By Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, Matzav.com
Is Internet addiction the main cause of today’s at-risk crisis? It’s a topic most people shy away from, but it’s one that our society needs to begin to address. Everyday more and more teens are getting hooked on the Internet and the effect of surfing may be taking its toll on our youth.
There’s no question that Internet use among teens is on the rise. The Internet has quickly become the number one media pre-occupation our children are busy with each day. Worse, not only are teens spending one to several hours a day surfing the web, the content that they are viewing has become progressively more violent and contains more explicit material than ever before. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, a groundbreaking national survey of 1,500 youth aged 10 to 17 documented that:
-More than one-third of youth Internet users (34%) saw “inappropriate” material online they did not want to see.
-The increase in exposure to unwanted material occurred despite increased use of filtering, blocking, and monitoring software in households of youth Internet users.
-Online harassment of youth has increased by 9% over the last five years.
-28% of solicited youth said an incident left them feeling very or extremely upset and in one-quarter of all solicitation incidents, youth had one or more symptoms of stress, including staying away from the Internet or a particular part of it, being unable to stop thinking about the incident, feeling jumpy or irritable, and/or losing interest in things.
These statistics should sound an alarm for parents concerned about their children’s development. Here’s why: For many teens Internet use has become an addiction, and, like all other addictives substances and activities, Internet addiction requires a therapeutic approach to wean its adherents away from this self-destructive behavior.
I know it may take a slight leap of creativity to connect the Internet to drug abuse but here are the similarities: Like addiction to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or caffeine, Internet addiction is marked by symptoms of increasing tolerance, withdrawal, mood changes, and interruption of social relationships. Children and adolescents who have become addicted to the Internet will require increasing amounts of time online in order to feel satisfied. When they do not have access to the Internet, they may have symptoms of withdrawal, which include anxiety, depression, irritability, trembling hands, restlessness and obsessive thinking or fantasizing about the Internet.
Independent of the depressing effects of excessive Internet use, the most devastating impact of Internet addiction may be the decreased amount of quality time teenagers have with their parents. Just like other addictions, the Internet addict probably suffers from feelings of emotional and physical isolation from his or friends and family and spends little time involved in healthy relationships which are the basis for positive emotional development.
As I outline in my book “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach,” the lack of quality time spent with parents may also be the most significant factor leading to at-risk behavior. In fact, I once asked a group of high school juniors and seniors at a well-known Jewish day school what they felt were the most important issues teens face. These were the students’ answers according to their own ranking, starting with the most important:
-Disappointment and anger with parents
-Dislike of teachers
-The intense desire to be accepted and fit in with friends
-The desire to be adults and the fact still they were under parents’ control
-The internal pressures of trying to develop and act on personal values as opposed to those of parents and friends
-The powerful forces of media encouraging experimentation with inappropriate relationships and alcohol
-The enormous physical and psychological changes that occur at this time of life
Surprisingly, issues like physical changes, peer pressure, and drug use were placed low on the students’ list, whereas the issues of poor relationships with their parents and teachers were ranked highest. In general, these teenagers seemed alienated from their parents and felt that their teachers had somehow let them down. Add to this a teenager’s sense of isolation from parents and family members and the connection between Internet use and the at-crisis becomes more and more apparent.
Study after study is showing that the relationship is the key to at risk crisis and the Internet may be pushing teenagers further away from maintaining healthy relationships with their parents. For example, a comprehensive research brief published by Child Trends, entitled Parent-Teen Relationships and Interactions Far More Positive Than Not, showed a direct correlation between the quality of the parent-teen relationship and the impact the relationship has on a teenager’s life.
Similar conclusions were also reached by two other studies: a Columbia University study in September 2002, found that “isolation from parents make affluent students more likely to become depressed, and to smoke, drink and abuse drugs,” ⁸ and a National Institute on Drug Abuse 1999 study showed that “Family-focused programs have been found to significantly reduce all the major risk domains and increase protective processes” and that “even those [families] with indicated ‘hard-core’ problems can benefit from family-strengthening strategies.”
In addition to the damage the Internet may cause to family relationships, excessive Internet usage can also be masking more difficult problems that teenagers are facing. It may therefore be necessary to seek outside help for a child with Internet addiction.
How much Internet use is too much? Parents can ask the following questions that can be answered in one of three possible ways: rarely, frequently or always:
-How often do they find that they stay online longer than they intended?
-How often do they form new relationships with unknown fellow online users?
-How often do their grades suffer because of the amount of time they spend online?
-How often do they find themselves anticipating when they will go online again?
-How often do they choose to spend more time on-line rather going out with others?
If they answer “frequently” or “always” to at least four out of the five questions, then it may be a sign that they are hooked into the Internet and could use some help to wean themselves away from constant use.
How can I wean my teen off the Internet?
How can parents break the addiction? Here are some suggestions that may change the frequency and duration of time your child spends online.
The first suggestion is for parents to end their child’s isolation and check up on them every 15 minutes to see what they are watching. They can also surf together with the child on various sites and turn “alone” time into “family” time. Better yet, parents and children can work on a joint project. A creative idea is to google your family name and explore your genealogy. Another may be to plan a family trip together and look for places and special deals online. The trick is to come up with something fun and engaging that places both you and your child in the same environment.
While you sit together in front of the computer screen, you could casually discuss some of the dangers of the Internet and the sites that may be damaging to their emotional well being. A good place to start is to discuss the dangers of chat rooms and to speak openly about who may be online and what possible predators may be looking for.
Another helpful strategy is to gently wean your child away from the Internet. If, for example, your child surfs for two hours a night, you can make the first move by saying, “I think surfing every night for two hours is too much. You can keep on surfing, but from now on, you can pick three nights a week if you want to go online. Which night do you prefer? It’s your choice.” You don’t have to abruptly cut off all Internet use; rather you can start by limiting their constant exposure and empower them with a choice of when they want to be online.
Many parents seem apprehensive about butting in on their teen’s computer time. I have found however that when someone is hooked online and asked to cut back they may be initially reluctant, but in the end they will be thankful to you for reducing their dependence. Often teens get carried away and will appreciate someone that can help them renew their sense of balance and proportion.
By far, the most effective tool against Internet addiction is to schedule quality time with your child away from the computer. That means parents should schedule with their teens a “date” each week where they spend enjoyable time together. Taking a walk together to the park, going out to eat, ice skating, volunteering, doing Chesed, learning a hobby, or just throwing a ball around are some of the activities that make life fun and bind families together.
When life gets hectic and time is limited, you can spend a few minutes alone just schmoozing in a quiet room of your house – without a computer or video screen. Most importantly during your “dates,” try to talk about matters that they think are important. What matters most is to give your teenager a feeling that he or she is the most important person in the world. These moments of relationship building can give your child the proper amount of emotional nourishment needed to end their dependence and wean themselves off the addictive effects of the Internet.
As Rabbi Abraham Twerski points out in the introduction to my book, At Risk – Never Beyond Reach, “It has been shown that the single most effective intervention for the widest variety of teen and adolescent problems was also the easiest, speediest, and least expensive: The implementation of family mealtimes.” This is because family mealtime fosters relationships. If your child is spending their entire evening surfing the web, then there’s no way he is gaining the positive benefits of quality time with his family.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is a marriage and family therapist and maintains a private practice in Brooklyn. He is the author of “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach”. To make an appointment call 646 428 4723, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com.