The Digital Revolution changed the way we live our lives. It’s hard to believe that only twenty years ago, most people were just beginning to use email as a standard method of communication. The vast majority of us relied on old fashioned landlines and answering machines, and some of us still wrote actual letters with paper and pen. Mobile phones had physical push buttons. Hand-held touch screens were the stuff of futuristic science fiction. The lucky few with high-tech or high-end jobs had a Blackberry, while the rest of us were either green with envy or thanked our lucky stars our bosses had no way of contacting us aside from the aforementioned landlines and their notoriously finicky answering machines. It’s a little embarrassing to admit we long for the luxury of saying, “I’m not sure my machine recorded your message. Sorry I missed you.”
Ah, for the good old days of that plausibly deniable – and mostly harmless – little white social lie. Nowadays, when you say, “I missed your text,” everyone knows you didn’t. Texts always go through: a blessing and a curse of modern technology.
But we digress – back to 1997.
Household computers were common. Desktop models occupied home offices across the country. We were long past the days of the Radio Shack TRS 80 and the first Macintosh, but we weren’t quite at the point where everyone had a laptop. Laptops – think early IBM ThinkPads – didn’t really become affordable until around Y2K. That’s the year 2000, for those of you who somehow blocked out the drama of New Year’s Eve 1999, when we were all theoretically partying with Prince to end the millennium with a bang. Think for a moment and you’ll remember the sensationalist predictions of what would happen when the numbers ticked over to zero: planes would fall from the sky, the electrical grid would fail, credit card companies and banks would lose their records, and the military would suffer computer glitches that might threaten our national security.
None of that happened. We all woke up the next morning and the world seemed to be working just fine. Then, seven years later, Apple introduced the iPhone, and suddenly the future was here. Not in the bad way predicted by the Y2K conspiracists, but in a good, Star Trek kind of way: though some of us had to wait for prices to drop, smartphones gave everyone access to pocket computers capable of making phone calls, taking pictures and videos, sending and receiving emails, sending and receiving text messages, and surfing the internet.
Now, ten years after that, it’s not an exaggeration to say most of us can’t imagine life without a smartphone, much less the internet. Instant connectivity is like magic. Our phones are essential for emergencies. Our GPS systems find traffic-free routes to wherever we need to go and point out good restaurants along the way. We can video chat with loved ones around the world with a quick tap of the screen. If we’re curious about a topic, we can find answers to any question we can think of. If it exists, it’s online. We don’t even have to finish typing the question: the Google will auto-finish that for us, then serve up millions of answers in less than a second.
Something that good has to come with a catch, though – doesn’t it? In the case of the smartphone and the internet, it does. Instant connectivity gives us instant access a brand-new version of something humans have struggled with forever: addiction.
Internet Addiction: A 21st Century Phenomenon
Let’s get a complete answer to the question we all ask ourselves anytime we see the word addiction: what is it, really? The answer seems to depend on who you ask. For the sake of clarity, we’ll use the definition provided by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM):
“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors. Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”
If you think that definition is wordy, check the full definition on the ASAM website here. We think you’ll thank us for offering the abridged version. We’ll also go ahead and put it out there: we doubt internet addiction will result in “disability or premature death.” We don’t think the internet is going to kill you or your teenagers, but we wanted to include the complete definition of addiction here to make the point we’re talking about a phenomenon behavioral scientists and researchers think is very serious.
It’s serious for children, adults, and teenagers alike. It’s serious because we all use the internet and related media – and most of us recognize that sometimes we use it too much. We’ve also all seen quotes like this one, from an article published in the magazine Computerworld in 2015:
“Social networking is engineered to be as habit-forming as crack cocaine.”
By now we know social media designers at giants like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter take advantage of the reward circuitry in our brain to keep us coming back to check our latest post for likes, comments, and shares. For a scientific analysis of how they do it, read this article. For the short version, read these next two sentences: they’ve figured out how to access the same parts of the brain responsible for driving us to seek things like food, sex, and drugs of addiction. They get us hooked on the blinking red light, the cheery notification chime, the slight buzzing vibration, and we can’t help it: we log in to get our reward.
Teen Internet and Media Use: The Real Data
Let’s take a look at the latest statistics on internet and media use among teenagers. An extensive survey conducted in 2015 by Common Sense Media offers the best, least biased, and most balanced analysis of youth media use available. Click here to read the full, one-hundred-page report or click here to read a quick summary of their findings. The following numbers jump off the page and make most parents pay attention:
- Tweens (age 8-12) spend close to 6 hours a day – not counting schoolwork and homework – using screen-delivered media.
- Teens (age 13-18) spend nearly 9 hours a day – not counting schoolwork and homework – using screen-delivered media.
- Teens with smartphones use them over 5 hours a day.
Let’s take a second for a reality check. Each day has twenty-four hours. Kids – even teens – should get eight to twelve hours of sleep a night. Let’s split the difference and say they get ten, leaving fourteen waking hours. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports students in the U.S. spend just over six and a half hours a day in school – leaving seven and a half hours of waking, non-school time per day. When we combine those numbers with Common Sense Media report, we’re left with an alarming little data set. On average:
- Tweens spend 80% of their non-school time consuming digital media.
- Teens spend 120% of their non-school time consuming digital media.
- Teens with smartphones spend 60% of their non-school time on their phones.
We explain the impossible percentage in the second bullet by assuming teenagers get less sleep than they should. We’ll also use it to make the nonscientific – but anecdotally plausible – assumption that their lack of sleep is caused, in part, by digital media consumption. That, in and of itself, is its own red flag – but we won’t dwell on that. We offer these numbers by way of perspective. Things in our digital world change so fast that it’s easy to forget that just over ten years ago, no one had a smartphone, just over twenty years ago, the internet was just entering our homes, and thirty years ago, the question of internet use – and whether it can be a harmful addiction – was not a question we knew we’d ever have to ask.
But the numbers don’t lie: our kids are online a lot. And we, as parents, should be asking ourselves if internet use is harming our kids. Here’s another set of stats from Common Sense media that validate our concerns:
- 78% of teens check their devices at least once an hour.
- 45% of teens say they use social media every day.
- 50% of teens feel addicted to their mobile devices.
- 33% of teens have tried to cut down on their device usage.
- 72% of teens feel the need to respond to message/notification alerts immediately.
If half the teens in the U.S. feel addicted to their devices, and a third of them have already tried to dial it back, then yes: it’s time to get to the bottom of the matter.
Internet Addiction Assessment: Take the Test
The Internet Addiction Test (IAT) was created by Dr. Kimberly Young in 1995. It’s widely considered the gold standard measure for assessing internet and related forms of digital addiction. If you think your teenager is addicted to the internet or other digital activities, have them take the test. And we strongly recommend you take it yourself, as well.
[Note: this assessment does not take the place of an official evaluation conducted by a licensed mental health professional. For a medical diagnosis of any addiction disorder, please consult a therapist or psychiatrist.]
Respond to each statement on the following scale of 0 – 5:
0 – Does Not Apply
1 – Rarely
2 – Occasionally
3 – Frequently
4 – Often
5 – Always
When you’re done, add up all your responses to get your total. Ready?
Here we go!
- How often do you find that you stay on-line longer than you intended?
- How often do you neglect household chores to spend more time on-line?
- How often do you prefer the excitement of the Internet to intimacy with your partner?
- How often do you form new relationships with fellow on-line users?
- How often do others in your life complain to you about the amount of time you spend on-line?
- How often do your grades or school work suffers because of the amount of time you spend on-line?
- How often do you check your email before something else that you need to do?
- How often does your job performance or productivity suffer because of the Internet?
- How often do you become defensive or secretive when anyone asks you what you do on-line?
- How often do you block out disturbing thoughts about your life with soothing thoughts of the Internet?
- How often do you find yourself anticipating when you will go on-line again?
- How often do you fear that life without the Internet would be boring, empty, and joyless?
- How often do you snap, yell, or act annoyed if someone bothers you while you are on-line?
- How often do you lose sleep due to late-night log-ins?
- How often do you feel preoccupied with the Internet when off-line, or fantasize about being on-line?
- How often do you find yourself saying “just a few more minutes” when online?
- How often do you try to cut down the amount of time you spend on-line and fail?
- How often do you try to hide how long you’ve been on-line?
- How often do you choose to spend more time on-line over going out with others?
- How often do you feel depressed, moody or nervous when you are off-line, which goes away once you are back on-line?
How to Interpret Your Results
Average Internet User: 20 – 49 points.
At-Risk Internet User: 50 – 79 points.
Problem Internet User: 80 – 100 points.
If you’re an average internet user, you may hang out online a little too much, but you pretty much have things under control. If you’re an at-risk internet user, it’s likely you experience some problems because of your internet use, and it would be wise to examine how those internet-related problems affect your life. If you’re a problem internet user, your internet use probably causes significant issues in your life, and it’s time to take a serious look at the damage your internet use causes you and your loved ones.
Mindful Moderation: The Key to Modern Media
We’ll close by making an important point: the internet itself is neither good nor bad. It’s simply a tool available to us. Our use of this tool is what makes it a good or bad force in our lives. Too much can be bad, too little can mean we’re missing out on something helpful and incredibly time-efficient. We want to find the sweet-spot. The digital middle ground. The internet is effective for work, education, recreation, and everything in between. It can help us in virtually any field of human endeavor, but the more time we humans spend with the internet in our lives, the more we see the dangerous downside of this amazing 21st century tool. To mitigate the danger, it’s vital for parents to use common sense: talk to your teen about internet addiction and encourage them to use their internet and device time for activities that enrich their lives. Help them develop healthy internet habits based on their own experiences. Above all, encourage face-to-face conversations and teach teens to cultivate real-life relationships with peers at school and in their community.