Is your child too caught up in social networks?
You'd notice if your child was addicted to drugs, but the internet can also be dangerously addictive
Do your children spend hours every day glued to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter? Do they bring their smartphones to bed and wake up during the night to check or update their Facebook accounts? Do they check in again before they even get out of bed in the morning? Do they tweet from the dinner table or even from the toilet?
If your children’s use of social networking is so excessive that it significantly interferes with their daily lives, they may have an internet-addiction disorder. Despite Facebook’s minimum age limit of 13, research by Mintel has revealed that nearly a million children in the UK aged seven to 12 use the social network.
A survey of 4,000 parents conducted by the internet-security company AVG found that 11 was the age most would allow their children to enter the world of social media. Fifty-three per cent of parents polled in the US said their children were already on Facebook and Twitter as early tweens: by the time they were 13 they were old hands at posting status updates, tweeting and uploading pictures for their friends.
Change of focus
During the 1990s, much research attention was focused on internet addiction – and gaming addiction in particular – but with the explosion of social network sites over the past decade, researchers have started to look at addiction to social media.
In a recent study from the University of Athens, psychiatrists argued that a woman who had lost her job on account of her compulsion to check and update her Facebook account could be identified as a social-network addict.
Internet-addiction disorder is defined as excessive computer use that interferes with daily life.
There is debate about whether to include the disorder as a diagnosis in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of psychiatric diagnoses. Some experts, including Dr Kimberley Young, director of the Centre for Internet Addiction Recovery in the US, believe that, as an impulse-control disorder, internet-addiction disorder is most akin to a gambling addiction.
In 2010, students at the University of Maryland were asked to give up all media for 24 hours, including access to social networks and smartphones. Many showed signs associated with drug and alcohol addiction, including withdrawal, craving and anxiety.
Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist at St Patrick’s University Hospital in Dublin, points out that, traditionally, we understood addiction to mean chemical or psychological dependence on a substance or activity. However, he suggests it is better to use the term ‘problematic misuse’ to understand our reliance on internet surfing and similar activities.
“What defines problematic misuse is our relationship with the substance or activity, whether it be food, drink, gambling, religion or social media,” he says. “These activities in themselves are not dangerous or bad, but if we lose a sense of moderation in our involvement with them it can become problematic.
“We notice problematic behaviour when it begins to impede our functioning and we start to develop an unhealthy or excessive relationship with it.”
The problematic misuse of social-networking sites is on the increase among Irish adolescents, according to Noctor. Excessive use of sites such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter can lead to problems in actual social interaction and can adversely affect mood, personality, work ethic, relationships and sleep.