Internet addiction – symptom or cause?

addictionA Chinese teenager, it was recently reported, chopped off his own hand in a desperate attempt to cure his addiction to the Internet.

If the press is to be believed, Asian countries are in the grip of an epidemic of horrifying proportions and are reacting in a typically blunt fashion:

Politicians are also starting to take note. Last month Taiwanese lawmakers approved changes to legislation that meant authorities could fine parents who allowed their children to spend excessive amounts of time using “electronic products”. In Japan, internet “fasting camps” have been set up in response to claims that hundreds of thousands of teenagers are abandoning the real world for the virtual one. In late 2013, Shanghai approved new laws demanding that parents take action to “prevent and stop minors smoking, drinking alcohol, roaming the streets, or being overindulgent with online and electronic games”.

The problem with all this, and with similar worries at home in Australia, is a lack of context and proportion. Can it be a coincidence that these problems are reaching such proportions in countries which have incredibly pressured school regimes? I think not. The Internet is a symptom, it’s an available outlet that allows kids to escape from the pressured environment into which they are being thrust. Sure it’s easier to escape when you don’t even need to leave the house to do so, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Internet is the symptom, not the cause.

Fifty years ago rock and roll was gong to blight a generation, 20 years ago it was television – basically we’re not very good at dealing with big changes and we tend to see those changes which are always adopted first by youths as being the end of the World. The World rarely ends (or if it’s going to, it’s not kids playing games on the Internet that are to blame).

Before trying to find blunt solutions like regulation or turning off the power switch, maybe we ought to look to underlying causes. Kids aren’t addicted to ‘the Internet’: They crave the escape from schoolwork it provides; or the friendships it provides through social media; or the respect missing from their ‘real life’ but gained from being a level 12 wizard in the virtual world. I’m not saying these are all good or healthy things, not at all, but they are symptoms of problems that need to find an outlet somewhere.

There are obviously some instances of genuinely addicted people. But in most cases it’s going to be a matter of really understanding the underlying issues and trying to find some balance. People do not chop off their hands just because they are spending too much time on the internet, they do that because, for example, they see the amount of time they are spending hurting their schoolwork and know what that will do to their parents but have no way of discussing or dealing with the pressure that they are under.

Like most things in life, the reality of kids spending time on the Internet is nuanced and simply not amenable to being hit with a blunt object. The ready availability of the Internet makes dealing with kids’ use of it a real challenge; but it’s a challenge of parenting and we’ve had those ever since we got beyond the single-celled organism stage.

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