At least once a week, a parent will express concern to me that their child has an “internet addiction”. When you consider how rare it is to see an adolescent without a smart phone, this certainly seems like a reasonable worry. However, one could just as easily wonder how many adults have an internet addiction, since don’t we all have smart phones? What, then is an internet addiction?
Many readers may find it ironic that, as references, I am going to recommend material online to help them sort out whether they need to be concerned about their teen’s internet use. CRC Health Group is the largest provider of mental health services in the United States and they provide good, evidence-based information regarding Teen Internet Addiction.
Let’s begin by considering addictions in general. If you do research into addictions, you will find that there are 4 behaviours linked to any addiction:
1. You continually seek or use the substance or addictive behavior. (Preoccupation)
2. You display a lack of self-control in relation to the substance or behaviour. (Loss of Control)
3. You use the substance or the behaviour more and more over time. (Tolerance)
4. You minimize the problems caused by your behaviour, including negative repercussions such as impact on work or school. (Persistence)
Whenever I am discussing with parents and teens whether a young person could have an addiction of any kind, I always refer to these four behaviours that are seen in any addiction and ask everyone to consider whether these are present in the circumstance that concerns them.
If you are concerned that a youth has an internet addiction, then the more specific signs and symptoms outlined on the CRC Health Group website can Help you to clarify if professional help is needed. Here are some of the specific signs to look for:
• Spending all your spare time online.
• Impact on school performance, such as missing assignment deadlines or doing poorly on tests.
• Concealing the amount of time you spend online.
• Being online interferes with your offline relationships.
• Giving up other activities in favour of online pursuits.
• Being upset or irritable when you’re not online.
• There can be physical symptoms, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and sleep disturbance from spending too much time online.
The Government of Canada provides a list of the resources available in all regions for Addictions. My own experience in Canada is that getting help for a young person with an addiction is relatively positive in that a youth who wants help with an addiction can usually find it. It is more complex to assist a young person who is not yet seeking assistance. This usually arises when that person doesn’t believe that they have an addiction.
The evidence supports a Harm Reduction approach to managing addictions treatment, especially for anyone not yet ready to accept help. This evidence comes mainly from research conducted with persons with substance use disorders, but the principles do apply to all addictions, including internet addiction. My preferred reference describing harm reduction is the Government of British Columbia’s Harm Reduction: A British Columbia Community Guide. This guide is designed for the treatment of addiction to substances, but its principles constitute a humane approach to any addiction.
Here is my interpretation of the principles for Harm Reduction outlined in Harm Reduction: A British Columbia Community Guide, as it relates to internet addiction:
1. Pragmatism: Harm reduction encompasses a realistic approach to addiction, recognizing the complexity of how addictive behaviour arise. Knowing the extent to which we all depend on the internet today, the complexity of determining who might be addicted to the internet is clearly very complex.
2. Human Rights: This principle recognizes that success in assisting those with an addiction is more likely achieved with a nonjudgmental approach.
3. Focus on Harms: This principle reminds us to focus on the harms of the addiction instead of the addiction itself.
4. Maximize intervention options: This principle recognizes that a variety of treatment options may be needed for successful treatment of an addiction.
5. Priority of Immediate Goals: This is a reminder to focus on the most important goals.
6. User Involvement: This principle recognizes that the person addicted to the internet is the best source of information regarding their internet use.
The most difficult part of dealing with any addiction is being nonjudgmental. The person suffering from an addiction likely already judges themselves harshly and so it is an easy trap for any of us to fall into. As much as you can, remember that an addiction is an illness. Even when the illness is a harmful behaviour, it is sometimes still impossible to stop. We have all experienced this and can understand how difficult it can be to change, even when it’s good for us.