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Excessive Internet use

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.

Is there such a thing as Internet addiction?

Parents know that children and young people can easily become 'hooked' on online activities such as gaming and using Facebook – but is this really an addiction? While some experts refuse to use the term "addiction" to describe excessive use of the Internet (because it doesn’t entail physical symptoms) it is increasingly common to refer to excessive Internet use as a “behavioural addiction” – which is defined as losing the ability to stop going online to the point where it impacts on other areas of your life – including relationships, emotions, social life, school, and so on.

It is also now recognized that there are different forms of addiction based on the type of Internet activity – for example downloading, forming online relationships, compulsive shopping and accessing pornography. (Gimeni et al., 2003)

Online gaming

For young people, online role-playing games lend themselves particularly well to excessive use because these games have no end and there is always someone available to play with. In addition, in role-playing games players are often members of groups, which means they need to stay engaged so everyone can advance. However, keep in mind that research shows only 5 to 12 per cent of gamers have a problem with excessive playing.

If a child or teen is obsessive about playing a certain game it can be worrisome, however there can be benefits to keep in mind. Some psychologists believe that games may support and help young people through adolescent changes – for example the avatar representing them could allow them to explore new identities. It’s also important to acknowledge the confidence that comes with mastering a game and in role-playing games – the more time spent playing, the more skilled the players become.

Identifying problem online gaming

Playing more than 30 hours a week over several months could be symptomatic that your child needs help in controlling his or her online playing. It’s important, however, to consider other factors before panicking:

  • Is the child involved in a repetitive activity that has little variety or creativity?
  • Does the game take up most of the child’s leisure time or take over other activities?
  • Are relationships outside the game (family, friends, romantic relationships) suffering?
  • Is the child obsessed with the game?
  • Are the child’s studies, work or romantic relationship seriously affected?
  • Does the child persist even though he/she is aware of the problem?
  • Does the child protest (sometimes violently) or become agitated or experience mood swings when unable to play the game?
  • Does the child neglect to take care of personal hygiene or clean up his or her living space?

(Source: Thomas Gaon, "Psychopathologie des jeux en ligne", Cliniques des technologies de l’information et de la communication Carnet/PSY hors-série, ed. Sylvain Missonnier, November 2007)

Tips for controlling Internet use

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.

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.

Examine your own online habits because as a parent, you are the most important role model for your children. On average, Canadian adults spend 19 hours a week online compared to 13 hours spent by children.

Keep Internet-connected computers out of your kids’ bedrooms. Research shows that young people who have an Internet-connected computer of their own spend twice as much time online as those who share a connection with other family members.

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