You don't have to look far to find examples of unnecessary Internet use. From smart phone-wielding urbanites texting on every street corner to college students glued to Facebook in the library, connectivity is everywhere, and it can be hard to tell the difference between indulgence and addiction.
According to a Nielsen study, worldwide time spent on social media sites increased 82 percent—from three hours to five and a half hours—between 2008 and 2009. Add that to the Pew Internet Research Center’s recent statistics on teens and cell phone use, reporting that 87 percent of teens text, with an average of 50 messages sent per day. For parents worried about their children’s use of the web and individuals who think they might have a problem, how do you know if you’re a dataholic? The answer isn’t so cut-and-dry.
The Disorder Debate
Besides being normalized by the media (not to mention increasing Wi-Fi connectivity and ever-faster data speeds), excessive Internet use can be difficult to define because not even the experts agree on the validity of the term. Though the last few years have seen an increase in treatment programs for Internet addiction, the diagnosis was denied admission to the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the so-called psychologists’ bible.
One critic of Internet addiction’s classification as a disorder is Dr. Ronald Pies, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. “It is premature to declare Internet addiction a discrete disorder, although further research may show that it has elements in common with other conditions affecting the motivation and rewards circuits of the brain,” he said. Stuart Gitlow, the executive director of the Annenberg Physician Training Program in Addictive Disease, agrees: “Humans love devoting hundreds of hours to specific activities,” he said, naming reading and memorizing baseball stats as two examples.
Whether Internet addiction is comparable to other dependencies such as alcoholism is one question, but there certainly are people whose dependence on data is so serious that they seek out assistance.
The last few years have seen more outlets open for self-identified Internet addicts to seek treatment. One such place is the reStart Internet Addiction Recovery Program, located in Fall City, Washington. Founded by Cosette Rae and Hilarie Cash in July 2009, the inpatient program has helped nearly 20 clients who stay for a minimum of 45 days. During their stay, clients do not use the Internet, focusing instead on developing life skills such as cooking, cleaning, and time management.
Who is reStart helping? Cash says that the majority of the program’s patients are between the ages of 18 and 28, with men accounting for about two thirds of the participants. The vast majority of reStart’s clients come to the program with an addiction to online gaming.
“What we typically see is that Internet use has had a profound impact on their ability to function in school or work. Most of our participants are dropouts from college,” Cash says. “They often don’t have good social skills, and they’re often not in very good physical health because they’re too sedentary.” One of reStart’s missions is to gain a sense of how a dataholic’s relationship to technology has impacted his life in a negative way and if there is an inability to control and manage that addiction.
As the majority of Internet addiction patients are in their teens or early twenties, many parents may wonder how and when they should set boundaries for web use. The directors at reStart suggest a particularly proactive approach to teaching healthy Internet behavior. Cash recommends that parents don’t let children use computers before the age of seven, and urges moderation of a teen’s Internet use, with no more than two hours of screen time in the junior high years and no more than three in high school.
Consider that guideline in light of a 2009 study by Raytheon, which found that 72 percent of U.S. middle school students spend more than three hours each day in front of a screen outside of school. “Parents should have some way of monitoring what kids are doing on the computer. That includes installing monitoring software and letting kids know that the computer is not private space because it’s being monitored,” Cash said. Furthermore, she recommends that parents ban computers—and screens of any kind—from children’s bedrooms.
While this may seem like a rather hard-line approach in an era when even schoolwork often requires use of the web, Cash and Rae emphasize that these guidelines are about ensuring that kids develop responsibility when using the Internet. “If a child is showing maturity and is highly responsible, parents can loosen the rule, but the rule needs to be reinstated if their child’s responsibility is deteriorating.” Cash explained that children need to demonstrate that they’re responsible not only about schoolwork, but that they’re spending time with friends and engaging in school activities, as well as being responsible with chores.
What about those of us who are capable of regulating our Internet use but still know the temptation to log on at an inappropriate moment? According to the therapists at reStart, everyone—not just Internet addicts—can benefit from taking a step away from the screen.
“I think it does everyone a great deal of good to take a day or two to be technology-free to just get the experience of what it’s like not to be constantly distracted by technology,” Cash said. She also recommends limiting smart phone use to certain times of the day and turning off your phone when possible. Additionally, Cash offers a rule of thumb for assessing if your data consumption is kept in check: Exceeding two to four hours of online time (not work- or school-related) is a sign that your Internet use may be verging on an addiction.
One thing’s for sure: In a world where our work, social life, shopping, and entertainment are increasingly accessible online, it’s easy to forget that some needs can’t be met over the Internet. “We’re social animals,” said Cash, “and we really need social interaction with people face-to-face, in real time.” If nothing else, perhaps consider using your smart phone to set up a meeting in real life next time you’re tempted to text.