A growing addiction

A MAN drops dead after spending hours on the computer. A father kills his toddler son. An angry son murders his mother. A parang fight breaks out between friends over the use of a computer.

These are just some of the Internet addiction cases in Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia that have recently grabbed global headlines.

Internet addiction is most prevalent in Asia, North America, and the Middle East, says Prof Dr Cecilia Cheng from the University of Hong Kong.

Quoting her study of 89,281 adults from 31 countries, Dr Cheng says the global prevalence rate of Internet addiction is estimated to be at 6%. Europe and Oceania have the lowest rate.

Internet addiction is related to life dissatisfaction and undesirable environmental conditions, she reveals.

“The Internet’s a double-edged sword. When you lose control, it’s a problem. Addicts live discontented lives,” she says, adding that nations with bad traffic jams seem to have more Internet addicts.

On Oct 7, The Star reported that frequent use of the Internet could translate to low self-esteem, depression, social anxiety, lower levels of contentment, sadness, boredom and attention-deficit hyperactive disorder.

According to the International Society of Internet Addiction (Isia), Malaysian youth are increasingly using the Internet in excess, with a local study revealing that 37% of Malaysian parents feel their children’s online life is interfering with their home and school obligations; 18% say their children are sacrificing basic social activities in favour of computer time.

The study, led by child psychologist and Isia spokesperson Dr Norharlina Bahar, found that males under the age of 24 are the most susceptible to Internet addiction.

Despite the worrying trend, research here is still in its infancy. We are behind countries such as South Korea, Singapore, China and Taiwan, she says.

South Korea’s National Information Society Agency has been conducting an annual survey on Internet addiction since 2004 and runs programmes that provide preventive education, counselling and expert training.

Singapore’s National Addictions Management Service provides outpatient treatment for gaming/Internet addiction, describing an addiction as “the extreme use of computer and video games that interferes with daily life”.

Gaming addiction in China has attracted so much attention that the authorities have set up military-style rehabilitation centres for young people.

Internet addiction, Dr Norharlina clarifies, is a behavioural addiction; however, as it is still new, there isn’t enough research to call it a disorder or an illness – yet.

Although “problematic Internet use” is more accurate, lay people find the term “Internet addiction” easier to relate to. Within the wider scope of problematic Internet use, gaming and pornography specifically are areas of concern.

“There’s not much research coming from Western countries. In countries like Australia, Britain and Europe, Internet addiction isn’t such a big thing, possibly because of different parenting styles, school systems and lifestyles.

“For example, in Asia, kids are drilled to do well in school. There are fewer outdoor activities,” Dr Norharlina points out. The challenge is to define what level of Internet use is detrimental.

Research – the majority of which has been conducted among secondary school or college-age youth – has shown that the prevalence of problematic Internet use is between 2.4% and a whopping 49%.

Besides an inverse link between Internet addiction and academic performance, studies also show that more than half of parents surveyed think their child spends more time online than necessary.

Being online excessively affects the brain, she adds, causing biological changes like sleeplessness. Moderation is key. At risk, she says, are youngsters – especially males with psychological issues such as attention deficit or mood disorders.

Adolescents are still trying to find themselves so they are more vulnerable. Those with poor social skills, preferring to meet friends online rather than in person, can become Internet addicts because they don’t have enough maturity to regulate themselves. That’s where the adults come in.

Parents cannot say they don’t know how to use the Internet, Dr Norharlina says.

“You have to ride the wave. You can’t keep saying that you’re from an older generation and the kids know better than you. Of course that’s true, but you can always ask them to teach you. It will improve the parent-child bond,” she suggests.

Internet addiction interrupts normal relationships and how you interact with others, she warns.

Now, even toddlers are given devices that can link to the Internet. This, she says, can hamper cognitive development. Babies need interaction with the real world in the crucial years when their synaptic development occurs in the brain.

In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children below 18 months should be kept away from digital media, and those aged two to five should be limited to an hour a day. It also warned of multiple developmental and health concerns for young children using all forms of digital media excessively.

You cannot let a gadget take over because it’s convenient, says Dr Norharlina. Parents, she stresses, must know that excessive use will lead to problems.

“We’re seeing more youth coming to us for treatment of depression, refusing to go to school. But dig deeper and the reason is usually excessive Internet use.

“But many only get help when problems like social anxiety or poor academic performance sets in. Usually, it’s when they aren’t able to function anymore that their parents seek help.”

This, she feels is a little too late in the game. Prevention is more effective than treatment. And when it comes to treating an Internet addict, the whole family has to be involved. Everyone’s Internet usage should be regulated, not just the patient’s. She recommends:

> Greater recognition of Internet addiction in national health policies.

> More school-based programmes and studies to assess the health impact of Internet addiction.

> Getting the gaming industry to take some responsibility by informing consumers of risks and care services.

> Public awareness campaigns (eg: National No Internet Day).

> Behavioural measures like banning the Internet from the bedroom.

> Shutting down gaming centres at certain hours.

> Installing parental locks, filters and time limit settings.

> Encouraging healthy non-Internet activities in schools and at home.

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We’re not addicts

It’s not just the kids

Help’s coming

Family Community , Internet , addiction , gaming , port , truant , youths