Is My Child
Addicted to the Internet?

Written by
Tracy Markle, MA, LPC
Internet Addiction Expert
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In This Article

Studies show that college students are at highest risk for becoming addicted to the internet with children ages 8 to 18 being the next most vulnerable group. (Gentile, 2009; Young, 2011)

The majority of clients who seek us out are the parents of children, teenagers and young adults. One of the most common questions we hear from them is, “Is my kid addicted to the internet?”

Their child is spending an increasing amount of time on their smartphone or playing video games. Their grades are plummeting. They are disrespectful or even violent at home. They don’t socialize or spend much time outside.

While these situations are certainly cause for concern, what we have found is that these young people are often not addicted to the internet.

Digital media use occurs on a spectrum, with healthy use on one end and addiction on the other. In the middle, lies digital media overuse. As you can see from the chart below, the overwhelming number of young people who use the internet fall in the digital media overuse category.

A chart of digital media use shows percentage of users addicted to the internet.
We have found that the majority of our clients who play video games for hours on end, regularly binge online videos, or compulsively check social media, are not displaying addictive behavior. They are using digital media to soothe some undiagnosed or untreated co-existing condition. Often they and their loved ones are unaware of the condition and when it’s finally addressed, the child’s problems with digital media overuse often resolve, too. Whether you’re a parent, educator, mental health professional, or just someone who uses the internet, you’ll benefit from learning which conditions known to the medical community often co-exist with and even drive digital media overuse and addiction to the internet.

Why Kids and Young Adults are At-Risk for Becoming Addicted to the Internet

As we mentioned earlier, young adults and children are at higher risk for becoming addicted to the internet. Likewise, they are at higher risk for digital media overuse.

This is not only because kids, teens and young adults are enthusiastic, early adopters of new technology. It’s also because their brains are not fully developed.

Although most societies consider adulthood to begin at age 18, research now proves that the brain is not fully mature until age twenty-five. (Something rental car companies figured out decades ago.)

As a consequence, most digital media users under the age of 25 lack the impulse control to limit their use.

You know how you finish watching one YouTube video and another is already cued up for you? That’s an example of persuasive design. Digital media companies use persuasive design to keep people on their platforms as long as possible so that they can sell more ads.

Someone whose prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed, such as a person under the age of 25, is especially vulnerable to exploitation through the use of persuasive design.

Persuasive design zeros in on the emotional brain through the use of random and variable rewards.  

The reward might be something like a new video game weapon, or skin (being able to change appearance in game), a like on Facebook, or an emoji on Snapchat.

Every time a person receives one of these rewards, their brain releases a drip of dopamine—what we refer to as the “gimme more” neurotransmitter— and the motivation to engage in the behavior increases.

Teenagers have more dopamine receptors in their brain than at any other time in their lives. This makes their reward-seeking drive especially high.

As a child becomes immersed in digital media activity, dopamine is released at a regular pace and it overrides the logical part of their brain located in the prefrontal cortex. Which, as we’ve already established, is not yet fully developed.

As a result, the child may begin to miss sleep because they are staying up late online. (Often the first sign of digital media overuse.)

Their grades may begin to suffer, and they may be more emotionally reactive and impulsive.

This isn’t because they are willful. It’s simply a natural result of their need for a caring adult to step in and set limits they aren’t able to set for themselves.

Why We Don’t Typically Diagnose Children as Addicts

When we work with kids it’s not often that we diagnose them as being addicted to the internet. This is because, more often than not, the behavior is an impulse control problem.

Children are less able to control their digital media use without a parent stepping in to control it for them.

Once parents set limits around use and the problematic applications are removed we see the behavior and overall health improve at a rapid rate. 

There are also many clients for whom their digital media overuse is just a symptom of a co-existing issue. Parents are often unaware that
their child suffers from one or more of these underlying issues and diagnosing and treating them can result in a resolution of both problems.

The Benefit of Identifying Co-Existing Conditions

A core set of mental health problems has been identified in those struggling with internet addiction or digital media overuse. They include but are not limited to depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorder. For this reason, we not only specialize in treating digital media overuse and those addicted to the internet, we also specialize in treating common co-occurring diagnoses. We find that identifying them is often an effective start to healing the young people who come to see us for help.

Internet Addiction Co-Existing Conditions

Depression: Depression is consistently found to be predictive of problematic video game, internet, and smartphone use. In one study that used Young’s Internet Addiction Test to compare multiple predictors of internet addiction, level of depression had the strongest association even when considering demographics, personality traits, and the ability to envision and pursue future goals.

Anxiety: Given that it’s extremely common for people with depression to also have anxiety, it’s hardly surprising that anxiety is also consistently found to be predictive of internet addiction and digital media overuse. Specifically, social anxiety is a strong predictor. People with social anxiety perceive greater control and decreased threat when communicating online. Many of the young people we treat have trouble forging relationships outside of the home and will retreat to the perceived safety of the internet. While this can be Relationship quality online compared to offline did not differ. Preference for online communication predicted face-to-face avoidance (controlling for fear of negative evaluation).

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Virtually all of the kids we see with gaming problems have a variation of ADHD. For these kids, gaming is a self-soothing behavior. While real life is endlessly variable, a video game has very clear rules that kids with ADHD can become skilled at following. People with ADHD are also naturally lower in dopamine. When they use highly rewarding applications like video games, their dopamine is triggered to release at a higher rate which leads to them wanting more and more time gaming.

Autism: Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have higher levels of compulsive internet use and video game play compared to peers without ASD. Studies have shown that children with ASD prefer screen-based activities, especially video games, and are at greater risk for developing online addictions and for showing problematic symptoms at a lesser rate of exposure. Youth with ASD may find online communication platforms less threatening than in-person interactions. Especially those within multiplayer games that come with a well-defined set of rules.

A Word About Depression, Anxiety and Increased Screen Time

While supportive online communities are a wonderful benefit of the internet age, there is strong proof of correlation between the amount of screen time and increases in depression and anxiety. A young person may be drawn to screens as a way to escape some depression, but that increased screen time could now be exacerbating it, or it may have created the depression in the first place. It’s also important to know where your child is spending so much time online and who they are talking to. Be careful that they are not engaging with other depressives who are reinforcing negative thinking and behaviors. Depressed children are also vulnerable to online predators.

Conclusion

In many of our clients’ cases, the co-existing conditions that led them to digital media overuse were sub-clinical, or not obvious enough to disrupt their lives. That is, until they entered the digital media environment with its interactive capabilities and persuasive design.

This is why we prefer not to name the individual device or format when describing this issue. Descriptors such as “gaming disorder” or “pornography addiction” limit the scope of the real problem. It’s not the format, but the interactivity and variable reward systems that are built into all digital media platforms that trigger the problematic overuse and addiction to the internet.

Is your child struggling? We can help.

Our therapists specialize in providing treatment for internet addiction, digital media overuse and common coexisting conditions.