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Internet addiction in children: definition, causes, symptoms, and prevention

Reading time: 16 mins
Internet addiction in children can occur at any time

Internet addiction in children refers to a compulsive and excessive use of the internet that interferes with a child’s daily life, academic or social activities, and overall well-being. This condition is a growing concern, given the ubiquity of the internet in children’s lives, and it often requires intervention to help children regain a healthy balance between their online and offline activities.

The causes of internet addiction in children include social media engagement, online gaming, peer influence, easy accessibility, lack of supervision, fear of missing out (FOMO), boredom and lack of alternatives, escape from reality, escapism and coping mechanism, and rewards and reinforcements.

Treatment options for digital addiction in children may include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), pharmacotherapy, family counseling, and preventive education.

Symptoms of internet addiction in children include easily losing track of time, withdrawal symptoms, sleep disturbances, neglect of responsibilities, decline in academic performance, lying about or hiding online activities, preoccupation with the internet, isolation, and failed attempts to cut back on internet use. 

Risk factors for problematic internet use in children may involve  age, access to digital devices, family environment, impulsivity, and co-occurring mental health disorders.

Preventing internet addiction in children may be possible through setting screen time limits, modeling healthy behavior, establishing a routine, educating about online risks, encouraging critical thinking, and staying informed.

What is internet addiction?

Internet addiction is a condition characterized by a person’s compulsive and excessive use of the internet to the point where it interferes with their daily life, duties, and general well-being. It can take many forms, but compulsive internet use typically encompasses things like social networking, video gaming, and excessive web surfing or use of streaming services.

Children are particularly vulnerable to internet addiction because their developing brains are more susceptible to the reward mechanisms associated with online activities, such as social media, gaming, and instant gratification from online content. The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated this trend, as remote learning and social isolation increased children’s reliance on the internet.

How common is internet addiction in children?

children playing on their phone

Internet addiction is a common problem among children. In fact, according to a study by Li et al., published in the February 2014 issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, the overall prevalence of internet addiction was 6.3% in the full sample, which included 24,013 children from fourth to ninth grade. It was 11.7% among internet users.  

The study also found that as internet usage frequency and weekly time spent online increased, so did the percentage of internet addicts. The greatest rate of internet addiction was found among adolescents who frequently used internet cafes (18.1%) and played internet games (22.5%).

On the other hand, according to a 2022 study on internet addiction among teenagers in a Chinese population published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, the prevalence of internet addiction among participants was 13.4%. 

Males and students with more severe anxiety, stress, depression, and insomnia symptoms were also more likely to be addicted to the internet.

What are the types of internet addiction?

Types of internet addiction describe the numerous categories or classifications of internet-related addictive behaviors and activities. The different types of internet addiction are listed below.

  • Compulsive information seeking: People with compulsive information-seeking tendencies may feel a constant need to remain up-to-date on various topics, even if the information has no direct bearing on their lives. This compulsion can result in excessive screen time, detract from real-world responsibilities, and cause anxiety or restlessness when not engaged in information-seeking activities.
  • Computer or gaming addiction: One of the types of internet addiction where an individual engages in excessive and compulsive computer use and video game playing. Long-term, unrestrained gaming activity is typical of this addiction, which can have a number of detrimental effects on the addict’s life.
  • Net compulsions: Often referred to as internet compulsions or online compulsions, these are behavioral patterns characterized by irresistible and repetitive actions performed online. These compulsions typically involve a strong urge to engage in specific internet-related activities, such as online auctions, trading stocks, or online gambling.
  • Cyber-relationship addiction: Involves an addiction to online relationships and connections, such as those formed through dating apps, chat rooms, or virtual worlds. Individuals may prioritize their online relationships over in-person ones.
  • Cybersex addiction: A preoccupation with graphic sexual content or online sexual encounters is often involved in cybersex addiction, which can lead to relationship problems and personal distress. 

What are the causes of internet addiction in children?

The underlying causes of internet addiction in children are multifaceted and may differ from child to child. The causes of internet addiction in children are listed below. 

1. Social media engagement

Social media engagement refers to the degree to which users are actively involved in and invested in particular social media sites. Activities such as updating profiles, posting links, leaving comments, “liking” or replying to other people’s posts, and chatting privately with friends and acquaintances are all part of social media engagement.

The ways by which social media engagement may contribute to internet and even social media addiction are through the constant stimulation and social validation it provides. The constant flow of information and updates provided by social media platforms is intended to be engaging. 

People’s social media accounts might become a source of addiction due to their constant checking for new updates and conversations. Likes, comments, and shares are also commonplace on many social networking sites and serve as informal forms of peer validation.  

This can make people feel good, leading them to want to interact with and be liked by their online friends more.

2. Online gaming

a boy with glasses playing on his phone

Online gaming refers to video games played over the internet, frequently with people from all over the world. These games can be multiplayer, requiring collaboration or competition with others, or single-player experiences with internet components. 

From role-playing games (RPGs) and first-person shooters (FPS) to strategy and simulation games, online gaming covers a wide spectrum of genres.

There are more than one billion people who play online games worldwide, according to an article titled, “Online gaming – Statistics & Facts” from Statista. The online gaming market is for everyone – children, teens, and even adults participate. 

However, because they are generally designed to be immersive and engaging, with intriguing plots and rewarding achievements, aside from paving the way for internet addiction, these games can also become a source of online gaming addiction. The drive to advance in the game can lead to lengthy playtime sessions.

As participants aspire to better their skills and ranks, the competitive nature of online gaming can also be addictive. The pursuit of accomplishments and trophies can result in additional playtime.

3. Peer influence

The term peer influence describes the effect that one’s social circle has on one’s outlook, actions, and decisions. To conform, fit in, or earn social approval, people (especially teenagers and young adults) will often adopt the attitudes, preferences, and actions of their peers.

Teenagers and young adults often want to fit in and be liked by their peers. If people in an individual’s peer group use the internet too much or do harmful things online, they may feel like they have to follow suit to keep their friends.

Additionally, peer groups can actively encourage internet use for various purposes, such as entertainment, communication, or information-sharing. This encouragement can contribute to the development of internet addiction when taken to extremes.

4. Easy accessibility

Convenience and ready availability of the internet and online content are referred to as easy accessibility. It includes how simple it is for people to use a variety of devices, including computers, tablets, smartphones, and other linked gadgets, to access the internet. It may also allude to how easy it is to access the internet using mobile data networks or Wi-Fi.

Statistics on internet usage penetration in the United States from 2019 to 2028 from Statista reveals that internet penetration in the United States reached past 90% in 2021, and continues to increase. 

Easy accessibility can become a cause of internet addiction due to factors such as constant availability, low barrier to entry, and multiple devices. Individuals may find it difficult to disengage when the internet is available 24/7 from practically anyplace. The internet’s constant availability encourages prolonged use, which can lead to addiction.

Because of the low cost of internet connectivity and the extensive availability of low-cost devices, nearly everyone can get online. This ease of access may lead to an increase in the number of individuals engaged in online activities, raising the possibility of online dependency. 

Finally, the proliferation of smartphones, computers, tablets, and other linked devices means that people can access the internet in a variety of ways. People can stay connected to the internet at all times because of the availability of different devices.

5. Lack of supervision

boys sitting on a couch playing on phone

The absence of effective parental, guardian, or responsible adult control, direction, or monitoring over a person’s usage of the internet is known as lack of supervision. It suggests that the individual, who is frequently a child or adolescent, is not given the proper guidance or support when navigating their online activities.

Without supervision, someone may spend an excessive amount of time online, exploring various websites, apps, and social media platforms. Extended screen time increases the risk of developing addictive behaviors. 

Lack of supervision can also expose individuals to inappropriate or harmful online content, which they may be ill-equipped to handle or discern. This can lead to compulsive engagement with such content.

6. Fear of missing out (FOMO)

Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a psychological phenomenon characterized by a pervasive and often irrational fear that others are enjoying rewarding experiences, social interactions, or opportunities from which one is excluded. 

It is driven by the desire to stay constantly connected and updated, often through online platforms, to ensure that one does not miss out on exciting or significant events, news, or social connections.

FOMO can contribute to online addiction via a variety of factors, including compulsive checking and a desire for inclusion. Those suffering from FOMO may feel forced to check their social media feeds, emails, or messaging applications regularly in order to remain up to date on the newest news, events, or interactions. 

This frequent checking can result in an excessive amount of screen time. FOMO is motivated by a desire for social inclusion as well as a fear of being excluded. 

Because they want to be a part of every conversation and event, people may engage in online activities, chats, and social media interactions more frequently than necessary.

7. Boredom and lack of alternatives

Boredom is a state of restlessness or dissatisfaction arising from a lack of interest or engagement in one’s current activities or surroundings. It’s a subjective feeling of unfulfillment and a desire for stimulation or diversion. 

On the other hand, lack of alternatives refers to a situation where an individual perceives limited or unattractive options for activities or forms of entertainment. In this context, there may be few appealing alternatives to alleviate boredom.

Boredom and the perception of a lack of alternatives can become causes of internet addiction in many ways. For instance, when individuals experience boredom, they may turn to the internet as a readily available and convenient source of distraction. The internet offers a wide range of activities, including social media, gaming, streaming, and information browsing, which can quickly alleviate feelings of boredom.

Furthermore, a perceived lack of appealing offline options may cause individuals to prefer online activities to fill their time and eliminate boredom.

8. Escape from reality

child playing on the phone

Escape from reality refers to the psychological and emotional act of seeking refuge or distraction from the challenges, stressors, and demands of everyday life. It involves retreating into an alternate, often more pleasant, world to temporarily avoid or cope with the difficulties of the real world.

Even though escaping from reality through the internet is not inherently problematic, when it becomes the primary or exclusive means of coping with life’s challenges, it can have adverse consequences.

For instance, online entertainment, social media, and gaming provide instant gratification and reward. This immediacy can be highly appealing to those seeking a quick escape from their problems, making it easy to develop addictive behaviors.

Escape from reality through the internet can also lead to avoidance of real-world responsibilities, such as work, school, household chores, and interpersonal relationships. Individuals may prioritize online activities over their daily obligations.

9. Escapism and coping mechanism

The dictionary of psychology from the American Psychological Association defines escapism as the tendency to abandon reality for the pleasure or security of a fantasy universe. It frequently entails a desire to disengage from reality and seek refuge in alternate, generally more joyful and less stressful experiences, whether in one’s imagination or through external activities.

Alternatively, coping mechanisms are strategies or behaviors that individuals use to manage tension, emotional distress, or challenging situations. Healthy or unhealthy coping mechanisms serve as methods to deal with the challenges and emotions of daily life.

When people use online entertainment as an escape, like video games, streaming, or social networking, they run the risk of being addicted to the internet. These online hobbies might be especially alluring as a means of escaping from real-life challenges due to their vivid and enticing qualities.

Some individuals use the internet as a way to cope with emotional distress, such as anxiety or depression. Engaging in online activities can provide temporary relief from negative emotions, creating a cycle of dependence.

10. Rewards and reinforcements

Rewards and reinforcements are psychological concepts related to the positive outcomes or stimuli that individuals receive in response to their behaviors. They play a crucial role in shaping and reinforcing human actions.

In the context of problematic internet use, many online games offer rewards, such as points, virtual currency, power-ups, or digital items, to players who achieve certain goals or perform well. These rewards act as positive reinforcements, encouraging players to continue playing and striving for more.

Attention-grabbing content posted on social media platforms is also frequently rewarded in the form of likes, or comments. These can be highly reinforcing, encouraging users to post more frequently and pursue social approval.

Is internet addiction caused by mental illness?

children looking at the phone

No, internet addiction is not directly caused by mental illness. However, certain mental health problems have been linked to the development of this disorder. In fact, a 2020 study by Guo et al., published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research revealed that a lot of negative mental health outcomes were strongly linked to moderate and severe internet addiction. 

These included paranoid thoughts, psychoticism, suicidal thoughts, and even somatic symptoms, which are at the heart of many medical illnesses. Still, among many other things, the strongest link between internet addiction and clinically significant depression was seen in the study.

In another study that provided a brief summary of research and practice on internet addiction published in the November 2012 issue of Current Psychiatry Reviews, researchers note that some experts in the field consider internet addiction, not a disease or disorder by itself. 

Instead, they often recognize internet addiction as a symptom of an underlying mental illness that the patient has developed. Examples of such mental illnesses noted in the study include depression and anxiety, but may also extend to other conditions. 

What are common symptoms of internet addiction in children?

Symptoms of internet addiction in children refer to observable and often persistent behaviors and signs that indicate a child may be experiencing problematic or excessive internet use. The most common symptoms of internet addiction in children are listed below. 

  • Easily loses track of time: Children addicted to the internet often lose track of time while online. When immersed in online activities, they may become so engrossed that they lose awareness of how much time has passed. Several factors including engaging content, lack of external cues, and immediate gratification all contribute to this phenomenon.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: Negative emotional reactions include irritation, restlessness, and emotional distress when internet connection or activity is denied or restricted.
  • Sleep disturbances: Children who are addicted to the internet frequently have sleep difficulties as a result of their excessive online activity. Prolonged internet use may cause bedtimes to be ignored, resulting in insufficient sleep or difficulties falling asleep.
  • Neglect of responsibilities: Internet addiction can cause the virtual world to take precedence over important everyday duties and responsibilities. Children who grow preoccupied with online gaming, social media, or other internet-related activities may find it difficult to focus on homework, chores, and other commitments.
  • Decline in academic performance: Academic performance clearly declines, as evidenced by failing grades or an inability to concentrate on tasks owing to extensive internet use.
  • Lying about or hiding online activities: Keeping one’s online habits a secret, either by hiding how much time is spent on the computer or by lying about the internet-related activities one engages in.
  • Preoccupation with the internet: Throughout the day, the concept of getting online or accessing specific content might occupy a child’s mind, making it difficult for them to focus on other things.
  • Isolation: Individuals with internet addiction often spend excessive amounts of time online, to the detriment of face-to-face interactions with friends and family. They may isolate themselves physically, choosing the virtual world over real-life social engagement.
  • Failed attempts to cut back: Repeatedly trying and failing to reduce internet use, even when the child is aware of its negative impact on their life.

When does internet addiction in children occur?

mother and child watching phone

Internet addiction in children can occur at any time during a child’s development, but it is most often seen in preteens and teenagers. 

While there are few studies that address the precise age at which children get addicted to the internet, according to the book titled, “Internet addiction: “A handbook and guide to evaluation and treatment” by authors Kimberly S. Young and Cristiano Nabuco de Abreu published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., college students are most susceptible to developing an internet addiction, followed by children aged 8 to 18 years.

While internet addiction may be less common in very young children, it’s important for parents to monitor and guide their children’s screen time from an early age to establish healthy digital habits. Setting age-appropriate boundaries and providing guidance on internet use can help children develop responsible and balanced online behaviors.

What are the risk factors for internet addiction in children?

Risk factors for internet addiction in children refer to the various factors, conditions, or circumstances that increase the likelihood of children developing problematic internet use patterns. The most common risk factors for internet addiction in children are listed below. 

  • Age: Due to their increased internet access and propensity for independent online activity exploration, older children and teens are more vulnerable to developing an internet addiction.
  • Access to digital devices: Children who have easy access to smartphones, laptops, computers, and gaming consoles are capable of interacting extensively with the internet and digital content.
  • Family environment: Family dynamics and the presence of digital devices within the family can impact a child’s internet use. A lack of alternative offline activities or family members who excessively use the internet may contribute to the child’s internet addiction.
  • Impulsivity: Impulsivity is a psychological trait that has a positive correlation with internet addiction, according to a study by Chung et al., published in the December 2019 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Adolescents with high impulsivity and internet addiction have been the subject of several research; young individuals with internet gaming disorder have also shown this association.
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders: Children who are experiencing emotional challenges, such as depression or anxiety, may seek solace or escapism on the internet.

What are the treatments for internet addiction in children?

Treatments for internet addiction in children involve therapeutic interventions, methods, and techniques to address and manage problematic internet use. The treatments for internet addiction in children are listed below.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can be useful in assisting children  in recognizing and changing harmful internet use patterns. It assists them in identifying triggers and developing coping methods. In fact, a 2023 review of randomized trials on treatments for IA in children and adolescents published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that CBT is one of the most effective interventions for alleviating the symptoms of internet addiction, internet gaming disorder, and nonspecific internet use disorders.
  • Pharmacotherapy: The severity and symptoms of internet use disorder can be mitigated by antidepressants and psychostimulants for co-occurring mental health or developmental disorders, according to a 2017 study on the treatment and risk factors of internet use disorders published in Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.
  • Family counseling: Involving the entire family in counseling can help address family dynamics related to internet addiction. It can also promote open communication and establish healthy digital habits for everyone.
  • Preventive education: A 2017 review by Nakayama et al., published in Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences indicates that in certain nations, treatment centers for adolescents with internet use disorder (IUD) have been established, while preventive education for general adolescents has been delivered through lectures and group discussions. These endeavors have proven to be successful in diminishing the mean severity of IUD. 

How effective are treatments for internet addiction?

children looking at the phone

Treatments for internet addiction may be effective in addressing the condition, a few studies have found. For instance, a 2017 paper by Santos et al., published in MedicalExpress found that patients with internet addiction and anxiety showed reduced indicators of IA after ten sessions of psychotherapy and medications, demonstrating the protocol’s effectiveness. 

At the start of the treatment, the average internet use score was 67.8 ± 7.4, but it significantly improved to 37.7 ± 8.8, indicating a considerable improvement in internet addiction. The treatment group’s average anxiety level at the start of the program was 33.9 ± 7.6, indicating severe anxiety; at the end of the program, it was 15.0 ± 5.1, representing mild anxiety and a significant improvement. 

It is important to bear in mind, however, that treatments for internet addiction can still have varying degrees of success based on aspects such as the individual’s level of addiction, their motivation to change, and the nature of the interventions they undergo.

Internet addiction is a complex issue, and treatment outcomes can vary. Some individuals may make significant progress and recover fully, while others may continue to struggle with occasional relapses. The goal is to help individuals regain a healthy balance between their online and offline lives, and the effectiveness of treatment is often measured by the extent to which this balance is achieved.

What are helpful tips for the prevention of internet addiction in children?

The prevention of internet addiction in children may involve useful tips and tricks that parents, teachers, and other adults can use to deal with and lower the chances of kids having poor online habits. The most helpful tips for the prevention of internet addiction in children are listed below. 

  • Set screen time limits: Establish daily limits on the amount of time children are permitted to spend online. Prevent screen time from interfering with other obligations, including academic tasks and household duties.
  • Model healthy behavior: Be a role model for responsible technology use. Children often emulate the behavior of adults, so demonstrate balanced screen time habits.
  • Balance learning and leisure: While the internet is a valuable educational tool, ensure a balance between educational and leisure screen time. Monitor the quality of content and apps your child uses.
  • Establish a routine: Establish a daily routine that includes periods set aside for meals, homework, exercise, and leisure screen time. A routine offers balance and structure.
  • Educate about online risks: Instruct your child on the significance of safeguarding personal information and the potential risks associated with the internet, such as cyberbullying and online predators.
  • Encourage critical thinking: Teach your child to evaluate the information they come across online. Discuss the veracity of information and the possibility of disinformation.
  • Stay informed: Remain up-to-date on the most recent online trends and commonly used applications among children. This sheds light on their internet life and provides context.

How can parents protect their kids from internet addiction?

Parents can protect their kids from internet addiction by establishing tech-free zones, adopting parental controls, supporting offline activities, and maintaining open communication. 

First and foremost, creating tech-free zones within the home, such as bedrooms and the dining area, can help children disconnect from screens during specific times. This promotes face-to-face interactions and limits screen time.

Parental controls and monitoring software can also be utilized to establish age-appropriate content filters and trace a child’s online activities. Parents may use these functionalities to oversee and limit their child’s digital endeavors when deemed necessary.

Encouraging a variety of offline activities, such as sports, hobbies, and reading, provides stimulating alternatives to excessive screen time. Finally, open communication is key; parents should foster an environment where children can discuss their online experiences, concerns, and challenges. 

By using these strategies, parents can protect their kids from internet addiction while helping them make the most of the online world in a balanced and responsible manner.

What are the tips for parents to manage internet addiction in teens?

children with glasses playing on their phones

The tips for parents to manage internet addiction in teens include setting clear limits, teaching digital literacy, having an open line of communication, leading by example, and seeking professional help if needed. 

Setting clear limits on screen time can be highly effective in addressing teen internet addiction. These boundaries create structure and expectations around technology use, helping teens develop a healthier relationship with the internet. 

By defining when and for how long they can be online, parents establish limits that prevent excessive and addictive screen time. Teaching digital literacy is another one of the most helpful tips for parents to manage internet addiction in teens. Digital literacy comprises a wide variety of skills and knowledge linked to successfully and responsibly using digital technologies. 

Teens develop a better understanding of how to navigate the online world securely and ethically by learning about digital literacy. They learn about topics including online etiquette, privacy protection, critical thinking, and identifying disinformation.

Furthermore, maintaining an open line of communication fosters trust and allows parents or caregivers to understand their teen’s online experiences and concerns. It creates a safe space where teens can share their challenges, pressures, or any issues related to internet use without fear of judgment.

Modeling responsible technology use as a parent also plays a significant role in helping teens with their internet addiction. Adolescents often look to their parents as role models for behavior, including how to navigate the digital world. When parents demonstrate responsible and balanced technology use, it sends a powerful message to their teens about the importance of maintaining a healthy relationship with screens.

Lastly, helping teenagers overcome excessive internet use may require them to seek expert assistance. Due to its complexity, internet addiction may occasionally call for the assistance of mental health specialists, such as therapists, counselors, or addiction specialists. 

These specialists are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to evaluate the extent of the addiction, pinpoint any underlying psychological or emotional issues, and offer specialized treatment plans.

Is monitoring internet usage effective in reducing internet addiction?

Yes, monitoring internet usage can be an effective tool in reducing internet addiction, especially when applied thoughtfully and in conjunction with other strategies. By monitoring a teenager’s online activities, parents or caregivers can gain insights into the extent and nature of their internet use. 

This awareness is crucial in identifying warning signs of addiction and understanding the specific online behaviors that contribute to it. It allows for early intervention when necessary, such as when screen time exceeds healthy limits or when a teen engages in problematic online activities.

While monitoring is a valuable tool, It should still be done in a way that respects a teen’s privacy and fosters trust. The goal is not to invade a teen’s privacy but to provide support, guidance, and structure in order to reduce the risk of internet addiction and encourage responsible online behavior.