If there’s a teenager in your household, a report from the Pew Research Center probably won’t surprise you. Over 90 percent of American youngsters 13 to 17 reported going online daily, and 24 percent said they are online “almost constantly.” With computers and mobile devices, especially smartphones, part of everyday life in the 21st century, teens are using the Internet for gaming, social connections, and to research homework assignments, according to the Pew report.
Over 15 percent of adolescents worldwide have a problem with excessive Internet use, according to German researchers at the University of Bamberg who studied problematic teen Internet usage. The research team found youngsters at low risk for becoming compulsive Internet users went online primarily for social motives. However, teens at high risk for excessive, unhealthy Internet use were often trying to cope with personal problems.
“I do a lot of assessments for kids having problems in school, and I think they are many times more likely to be ‘sucked in’ to going overboard with the Internet, especially video games,” said psychologist Julie F. Pace, PhD, an assistant professor in Emory University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
“If a youngster has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, especially, they can crave stimulation and the immediate gratification they get from video games. In a similar way, teens who are depressed and have social problems may go into this virtual world to withdraw from things that are painful in the real world.”
Too much Internet use may possibly cause new problems for some teens, too. Researchers from Australia and China found that depression-free teens who used the Internet pathologically (defined as “uncontrolled or unreasonable usage”) were two and a half times more likely to develop depression over a period of nine months than their peers whose Internet usage was not excessive. "This result suggests that young people who are initially free of mental health problems but use the Internet pathologically could develop depression as a consequence," the researchers concluded.
Sleep deprivation is another potentially harmful side effect of over-the-top Internet use. Although sufficient sleep is critical for adolescent health, the number of hours U.S. teenagers sleep per night has decreased significantly over the past two decades, according to a study by researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. While the underlying reasons for the decrease in hours of sleep are unknown, increased Internet and social media use are suspected to be part of the problem, said Katherine W. Keyes, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health and lead author of the study.
“Overuse of the Internet and media in general can lead to not getting enough sleep or sleep difficulties and being sleepy in the daytime. In turn, kids may have academic problems because they are not getting their school work done,” Pace pointed out.
Playing video games is one of the most common ways Internet use can spiral out of control and contribute to teens spending late nights online, according to Pace. In fact, obsessive online gaming, often called Internet gaming disorder, is currently being studied by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for possible inclusion as a recognized mental health disorder in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
But whether compulsively playing online games is a true mental disorder or not, teen boys seem to be more likely than girls to spend hours on end playing video games. Stanford University scientists may have found a biological explanation. Allan Reiss, MD, and his colleagues discovered part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings is more activated in males than females during video games. "These gender differences may help explain why males are more attracted to, and more likely to become 'hooked' on, video games than females," the researchers stated.
Both boys and girls may be at heightened risk for over-the-top Internet use when they enter adolescence. “From my personal clinical experience, the middle school years are a particularly tough time,” said Pace. “So if youngsters are trying to escape the painful reality of those years, some turn to Internet activities and behaviors that may be problematic — like missing sleep to be online and not getting their homework done.”
Of course, Internet activities and even hours spent playing video games aren’t all bad, Pace emphasized. “Some youngsters who are socially shy have made friends with gaming. And a boy who doesn’t know how to play computer games can have a harder time connecting with peers than a kid who does,” she said. “As with all things, it’s a question of moderation and balance.”
What are the warning signs that your teen’s Internet usage has become unhealthy? “If it’s causing problems with social relations, grades are going down, or if kids seem anxious and irritable when they are not able to play video games, that’s addictive-type behavior and a concern,” Pace said.
“It’s a good idea to get professional help if these problems have been going on for a while, especially if grades are falling or the teen seems withdrawn and not involved with peers, which can be signs of depression.”
However, the best strategy for parents to help youngsters use the Internet in a healthy way is to set ground rules from an early age. “I’m passionate about starting early. It is far easier to set limits at the beginning in young childhood than to try to set limits later,” Pace said.
She advises following the America Academy of Pediatricians guidelines for media and Internet exposure, which include limiting the hours children and teens are exposed to media, keeping televisions, computers, and video games out of their bedrooms, and encouraging outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations.
But what if you didn’t set limits on Internet use early on and are now struggling to curtail a teen’s late -night online activities?
“You have to sit down and have the conversation with your teen about why it is important to limit the Internet. Don’t allow a computer or mobile devices in the bedroom at night. Listen and collaborate with your kid, but stick to the limits you set,” Pace answered. “And remember that teens can be covert. You may have to lock up a keyboard, a laptop, or phone at night.”
April 17, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA