Internet Addiction: Guide to understanding and addressing the problem

Does your child spend too much time on his mobile phone? The answer is very likely to be yes. In this article, you will find a useful guide to internet addictions including social networks and mobile phones. Internet addiction: what it is, causes, consequences, parental role, a test to find out if you might be at risk and tips on how to deal with it. 

Internet addiction
Internet addiction

Definition of Internet Addiction

Internet addiction, social network, and mobile phone addictions belong to the group of addictions without a substance or behavioral addictions.

It is difficult to discern when a behavior is a harmless habit or addiction. However,  we could say that it becomes problematic when it interferes with important activities such as work, school or social life.

In therapy people who spend a lot of time online (connected to the different social networks or simply the Internet) often have more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems. This doesn’t necessarily mean that social networks might be the cause but they can contribute to the problem. If you believe you might be depressed or a loved one has depression symptoms, the Computerized Assessment Battery for Depression from CogniFit is a complete assessment to detect possible symptoms of depression. It is a tool that allows anyone to conduct an exhaustive exploration and confirm or discard the possibility of a depressive disorder. 

Some experts believe that internet addiction is a phenomenon that began to be talked about in the 1990s. There is still no agreement on whether to include Internet addiction as a type of behavioral addiction, or whether it is more a type of compulsive disorder.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), in the latest edition of the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, gambling addiction is included because it activates the brain’s reward system in a similar way to drugs. However, other patterns of excess behavioral patterns such as online games and other behavioral addictions are not included because there is not enough evidence to describe diagnostic criteria for identifying them as mental disorders.

The following video explains how Internet Addiction can be linked to dopamine.

Symptoms of addiction to mobile, internet and social networking

The following are the most common signs and symptoms that a teenager may experience when he/she might have an internet addiction.

Behavioral symptoms of internet addiction

  • Loss of interest in meeting and spending time with friends.
  • Seeking loneliness, even if his friends are around.
  • Easily irritable or angry when they can’t go back to your computer or phone to check social networks.
  • Any update of your social networks makes you react very intensely.
  • Isolated in his room most of the day and doesn’t seem to want to go out.
  • When someone approaches, turns off the computer screen or mobile phone.
  • He behaves defensively at the slightest provocation and gets angry if someone uses his computer or phone.
  • Followers and number of likes are what defines him as a person.
  • Shares too many private details and photos on social networks. This may relate to your need for social approval and friend recognition.
  • If you make fun of their virtual habits or their online friends can react aggressively.
  • Finish other tasks quickly to spend more time on social networks.
  • Avoids social gatherings or can’t keep commitments and schedules.

Physical symptoms of social networking addiction

  • Complaints of a headache, eye discomfort or vision problems.
  • Sleep difficulties, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
  • Variations in weight, you can gain or lose a lot of weight for no apparent reason.
  • Problems such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

How do we identify an internet addiction?

You can use the following questions to get an idea of whether your child has a problem with social networking, but trying to be understanding, without judging or attacking him or her:

  • Do you depend on the internet to make you feel good during the day?
  • Do you get nervous if you’re not using the internet? Are you afraid you’re missing something important if you don’t check your social networks?
  • Did the use of the internet cause you any problems? (Problems with friends, distracted you in class or at work)
  • Have you tried to reduce your use of social networks but have not been successful?

Test to identify Internet addiction

With this Internet Addiction Test (IAT) you can identify the level of addiction we are facing. Although it is oriented towards the use of the Internet, it can also be oriented towards the use of mobile phones and social networks.

Answer the following questions with the answer that best represents the frequency of the behavior described in the following scale:

0= never      1= rarely    2= occasionally    3= frequently    4= Very often    5= Always

  1. How often do you find yourself connected longer than you intended?
  2. How often do you neglect your homework/work to spend more time online?
  3. How often do you prefer the thrill of the Internet to the intimacy or fun of your friends, partner, and family?
  4. How often do you create new virtual relationships with Internet users?
  5. How often do others complain about your time spent online?
  6. How often do you check social network notifications before doing anything else?
  7. How often has your academic or job performance been affected by internet use?
  8. How often do you act defensively or shut up when someone asks you what you do online?
  9. How often do you block annoying thoughts about your life with comforting thoughts about the Internet or social networking sites?
  10. How often do you find yourself anticipating when you’ll reconnect or use social networking sites?
  11. How often do you fear how boring and empty life would be without the Internet?
  12. How often do you scream or give bad answers when someone bothers you while using the Internet?
  13. How often do you lose sleep due to nighttime internet use?
  14. How often do you worry about online or social networking when you’re offline or fantasize about reconnecting?
  15. How often do you say “just a few more minutes” when you use the Internet?
  16. How often do you try unsuccessfully to reduce the amount of time you use your mobile or internet
  17. How often do you try to hide how long have you been online?
  18. How often do you choose to spend more time online than hanging out with other people?
  19. How often do you feel depressed, cranky or nervous when you’re not using the internet or social networking sites, and do you get over it when you connect?

Number your answers and add them up to get the final score. The higher the score, the higher the level of addiction and problems that result from using the internet.

No addiction 0-30 points

Mild addiction 31-49 points

You are an average internet user. You may use it for too long but you have control over your use.

Moderate 50-79 points

You have some problems with your internet usage. You should consider the great impact it has on your life.

Severe 80-100 points

Your use of the internet is causing major problems in your life. You should evaluate the impact it has and try to fix it.

Consequences of internet addiction

  • It damages social (not virtual) relationships. Young people will choose virtual relationships rather than real interactions because they require much less effort, greatly decreasing the time they spend with friends. Spending little to no time interacting with friends can lead to low self-esteem and depression.
  • It causes stress and anxiety. When teenagers don’t spend as much time on social networks as they want, anxiety appears.
  • It interrupts sleep. Many times we may prefer to use technologies rather than sleep, reducing our sleep time. The light emitted by the screens can also put us in a state of alertness that makes it difficult to fall asleep.
  • It affects concentration. Thinking all the time about social networks and the need to check them all the time distracts us from whatever we are doing.
    Decreases school performance. Derived from the previous point, if we can’t concentrate on studies because of social networks, it’s difficult to obtain good academic or work results.
  • It causes physical problems. Poor posture resulting from the abuse of new technologies and lack of physical exercise leads to muscle and joint pains and an increase in body weight.
  • Lack of social skills in face-to-face interactions. If we don’t practice our social skills in our face-to-face relationships, we will eventually not know how to interact with others if not through social networks.
Internet Addiction and Kids
Internet Addiction and Kids

The Parenting Role in Internet Addictions

Letting our kids spend unlimited time with technology carries many risks. One of them is that it increases the risk of ADHD. If we get them used to digital content from an early age, they will have much more difficulty being able to deal with the content of boring real life.

If the child is allowed to spend all day with TV screens, tablets, computers and mobile phones, he or she will not spend much time interacting with people, so he or she will not develop social skills.

Many times children see it as normal to be on their parents’ mobile phones all day connected to the internet because their parents also do it. Vicarious learning, or by imitation, is a powerful learning tool, but sometimes it can be turned against us.

In addition, the CogniFit platform can help your child overcome the difficulties in the executive functions that come with ADHD. Through its scientifically validated cognitive stimulation program, it helps children control their behavior and improve their attention.

Tips for Parents when dealing with internet addiction

Banning the use of the Internet or social networks is unrealistic, and in this technological world, it is not possible either. The important thing is to pay attention to your child’s behavior. It is important to make sure that you have a lot of off-network activities that keep them interested. They can be all sorts of hobbies, gatherings with friends or family activities.

Some web and mobile applications may be useful for tracking your child’s use of the Internet, and may even limit access to sites that are not age-appropriate. It is best to control their use of the Internet, limit it, teach them how to manage their stress, and encourage them to engage in enjoyable activities and social gatherings.

In some serious cases, it is necessary to contact a professional who can help you.

How do we prevent internet addiction?

  • Provide them with healthy sources of wellness outside the internet.
  • Teach your kids to de-stress properly and not to learn to de-stress with the internet. Teach your child that spending time with friends and family, going for a walk, physical exercise, or spending time with hobbies can greatly reduce anxiety.
  • Cultivate your identity in the real world. Help your child find his or her skills and virtues outside the online world.
  • Consider treatment when there is a problem and see a professional.

Causes of Internet Addiction

Why do young people become addicted to social networks? It is important to consider these possible causes:

Anxiety or depression

Internet addictions can be a symptom of anxiety or depression. It is possible that feeling overwhelmed, lonely, bored, stressed or depressed can drive us to use social networks to entertain ourselves. It helps us to distract ourselves and feel better. This will generate behavioral learning that, by the time we feel this way again, we will use the internet or social networks.

Isolation and marginalization

Internet addiction can be a symptom of isolation and marginalization. In adolescence, it is common to feel disconnected from family. Social networks would provide a sense of belonging to your reference group, it would be a simple way to connect with your friends.

Some kids, if they feel marginalized or alienated from people their age, if they don’t feel comfortable with others, the Internet would provide a space in which they feel they can be themselves without feeling alienated.

Shyness or social anxiety

Social networking can be a symptom of shyness or social anxiety. A shy teenager will have difficulty connecting with friends in a real environment. Social networks can make it easier for you to get in touch and make new friends. You can also feel more open and confident with your friends through the internet than face-to-face.

Brain chemicals

Some research suggests that the use of social networks has an impact on the brain. Specifically, they point out that brain chemicals such as dopamine activate in a similar way to smoking or drinking.

Another important hormone is oxytocin, which is released into the brain when we kiss, hug, and help create a bond between mothers and children. It has been found that it is also released when we post something on social networks.

It is estimated that in 10 minutes of social networking, oxytocin levels can increase by up to 13%, equivalent to what some people feel on their wedding day.

The nucleus accumbens is a specially active area, it is part of the brain’s reward circuitry, which is particularly sensitive during adolescence. When teenagers see their photos or publications with a large number of “likes”, the reward system is activated, making them feel pleasure and satisfaction.

Narcissism and social image

People use 30-40% of our speech to talk about ourselves. However, in social networks, this percentage increases to 80% of publications. Social networks serve as ideal environments for those who like activities that increase their ego.

One study has found that there is a relationship between an addictive use of the internet or social networks and a narcissistic personality. This would serve as a way to fuel the ego, self-appraisal and inhibit negative self-evaluation.

People with narcissistic traits would overuse social networks because they help satisfy their need to confirm the idealized image of themselves. This is in line with what other studies have found, such as the relationship between narcissism and profile updates about personal accomplishments, diet, and exercise.

Communication less demanding

Socializing in person requires greater emotional and physical involvement. Social networks and instant messaging services eliminate body language, facial expressions, prosody, etc. This is why it is easier to fall into misunderstandings. We also have more time to refine our comments and interact in a more calculated way and with more self-control. We can also introduce ourselves in a way that improves our self-esteem and confidence.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.

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