Unplugging from online addiction

Why Internet addiction goes beyond the individual

Lawrence Lam

Science and technology, Health | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

5 October 2017

Parents and societies wanting to treat internet-addicted youth would do well to look in the mirror, Lawrence Lam writes.

With the proliferation of mobile technologies and devices, the issue of Internet addiction among young people has become more prevalent in recent years, particularly in the countries of East and Southeast Asia.

In 2010 a South Korean couple made headlines after their preoccupation with an online game caused their infant daughter to die of malnutrition; government-sponsored ‘digital detox’ programs have appeared in Japan; and the online game ‘Honour of Kings’ currently sweeping much of the region has even been blamed for “undermining the combat capability” of the Chinese military.

While the term ‘internet addiction’ is yet to be fully recognised as an established disorder, Problematic Internet Use (PIU) is a more readily acceptable concept among clinicians and researchers. Moreover, Internet Gaming Addiction (IGA) has been included as an emerging disorder worthy for further consideration in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder V.

Many different methods for treating the physical and psychological effects of PIU have been suggested. While some are based on scientific evidence, others are not. Just last month, a Chinese teenager died in one of the country’s many ‘treatment centres’ for Internet addiction, just days after he had been sent there by his parents.

The main question for all types of treatments is whether there is scientific evidence to demonstrate effectiveness, above and beyond the possible and acceptable level of risk that may be incurred due to the treatments.

More on this: Welcome to China's “managed” Internet

One important criteria for an effective treatment is its capability to address the main cause, either physically or psychosocially, or some of the major risk factors of the problem. For PIU among young people, many individual-related potential risk factors have been identified. These include low academic achievement, a higher tendency of other developmental disorders, and other risky behaviours.

Over the last decade, the familial and parental factors of PIU among adolescents have gained much attention, and there is a growing volume of literature in this particular area of research. An array of different variables has been identified in the literature. These include family satisfaction; family communication; parental drinking; family dysfunction; parental attitudes toward excessive Internet use; parental supervision or monitoring; and parenting style.

In our research into the issue, my co-authors and I also found significant relationships among parental mental health, parental Internet use and behaviour, and children’s PIU. This body of evidence indicates that PIU is not an individual matter for young people – it is also a problem of the family, especially parents.

Consequently, any treatment options that clinicians may consider need to take into consideration familial and parental components, and address these factors as part of the treatment regime. Treatment for PIU in young people should also include the family and parents as part of a more holistic approach that addresses the issue within the family system.

For prevention, parents need to be aware that their own Internet behaviour, as with other behaviours, can exert a significant modelling effect on their offspring. While they are concerned with their children’s online behaviour, parents should also reflect upon their own Internet usage in order not to present non-verbal signals of approval to them.

In terms of health policy, authorities should seek to incorporate the issue of familial Internet problems in their health promotion strategies. Further resources should be committed to supporting research into possible treatment and management programs for families with problems of Internet overuse.

The problem of Internet addiction is no longer just a problem for individuals. It has evolved from a personal level to familial and societal levels. Any approaches to treatment should take into consideration this fact in determining their effectiveness.

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