As an increasing number of adolescents gain access to the internet, “Internet addiction” is fast becoming a major global concern. This article explores what it means to be addicted to the internet, the scientific reasons behind it, how it negatively affects adolescents and what one can do to prevent internet addiction. If you want to find out whether you are addicted to the internet, use the tool at the end of the article to find out how severe your addiction is.
In April, two adolescents studying in grades 9 and 10 from Nizamuddin, Delhi and Malkajgiri, Telangana committed suicide after being reportedly scolded by their parents for playing Player Unknowns Battle Ground (PUBG) Mobile1. There are have countless cases such as this over the past year. These instances are just at the very tip of the iceberg when one begins to analyze the extent to which “internet addiction” can negatively impact an adolescent child’s brain, psychological health and have a ripple effect on their lives.
This isn’t merely an urban problem
According to a recent report, India’s internet users are expected to reach 627 million this year1. While a major share of these users are urban, the year-on-year increase in number of internet users is primarily driven by rural areas. It is hence unsurprising that increasing number of adolescents are also getting access to mobile phones, and that it is not a purely urban phenomenon.
In 2016, around 28 million school students were actively using the internet. Furthermore, approximately 134 million children in India had access to mobile phones1. This is around 1.6 times the population of Germany, 2 times the population of the UK and 24.3 times the population of Finland.
Defining “Internet Addiction”
While research studies have established “internet addiction” (henceforth referred to as IA) as a major concern area, it is still early in the field of research to have a standard worldwide accepted definition of the term. This term was first coined in 1996, when researcher Dr. Kimberly Young came across a 43-year-old homemaker who, prior to using the internet felt content with life, and on using the internet started reporting feelings of depression, anxiety and irritability when she was not online.
According to Young, “internet addiction is an impulse control disorder that does not involve an intoxicant”
1. Other researchers defined IA as, “overuse of the internet leading to impairment of an individual’s psychological state (mental and emotional) as well as their scholastic or occupational and social interactions”
2. For the purpose of this article, we’ll define internet addiction as “an impulse control disorder that involves obsessive usage of the internet leading to negative mental and emotional consequences in the user’s life”.
In adolescents IA manifests itself in different forms such as spending too much time on online gaming, social media, watching videos, online chatting, etc.
IA is more similar to Drug and Alcohol Addiction than you think
It is important to first understand how the process of addiction works. Dopamine1 is released when we anticipate feelings of pleasure before doing a particular activity, which in turn motivates us to engage in that activity. When an adolescent consumes an addictive substance for the first time, it is coded as a pleasurable activity in the brain. Hence, the mere thought of consuming it again releases dopamine, thereby motivating him or her to consume it frequently to seek pleasure.
Doing this repeatedly leads to a surge of dopamine which causes new neural connections to be formed in the brain to accommodate the excess dopamine. As a result of these new connections, tolerance to the addictive substance increases leading to an increase in the quantity of the addictive substance consumed. The neural cells gradually lose their natural ability to secrete dopamine, generating a high dependency on the addictive substance. At this stage, it is not possible to generate feelings of happiness or pleasure without the consumption of excessive
quantities of addictive substances.
The adolescent brain undergoes the same changes in the case of IA. Research shows that the dopamine released when adolescents play games online is in similar proportion to the dopamine released when they consume harmful addictive substances. Research has also shown that the density of white matter in the brain responsible for important functions such as decision making, regulating behaviour and emotions is affected due to constant online gaming.
IA is damaging to both psychological and physical health of adolescents
Human beings have an inherent desire to belong; when socially rejected, it causes us pain. With the advent of social media, adolescents have begun relying on approval from peers online and instant gratification rather than relying on real-life experiences leading to negative psychological effects.
1,185 children in the age group of 8-16 years were interviewed in major Indian cities (Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore,Chennai, and Hyderabad) in 2015 to understand the effect social media has on their behaviors1. It was found that around 43% of children who use social media have observed harsh behaviour of people being mean and harassing each other on these platforms. Furthermore, around 52% reported that they had engaged in bullying activities on these platforms.
Adolescents who are addicted to social media can also develop feelings of inferiority or superiority over time if they start comparing their own lives with the virtual lives of their friends causing long-lasting damage to their
Continuous online chatting and gaming prevents adolescents from developing interpersonal skills. A study conducted among 884 adolescents in Canada between March 2001 to May 2002 found that those who engaged in chatting with strangers online and frequently played online games experienced a decline in the quality of their pre-existing
friendships and relationships1. This is true even for adolescents who spend excessive time watching educational videos online or seek entertainment on the internet, which leads to losing out on real-life experiences of forming social connections.
Excessive time spent online on laptops or smartphones also has a detrimental effect on adolescents’ sleep patterns. Adolescents tend to sleep late and wake up late affecting their activities during the daytime. Disturbed sleep patterns can also affect how adolescents perform at school and may lead to depression and substance abuse.
In a recent study, children self-reported that they experienced symptoms like headaches, poor appetite, feeling tired and problems with their eyes when they use the internet and experienced aggressive feelings along with trouble sleeping well at night.
Treating internet addiction through de-addiction centres
If an adolescent shows severe addiction symptoms, she or he can be treated with the help of professional counseling. Furthermore, exclusive programs for de-addiction can now be accessed in many places in India. The National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences located in Bangalore, India have a SHUT (Services for Healthy use of Technology)
clinic which is exclusively meant for those addicted to cell phones, internet, television etc. The Center for Children in Internet and Technology Distress is another clinic in Delhi that provides assistance to children
addicted to the internet in developing self-control and using internet in a regulated way.
However, recovery rates of treating addictions is extremely low. According to evidence gathered by Lance Dodes, ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’1 (one of the largest associations to help members recover from alcohol addiction), has only a 5-10% percent recovery success rate2. Therefore, it is important to understand how to prevent IA.
Here’s a holistic approach to preventing IA among adolescents Simple measures that parents and teachers can take
Positive discipline set by the family as a whole and values that are mutually agreed upon with adolescents can be effective in reducing internet use and screen-time significantly. Some strategies include:
- Silent Zone: Designate area(s) in the house, such as bedroom or dining area, where no gadgets are allowed
- Digital Detox: Decide period of time and frequency when the entire family does not use digital devices together.
- Set consequences: Lay down consequences of overusing internet before purchasing a gadget for your child, instead of after the rules have been broken.
Teachers and parents should encourage adolescents to engage in more real-life experiences that involve interaction with peers and group activities based on their interests. This will lead to not only better mental and physical health of the adolescent, but will also equip them to deal with messy emotions.
Adolescents should also be taught healthy coping strategies to process their thoughts and emotional stress to avoid treating the internet as an escape from reality. They should also be encouraged to have regular sleep schedules and to eat right at appropriate hours. Teachers can also arrange sessions in the school to educate students about IA and equip them with strategies to deal with addiction.
Tech firms themselves have started taking measures to regulate internet use but more can be done
Technology giants Google, Apple and a few others, have come up with special applications to keep a track of screen-time which give detailed information about the number of hours spent online based on the user’s online activities1. An Android app called ‘Digital Well-being’, launched by Google to help users in controlling the time spent online, helps users see how many times they have checked their phone, how many notifications have been received and how frequently different apps are used by users. A number of other applications and tools have also been designed for parents to keep a check on the internet usage of their children and to block certain games or applications to prevent children from accessing them. However, there is still room for further action to ensure safety of adolescents in the virtual world.
Find out how severely addicted you are to the Internet
Take a look at which statements apply to you. The more statements you identify with, the more severe your addiction is.
- I lie about the amount of time spent online
- I have incessant thoughts about accessing the internet
- I have a compulsive need to stay online and don’t have the ability to reduce time spent online
- I spend a lot of time online
- I am experiencing feelings of anxiety or despair after spending a lot of time online
- I have thoughts of violent acts, such as destruction of things or threatening to run away from home or committing suicide upon the slightest control over internet use exerted by the family
- I am losing interest in studies
- There is a decline in my academic performance
- I am losing interest in having conversations with my family members
- I keep trying to avoid social gatherings with family or friends
- I am withdrawn from social situations
- I lie or steal more than before
- I have sudden emotional outbursts
- I become irritated over trivial things
- I am losing interest in activities I used to enjoy before, like music or sports
- My sleep cycle is disturbed
- There are changes in my appetite
- There is a rise in my temper
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2. Kantar IMRB ICUBE. (2019). 21st edition ICUBE: Digital adoption & usage trends.
3. UNICEF. (2017). Child online protection in India.
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6. Vondráčková, P., & Gabrhelik, R. (2016). Prevention of Internet addiction: A systematic review. Journal of behavioral addictions, 5(4), 568-579.
7. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical responsible for sending messages between the brain and different nerve cells of the body. In psychology, dopamine has been identified as the body’s reward activator, controlling the pleasure center of our brain while encouraging us to engage in thrill-seeking activities.
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13. Touitou, Y., Touitou, D., & Reinberg, A. (2016). Disruption of adolescents’ circadian clock: the vicious circle of media use, exposure to light at night, sleep loss and risk behaviors. Journal of Physiology-Paris, 110(4),
14. Smahel, D., Wright, M. F., & Cernikova, M. (2015). The impact of digital media on health: children’s perspectives. International journal of public health, 60(2), 131-137.
15. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an international fellowship of men and women who have had a drinking problem. Their stated purpose is to enable “members to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” It is nonprofessional, self-supporting, and apolitical. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. The AA program is set forth in the Twelve Steps and discussed at AA group meetings.
16. Dodes, L., & Dodes, Z. (2014). The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry. Boston: Beacon Press
17. Vondráčková, P., & Gabrhelik, R. (2016). Prevention of Internet addiction: A systematic review. Journal of behavioral addictions, 5(4), 568-579.
18. The Guardian. (2018). Apple’s new ‘digital wellbeing’ tools aim to help reduce screen time.
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21. Müller, K. W., Dreier, M., Beutel, M. E., Duven, E., Giralt, S., & Wölfling, K. (2016). A hidden type of internet addiction? Intense and addictive use of social networking sites in adolescents. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 172-177.
22. Smahel, D., Wright, M. F., & Cernikova, M. (2015). The impact of digital media on health: children’s perspectives. International journal of public health, 60(2), 131-137.
23. Valkenburg, P. M., Peter, J., & Schouten, A. P. (2006). Friend networking sites and their relationship to adolescents’ well-being and social self-esteem. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 9(5), 584-590.