The amount of time kids spend online is a source of frustration for many parents. Initially, parents welcomed the Internet into their homes, believing they were opening up an exciting new world of educational opportunities for their children. However, many parents soon realized that, instead of using the Internet for homework or research, their kids were spending hours instant messaging with friends, playing online games or talking to strangers in chat rooms.
Maintaining a healthy balance between entertainment media and other activities in their children's lives has always been a challenge for parents. The Internet has made this challenge even more difficult. The engaging nature of Internet communications and interactive games means many children and teens have trouble keeping track of time when they're online.
Unfortunately, parents and teachers are usually not aware that there is a problem until it becomes serious. This is because it is easy to hide what you are doing online and because Internet addiction is not widely recognized by the medical community. (Mental health practitioners continue to debate whether this behaviour is an "addiction," with some preferring to identify it as "compulsive behaviour.")
Children and young people can easily become 'hooked' on online activities such as multi-user games, instant messaging, pornography and chat rooms. The most vulnerable children, according to the Computer-Addiction Services at Harvard Medical School, are those who are "lonely and bored or from families where nobody is at home to relate to after school."
Children who are unpopular or shy with peers are often attracted to the opportunities for creating new identities in online communities. Boys, in particular, are frequent users of online role-playing games, where they assume new identities and interact with other players. Although playing these games with thousands of other users may appear to be a social activity, for the introverted child or teen, excessive playing can further isolate them from friends and peers.
Harvard Medical School's Computer-Addiction Services identifies the following symptoms of computer addiction.
- Having a sense of well-being or euphoria while at the computer
- Inability to stop the activity
- Craving more and more time at the computer
- Neglecting family and friends
- Feeling empty, depressed and irritable when not at the computer
- Lying to family and friends about activities
- Problems with school or work
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Dry eyes
- Migraine headaches
- Eating irregularities, such as skipping meals
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Sleep disturbances and changes in sleep patterns
Tips for parents
If your kids are spending too much time on the Internet, you need to establish a healthy balance between Internet use and other activities.
- Look for symptoms of Internet dependency. Ask yourself if your child's Internet use is affecting his or her school performance, health, and relationships with family and friends.
- If your child is demonstrating strong signs of Internet addiction, consider seeking professional counselling. Compulsive Internet use may be symptomatic of other problems such as depression, anger and low self-esteem.
- Examine your own online habits. Do you have trouble controlling your Internet use? Remember, you are your child's most important role model.
- Don't ban the Internet - it is an important part of most kids' social lives. Instead, establish rules about where your kids can go online and what they can do there - and stick to them. Such rules might include: a limited amount of time online each day; no surfing or instant messaging until they complete their homework. Rules definitely help
- Keep your computer in a public area of your house, not in a child's bedroom.
- Encourage and support your child's participation in other activities - particularly physical pastimes with other children.
- If your child is shy or socially awkward with peers, consider a social skills class. Encourage activities that will bring your child together with others who have similar interests, such as computer classes or hobby groups.
- Investigate software that monitors and restricts Internet use. Although these tools are helpful, keep in mind they can be easily disabled by a savvy computer user. Your ultimate goal should be helping your kids to develop self-control, discipline and accountability with the Internet.
- If your child seems interested only in playing online video games, try a tie-in to one of their favourite games. For example, if your child prefers fantasy role-playing, encourage her or him to read fantasy books.