So, your teenager spends a lot of time online. Most do. We might even joke that they’re ‘addicted’ to Facebook, Tumblr, or World of Warcraft. But as Australian child/adolescent psychiatrist Dr Philip Tam suggests in this article, if your teen’s internet use is taking over their life they may have a serious problem.
In recent months, there has been much interest in Australia about problematic internet use (PIU), or internet addiction as it is more commonly termed.
As with some other modern-day afflictions with a ‘pop-cultural’ element such as ‘shopping addiction’, there is heated debate within the mental health profession as to whether PIU is a ‘real’ mental condition deserving diagnosis and treatment, or whether it is simply a form of human behaviour responding to the ‘internet revolution’ of the past two decades.
My own working definition for this condition, for which I take responsibility, is:
PIU is the pervasive, long-term and heavy use by a person of internet and computer-based technologies, including gaming, that is out of keeping with one’s educational, social or occupational role, and that results in a clinically significant negative impact on schooling, work, relationships or general well-being and health.
Is ‘internet addiction’ clinically recognised?
Investigating virtual addiction at a ‘population-based’ level is expensive, time-consuming and requires major commitment. Added to these factors, there is currently no official recognition of PIU in the ‘bible’ of psychiatry and classification, the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
“There is a vast difference between a teenager who is spending too much time online and the small percentage who do tip into true PIU”
Many sceptical members of the public may accuse clinicians such as myself of scare-mongering, or indeed of disease-mongering, and may feel that the issue is primarily one of personal responsibility, common sense and decent, firm parenting. There is a vast difference however between a teenager who is just spending too much time online and the small percentage who do tip into true PIU as previously defined and who often do not recognise that they have a problem.
As with other examples of impulse control disorders such as gambling and alcoholism, the sufferers themselves are often unaware there is a problem. It is concerned family members or teachers who refer them to specialists. Some PIU sufferers may be at risk of losing their physical health or failing school and it would be unethical not to address these problems in a professional manner. The key to successful treatment is getting the client to recognise that they have a problem – what we term as ‘gaining insight’.
“Sufferers themselves are often unaware there is a problem.”
The internet has brought about immense changes in society, changing business, recreation, education and science. It is almost impossible to imagine going through daily life without the benefits that the internet has brought. However, there are a few less-desirable effects of this revolution, and technology is likely to continue to expand in ways we cannot yet imagine. We need an open, active and informed debate as to how we can best manage these issues.
Signs your teenager may be addicted to the internet
How do we recognise the signs of a potential problem with computer/ internet usage, especially as it is often a ‘hidden’ problem?
“In its most extreme form, the person gets totally immersed in the virtual world, staying online for days at a time”
PIU is very much a ‘spectrum’ disorder, that is to say sufferers may experience symptoms across the spectrum from mild through to severe. Therefore it makes sense to identify and treat the problem, before it gets more severe and entrenched – and therefore much harder to treat.
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Is your teenager:
• spending more and more time online
• losing track of the time spent online
• constantly thinking about getting online when away from the computer
• edgy and irritable when offline, with the feeling only being relieved by logging on
• needing to log on early in the morning
• ignoring broader responsibilities
• ignoring daily activities such as eating, drinking and getting adequate sleep?
Teachers are also identifying students who are tired and even falling asleep in class due to sleep deprivation. In more severe cases students have ceased attending altogether. In its most extreme form, the person gets totally immersed in the virtual world, staying online for days at a time.
If there is concern that internet usage is beginning to get out of hand, then a full assessment by a trained professional, including taking a personal and mental health history, is highly recommended.
About the author
Dr Philip Tam is a child and adolescent psychiatrist working in public practice. Born in Scotland, he initially studied medicine in Cambridge then London, before completing his specialist psychiatric training in Australia. Alongside his clinical commitments, he has an interest in investigating, treating and lecturing about clinical disorders associated with computers and the internet. Dr Tam is President of the Network for Internet Investigation and Research Australia – www.niira.org.au