Counselling Chronicle (2)
Internet and Technology Addictions – Definition and Management
This issue of the Counselling Chronicle is the first of a three-part series on internet and technology addictions, an increasingly hot-button topic in parenting and psychological literature. Both Chevalier College Counsellors recently attended a seminar on Internet and Mobile Phone Addictions at the University of Sydney. This issue of the Counselling Chronicle draws on the information presented in this seminar.
Following this article is some information about an online therapist-assisted program suitable for adolescents (aged 12 – 17) who are currently accessing a mental health service for anxiety or depression. Monash University is seeking parent reviewers for this new program. Participants will be given access to the online parenting program.
What’s in a name? | Definition Issues
The term “addiction” is widely used when speaking about problematic use of the internet or electronic devices. However, a number of scientific criteria must to be met in order for a particular issue to be considered addiction. A number of scientific studies have demonstrated that the problematic and excessive use of internet and other technologies are not well described as addictions, and may be better referred to as Problematic Use Disorders.
Additionally, researchers are increasingly finding that individuals do not have problematic use disorders specifically towards the internet or a technological device (e.g. smartphone, iPad), but are using these mediums in order to access a source of more addictive behaviour. For example, individuals who use the internet or devices problematically are typically using them as a way of accessing online gaming, gambling, social media, shopping or pornographic material. These areas (gaming, shopping, pornography) are the real focus of the problematic use behaviour. In lay man’s terms, we would not describe a person with an alcohol addiction as having an addiction/problematic use of wine glasses. The same is true for the internet and devices, they are merely a portal to accessing a source of actual problematic use behaviour.
So, what’s in a name?
Rather than using the very general term “internet/device addiction”, it is more important to define the real problematic behaviour so it can be appropriately identified and then managed. If you think that your child is spending too much time on their smart device, ask them what they are using it for. Typically people with problematic use disorders have a clear preference for one activity, and will not switch between activities.
How much is too much?
With the introduction of the internet and portable smart devices, the world has changed significantly. Like it or not, devices and the internet are a vital part of how we communicate, organise ourselves, complete tasks, conduct research and have fun. This is especially true for young people; their device is as integral in their lives as their right hand. It is important not to demonise technology, it has a number of positive qualities and is here to stay. That said, as with everything in our lives, it is important that there is a balance. Teenagers (and adults) have to learn to switch off sometimes.
If your child is demonstrating any of the behaviours listed below, it may be a sign that they are experiencing problems with their use of the internet and/or devices:
- Excessive use of the internet or device (more than is usual for someone their age).
- Preoccupation with the device, to the exclusion of previously enjoyed activities (bearing in mind that hobbies and likes normally change over time).
- Poor self-control over using the internet or device.
- Tantrums or extreme mood changes when prevented from using the device or internet.
- Underhand or deliberately deceptive attempts to increase their use or access of the internet or device.
- Refusal or great difficulty getting the child to complete ordinary tasks because they are using the device or internet, e.g. refusal to shower, attend meals or go to bed promptly.
- Sacrificing sleep in order to use the internet or device for “just a bit longer”.
- Continuing to engage in the behaviour of using the internet or device, despite adverse consequences occurring, e.g. punishments, family conflict, tiredness, poorer school results, social isolation.
- An apparent loss of control over the extent of their use, “urges” to engage in the behaviour.
Who is vulnerable to developing a ‘Problematic Use Disorder’
Problematic Use Disorders are more common among males and adolescents. Studies have shown that individuals with ADHD, Depression or issues with aggression/hostility are more likely to have a Problematic Internet Use Disorder. However, this is a chicken-or-the-egg problem of causality; it is not known which problem presents first. It is possible that problematic use of gaming/social media/pornography etc. may be a coping strategy for a young person who is manifesting other signs of poor mental health and/or coping.
Furthermore, it has been suggested that a number of family factors may make a person more vulnerable to developing a Problematic Use Disorder. These include inadequate family communication, parental rejection or overprotection, domestic violence, and poor family cohesion. Other factors that make a person vulnerable include poor social skills/social isolation, low self-esteem, inadequate coping abilities for stress management, and high social anxiety.
Treatment and Management Strategies
In adolescents, the most effective management strategies for a Problematic Use Disorder are two-fold. Firstly, the family unit will have to work as a whole to manage the problematic behaviours, including setting strict limits around internet and device use. Teens will also benefit from seeing a psychologist to address any underlying mental health problems and to learn strategies for self-monitoring and managing their internet and device use.
While treatments for problematic use disorders are effective, prevention is the most preferable option. Research suggests putting the following limits in place in families with children and adolescents who use the internet and smart devices:
- Introduce daily device-free time (including the adults of the house).
- Consider implementing a “no devices after dinner” rule, and perhaps a family night where the entertainment is “old-fashioned” card or board games.
- Implement a one-screen-at-a-time rule, to stop students watching TV and using their phone/iPad at the same time. Splitting attention this way has negative implications for concentration and attention span in the school environment and a child’s ability to focus for an extended period of time on one detailed task.
- No devices in the morning when getting ready for school.
- Devices/internet should not be used in the hour before bedtime as they are too stimulating and can impair the body’s natural sleep regulation system.
- No devices should be kept in the bedroom overnight. They should be charged overnight in the family room or a parent’s room.
- Message alerts should be switched to silent at home, to prevent teens being highly sensitised to the sound of a message alert and that need to check a message as soon as it is delivered.
- Device and internet use should occur in the family areas of a house, not in the bedroom, and certainly never with the door closed.
- Parents should have the access codes for their child’s devices, and should be their child’s “friend” on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc.).
- Set iTunes accounts to require a parent password when downloading new apps.
- Parents should have open and frank discussions with their child about cyber-safety and appropriate conduct online (use the “grandmother rule” – if you are not perfectly happy to say or show that post/message to your grandmother, don’t post it/send it).
- Use website blocking software/websites to help students stay on track when completing homework, e.g. stayfocusd.com is a free website blocking program that can restrict access to certain sites for pre-set periods of time.
- Rules and privileges for internet and devices use can be altered and extended over time as the adolescent matures and demonstrates responsibility in managing their device and internet use.
- If your child is sometimes deceitful about their device/internet use, or you are often not at home to supervise, consider changing the wifi password daily or switching off the modem at night (you could even unplug it and take it to work/bed with you if you have to).
If you have concerns about your child or want further support, please contact your GP who will be able to provide a number of referral options.
Monash University is seeking parents of adolescents to review a new therapist-assisted online program.