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Caught in the web: Understanding and battling internet addiction

| 09 Jan 2024

The internet is a place of many possibilities. But when the online world starts to take up too much space in your child’s life, it can be an issue. What are the different types of internet addiction? And how can you help children who are struggling with internet overuse? We discuss the topic with child psychologist, Jarmila Tomkova.

The internet is a remarkable tool that can help us and our children with many activities, from studying to creating to staying in touch with family and friends. But when its function shifts from helpful aid to authoritative force, its impact on one’s life can be potentially harmful. When the online world becomes the centre of an individual's life, we can speak of excessive internet use – or even addiction.

How widespread is this problem? 

Jarmila Tomkova explains: “In some countries that have been using advanced technologies for a long time, such as Japan or South Korea, internet addiction is more prevalent. In Europe, the problem is not as common, but we should still try to educate people – especially children – about safe and healthy uses of the internet so that we can prevent the number of addicted people from increasing. It is also important to note that people often confuse internet addiction with excessive internet use. Both are a serious problem, but the latter is much more common – among both adults and children.”

“By itself, time does not define an addiction. There may be children who spend a lot of time playing video games, for example. But in a situation that requires them to stop gaming and focus on something different – such as studying for exams – they are able to give up their games and pay attention to the thing that now has the higher priority. But if the child struggles in vain to stop gaming, even when the situation requires it, they are possibly dealing with an addiction.”

So, what's the difference between excessive internet use and addiction? Jarmila Tomkova lists six criteria. For a diagnosis of online addiction in the clinical meaning of the word, all these criteria must be present.

1. Salience

“When we are addicted to something, it simply becomes the centre of our life.”

2. Conflict

“A person with an addiction experiences an inner conflict between their needs, duties or hobbies and the thing they are addicted to. This can mean that a child may have enjoyed playing football, but the addiction caused them to lose interest in this activity, limit it – or give it up completely. The conflict can be even more serious, so a person can lose their job or get dismissed from school due to prioritising online activity before their other duties.”

3. Withdrawal symptoms

“When a person with an addiction is forced to give up the activity they are addicted to, they may experience all sorts of negative emotions. They may find it very hard to focus on anything else than their cravings, and to feel anxious, stressed or even depressed.” 

4. Mood modification

“When we become addicted to an activity, it becomes our main – or only – mood modifier. In other words, it becomes the only thing that helps us feel happy.”

5. Increased tolerance

“The longer the addiction lasts, the more we need the activity to be satisfied. So, for example, an addicted gamer may need longer and longer gaming sessions to feel the desired gratification.”

6. Relapse

“When a person tries to break the cycle, but they eventually return to the addictive activity, they quickly return to their unhealthy habits and overuse.”

Internet addiction as an umbrella term

When we speak of internet addiction, we are referring to several different addictions. Why is that? “Being addicted to the internet as a whole is not really a thing. What people get addicted to are the different activities they can do online. Depending on their specific situation, we can divide internet addiction into multiple categories,” Jarmila Tomkova answers. What types of addiction are there?

1. Addiction to online communication: This category comprises obsessive use of social media and chat, which is an issue especially if online bonds gain a higher priority than offline relationships. 

2. Addiction to online games: Videogames are often very entertaining, which unfortunately means that some people may “get lost” in their imaginary worlds.

3. Addiction to online information: This includes reading news, following blogs or watching videos on various platforms. A person with this type of addiction may feel out of place; this may result in feeling FOMO, if they believe they are insufficiently informed of some situation or event.

4. Addiction to online sexual content: This addiction may involve pornography, explicit chat, or some dating sites. “This issue is perhaps more prevalent among adults, but I believe it needs to be mentioned here too. It is one of the more common addictions and even teenagers can struggle with it. By trying to remove the stigma and discussing the issue more openly, we may be able to help combat it.”

5. Addiction to spending money online: This form of addiction is serious because it affects an individual’s financial health. It includes addiction to online shopping, investing or gambling. 

When you look at these different addictions, you may see that in general the activities listed as examples are not harmful. Playing video games, using social media, chatting with friends, or looking for information online is not universally bad. But these activities must be balanced with other activities so that they do not take over the child’s life. How can you encourage your children to find this balance? By practicing digital hygiene you will not only make your children’s internet use safer but also, effectively, more fun. 

How can you prevent internet addiction? Make sure your child feels grounded and loved 

An addiction may appear in your child’s life as a result of issues they face in the offline world. “If kids don’t feel grounded, confident and loved, if they struggle at school or if they battle depression, the online world can become their escape from these issues. And eventually, this may lead to addiction.” 

So, to make it less likely that your child will develop an unhealthy attachment to the internet, or anything else, you should focus on their offline life and encourage them to form friendships and pursue their hobbies. Love them and support them. Building a structured and satisfying routine for your children from a young age can help them avoid getting overly attached to the internet in the future. 

Kids also observe and learn from how their parents act, so if you want to prevent unhealthy online behaviour, consider your own habits and think about whether your digital hygiene sets a good example. 

In comparison to adults, are small children more likely to develop an addiction?

“In general, children are not more prone to addiction than teenagers or adults. On the contrary. Young children are often very focused on fulfilling certain roles. They want to play with their friends, learn and be good at school, spend time with their parents. So, unless there is some significant issue or neglect, young kids are not likely to give up on these needs and shift all or most of their focus to smart gadgets and the internet.”

Parents should also inform their kids about the risk of addiction and address it similarly to other online risks, such as malware. With young children, interactive materials and easy-to-understand metaphors can help. Jarmila Tomkova gives us an example: “We can, for instance, say that even though we need food, we cannot eat all the time. If we just keep eating and eating, our bodies would struggle. Similarly, the internet is fun and useful but only if we use it reasonably. We cannot be online 24/7, because if we were, we would not feel good.”

With older children, the approach can be more straightforward. “We can emphasise the fact that internet overuse is common – and it may sometimes happen even to adults. But we should not overlook this issue, and together we can work on maintaining healthier digital hygiene. We can also tell them real-life stories of people who have dealt with addiction, and we can learn from their experience.”

A story of battling internet addiction 

“I had a patient, a young man, who had struggled with internet addiction. When he was a small child, his family moved to a completely different country, so he was suddenly among children who spoke an unfamiliar language. At school, he was unpopular and his classmates bullied him. His parents were not supportive of him and even struggled with substance abuse. Eventually, he turned to video games as his way of escaping these struggles. When he became a teenager, he chose to break the cycle. He found a part-time job and decided to return to his homeland, where he enrolled in high school. He found a new hobby too – the gym. Once his offline life was balanced, he no longer needed video games to escape. The addiction disappeared. But when we talked, he told me that back then video games were the only thing keeping him from hurting himself. I mention this because, perhaps, we sometimes see internet addiction as something that happens to weak people. Or we see it isolated from the causes that led to the addictive behaviour. In this case, the addiction was a direct outcome of a very serious life struggle. And, surprisingly, it even helped the boy survive these hard moments and find the strength to move on. However, it was only when he had the chance to put his life together that he found true balance and happiness – and he no longer needed his addiction to keep him alive.”

My child is already struggling with addiction. What can I do?

If your child is dealing with internet addiction or excessive internet use, don’t hesitate to approach a specialist who can help you with the issue. There are also many things you can do on your own. “Try to help your children shift their attention away from the world online to the offline world. Consider introducing more strict limits regarding internet use and eliminating certain problematic online activities – or, if your child is dealing with a clinical online addiction, try to completely remove the internet from their life for a while. But if you decide to go for complete abstinence, I advise you to discuss the proper ways of accomplishing this with a counsellor or a psychologist.”

“Never ban the internet as a punishment for the addicted child. They should never feel as if they have failed their inner battle. Our role is not to punish our children for struggling but to help them get through it. We should show understanding, ask our children about their emotions and help them find new coping strategies other than their addiction. In the end, our children should feel like we are one team, playing for a common goal – not two teams fighting each other.”

Apart from limiting the internet, try to make the offline world more exciting. “Help your child find hobbies they enjoy. These might be sports, creative activities or even playing board games together,” Tomkova suggests. It all goes back to what was said before: if your child feels happy and grounded in their life offline, they are much less likely to rely on the internet as a source of gratification. 

Finally, it is essential to make your child feel loved and supported. “Emphasise that struggling with internet overuse does not make them a bad person. Let them know that balancing the online and the offline worlds can be hard for anyone, so they should not feel like a failure for having trouble. And finally, ensure them that you are always there to help,” Jarmila Tomkova concludes. 

How to encourage children to use the internet responsibly? ESET’s Parental Control app can help you with that. Implement age-appropriate content filters, manage your child’s online activities and educate them about responsible internet use.  This way, your child’s first steps through the online world can be both entertaining and secure. 



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