How to Combat Your Child’s Internet Addiction

Internet addiction—like any other addiction—can take away positive aspects of your child’s life. Much like any substance or process addiction, the internet can “hijack” the brain’s reward centers, release dopamine, and set up addiction potential. However, unlike other addictions, your child will most likely need to utilize the internet as a resource throughout their life. Nearly everything that we do know involves screens, cell phones, apps, or the internet. As our kids have utilized apps like Zoom to stay connected to friends or continue their schooling during the COVID-19 lockdowns, we need to accept that this technology will continue to shape the world to come. Some industries may integrate more of these video platforms for remote work even after the pandemic is behind us. You can help your child establish a healthy relationship with the internet to ensure future success.

Addiction 101: The Basics of All Addictions

Dr. David Greenfield discusses internet addiction with Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey during the podcast, “Internet Addiction” on “Beyond Risk and Back.” Dr. Greenfield explains that the brain doesn’t notice the difference between addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, food, or the internet. The brain merely recognizes the release of dopamine, one of the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals. The limbic system or the “old brain” controls our emotions and reward system. The “old brain” regulates our primary survival responses. It does not have the same kind of higher-order thought processes as our cortex and follows the logic that “if something feels good, I’ll keep doing it.” Therefore, this part of the brain rationalizes addiction because it is “hijacked” into believing the behavior will help us survive.

The old brain’s reward system ultimately helps us survive. This reward system reinforces the basic behaviors critical to our survival by making us feel good when engaging in behaviors like eating or having sex. Due to the varying degree of stimulation available on the internet, from video games and social media to pornography and other videos, we can gain these rewards with little to no effort. The internet further complicates this reward system with its inconsistency. We might check our Facebook account and have several “likes” one minute but then get no attention from anyone the next minute. The possibility of a high-reward without a guarantee ensures that we check over and over. This is known as “variable-ratio reinforcement,” which contributes to the internet’s capacity to be highly addictive.

Developing a Healthy Relationship with Screens

We can help our kids develop healthy relationships with their screens and the internet. Our kids might rely on us to guide them or set the example. If you suspect that your child is addicted to the internet, you might notice some of these signs:

  • Self-isolating to be alone with their devices
  • Not engaging in activities to spend more and more time on screens
  • Loss of interests in other engagements
  • Lower grades in school due to sacrificing schoolwork to go online 
  • Irritability, tantrums, and other signs of withdrawal when faced with limitations

You can help your child develop a healthy relationship with technology and the internet by doing some of the following:

  • Turn your wifi connection off at a specific time. You might make a household rule that the internet is available only from 5 pm to 9 pm each day, or adjust accordingly depending upon your household needs.
  • Avoid having screens in your child’s bedroom. By not having a television or computer in their bedrooms, teens cannot easily isolate themselves while using the internet.
  • Collect phones and devices at bedtime. This rule goes along with keeping screens out of bedrooms; however, maybe your child needs their laptop for school work. You might want to consider collecting these devices at a particular time of the evening.
  • Allow no devices or phones to be out during dinners or other family activities. Again, you may want to “collect” everyone’s device before the meal or activity.
  • Set the example for your child. If you are asking your kids not to have their phones at the dining table, you might need to adapt your behavior as well. Perhaps if you expect a work call from a particular client or co-worker, put your phone on “do not disturb” with only those essential numbers allowed to set your phone’s ringer. Then place the phone someplace out of your access but within earshot. 

Your child will need to develop a healthy relationship with the internet and other devices for success in the world to come. You can help them develop this relationship by setting an example and using proactive strategies for success!

The internet, screens, and other devices are here to stay, and their use will likely become more widespread as our children grow older. Unfortunately, these devices can provide ease of access to addictive or unhealthy forms of entertainment. Our brains reinforce our behaviors by the reward system in our limbic system. This system rationalizes that if something feels good, we should continue engaging in more and more of that behavior. The internet can hijack this system by easily providing one dopamine “hit” after another when we find satisfaction in Facebook likes or video games. Our brains do not differentiate between forms of addiction. Despite the necessity of the internet in our lives, the addicted brain does not distinguish between the things we need and harmful activities. We might need to teach our kids to develop a healthy relationship with the internet. For more tips, call Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center at (303) 443-3343.

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