It is easy to scoff at the idea of Internet addiction, which is not officially recognized as a disorder in the United States. Yet a growing number of parents and experts say addiction to screens is becoming a major problem for many young Americans, causing them to drop out of school, withdraw from their families and friends, and complain of deep anxieties in social settings.
A survey this year of nearly 1,300 parents and children by Common Sense Media found that 59 percent of parents think their teens are addicted to mobile devices. Meanwhile, 50 percent of teenagers feel the same way. Some parents think the condition is serious enough that they are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to send their children to get treatment, because insurance won’t cover it.
Those who say they suffer from Internet addiction share many symptoms with other types of addicts. The pleasure centers of the brain light up when introduced to the stimulus. Addicts lose interest in other hobbies or, sometimes, never develop any. When not allowed to go online, they experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, depression or even physical shaking. They retreat into corners of the Internet where they can find quick success — a dominant ranking in a game or a well-liked Facebook post — that they don’t have in the real world, experts say.
Delaney Ruston, a physician and filmmaker, explored a wide range of issues surrounding everyday tech use in her film ScreenAgers. The film followed her own struggle with her young daughter over how to monitor and moderate tech use.
Dr. Ruston thinks we should be careful about how we use the word “addiction” in casual conversation about tech use. For serious cases, she agrees that Internet addiction is a real problem. But for the kid who just won’t put her phone down during dinner? Calling her an addict may do more harm than good. “We should be careful to stop using the word ‘addiction’ so kids can have an internal sense of control,” she says. “They have to know that the device does not control them.”