they set aside during the week. It is quite possible that the parents too will need to work to break their own addiction, as internet addiction affects those of all ages.

If you and your family are affected by your teen’s internet addiction, reach out to a facility like Hillcrest ATC for a consultation. Internet addiction is serious, and we can help!