Internet Use Disorder: What Do Parents Need to Know?

Regardless of whether it's called an addiction, whether it's focused on the Internet or any other digital object, if your child displays a number of the signs below, it would be advisable to make some changes within your family.
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Small latin boy working on a computer or browsing the web at home
Small latin boy working on a computer or browsing the web at home

I appreciate that it's a confusing time for concerned parents wanting the best for their child. A parent hears a different opinion many times per day about how to raise their child, from the media, other parents, teachers and child professionals. The latest hot topic is about allowing children to use or access online technologies and the problems that can occur as a result.
With the heated discussion around the revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), which is currently due to be published in May 2013 and said to include "Internet-Use Disorder," expect that the flood of information and opinion is only going to increase. Articles and opinion pieces, by experts, journalists or everyday citizens (informed or otherwise) have focused on certain aspects of this proposed diagnosis and perhaps missed some of the key issues. A concerned parent would have a difficult time finding a source of any clear and accurate information about how to manage a child with problematic Internet use or how to prevent their child developing a so-called "Internet addiction."

On one side of the debate we have those who are outraged that ordinary people who use the Internet daily will now be classified as 'addicts' and having a serious mental disorder. These authors use rhetoric pointing to 'hysteria' and 'prejudice,' while at the opposite end of the spectrum are those promoting this inclusion in the DSM because it legitimises the work of treatment centres and specialists. They use rhetoric which includes words like 'epidemic' and 'serious public health concern.' The remainder of the commentators are arguing about semantics, for example, whether the word 'Internet' accurately describes all online behaviors, such as video game addiction, social media addiction and online communication addiction.

The moral panic and criticism within this debate is to be expected; whenever something new and radical enters social awareness, people commonly respond strongly and often attack those who hold a certain position, especially when they feel that their freedom of choice may be threatened as a result. While some of the tactics may be reproachable, this discussion and debate is actually a good thing; it means that people are engaging with the ideas and trying to develop and refine our knowledge about human behavior. This is exactly the purpose of including 'Internet Use Disorder' in the appendix section of the DSM with a recommendation for further research to be conducted. We cannot further our knowledge and treatment of mental health conditions without more accurate research about the prevalence (how many people are affected), the criteria for diagnosis (signs and symptoms) and the most effective treatment methods. It will take many years and perhaps even decades of research studies, case studies, expert debate, published research articles and more debate before this will become a widely-accepted category of mental health disorder. Before that time, we will hear much more from experts who will argue that it's not possible to be addicted without a chemical basis (i.e. illicit drugs and alcohol), from experts revealing the neurochemical pathways of behavioral addiction and also from those who will suggest that the cause of the problem is lazy parenting.

However, none of this discourse helps parents or children right now. It doesn't necessarily help parents to argue about the cause of a disorder, when for a struggling family the most important question is "how do I deal with this?" Regardless of whether it's called an addiction, whether it's focused on the Internet or any other digital object or whether it's judged or accepted by other people, if your child displays a number of the signs below, it would be advisable to make some changes within your family before it worsens into something that could be classified as a disorder. The most effective treatments are preventative; unfortunately, often, the early signs are difficult to notice until the behavior becomes unmanageable, but if issues are addressed early then generally the results are more positive.

Signs of Problematic Internet Use:

•Increased time spent on online activities
•Preoccupation or obsession about online activities
•Failed attempts to set boundaries or control behaviour
•Neglecting important tasks such as school, work or spending time with friends or family
•Dishonesty about activities or time spent online
•Decreased sense of achievement or meaningful engagement in online activities (but continuing to do them anyway)
•Increased emotional responses in association with online activities, e.g. guilt, shame, fear, sadness or anger
•Physical changes such as loss of sleep, weight loss or gain, backaches or headaches
•Attention changes, such as difficulty concentrating, trouble remembering or a frequent lack of awareness of time passing
•Disinterest in other activities that they used to enjoy

Once these symptoms have been present for some time, children may become dependent on the online activities, and this would present as high levels of ongoing distress if they are removed from these activities. Secondary issues may then develop, such as depression, anxiety, poor performance at school or work, loss of social contact, loss of physical or emotional health and some very rare and extreme cases may be fatal, for example when a child or adult spends a considerably long period of time on online activities and neglects the basic survival necessities such as food, water and sleep.

We have developed a global society where the Internet can be a medium for both positive and negative influence in our lives. The Internet has made information readily available to anyone who seeks to look for it; however, we now have multiple sources of conflicting and confusing information. The best advice that I can give parents is to know your own family and trust your instinct to choose what's right for all of you, to establish good communication pathways between parents and children, to nurture and guide your child, to support them when they make mistakes, to demonstrate daily that you care about their interests and wellbeing and to seek help from a professional when it's clear that they are struggling with something that they can't control on their own.

The world may be becoming an increasingly complex place to live, however, parenting doesn't need to be difficult. As long as the basics are there -- love, respect and communication -- a family can overcome any challenges together.

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