In China, two Chongqing students who had been playing online for 2 consecutive days fainted on the train tracks. Their level of exhaustion was such that they did not hear the sound of the train as it approached. They lost their lives. Although their case is extreme, addiction to the Internet and social networks in adolescents and young people is a serious problem that must be addressed.
A study conducted in the Netherlands indicated that 3.7% of young people could be addicted to the Internet. In the United States, this figure rises to 4%, in China it reaches 8% and in Spain it is around 3.5%. Without a doubt, the Internet and social networks are excellent tools, but they can also produce some unwanted side effects, especially in the most vulnerable. In fact, the impact of social networks on the mental health of adolescents and young people is increasing, so it is essential to pay attention to it.
Young people online: More vulnerable to addiction?
Adolescence and youth are a particularly sensitive stage of development in which the search for identity and the need to belong to a group come together. The peculiarities of this vital period increase the risk of suffering emotional crises, often accompanied by mood swings and periods of confusion and disorientation.
Many adolescents and young people try to combat this emotional discomfort by closing in on themselves and developing addictive behaviors, which become an escape route for situations that they do not know how to manage. For that reason, they are extraordinarily vulnerable.
When feeling lonely and disoriented, they may be drawn to the Internet and social media, which are presented as a “liberating solution” that gives them the ability to connect with others maintaining some anonymity while making them feel like they belong to a group that welcomes and accepts them.
As time goes by, young people and adolescents may be increasingly tempted to escape into this digital world, where they have more control over their virtual identities and can create their ideal personas. Internet and social networks thus become a way to evade their problems in the real world. That can become highly addictive.
In fact, it has been appreciated that low self-esteem, depression, emotional instability and hostility are risk factors for developing an addiction to the Internet and social networks. Poor impulse control, such as that experienced by many adolescents and young people due to underdeveloped areas of the brain, exacerbates this problem as they don’t know when it’s time to tune out. It is no coincidence that a study conducted by neuroscientists at the University of Melbourne, found that adolescents with Internet addiction have decreased functional brain connectivity.
The terrible consequences of addiction to the Internet and social networks
The Internet and social networks can be great tools, but they can also become a black hole that captures the attention of adolescents and young people, causing them to practically disconnect from the world around them, which seems increasingly boring and unsatisfying to them. Some of the main consequences of addiction to the Internet and social networks are:
• Social isolation
One of the main dangers of the Internet is precisely the loss of contact with reality, since adolescents and young people spend more and more time in the virtual world. This leads them to lose the affective bond with the closest people, such as family, friends and schoolmates. They are connected, but alone, as they lose trust in their inner circle and weaken the support networks essential to help them navigate this difficult stage in their lives.
Addiction to Internet and social networks is closely linked to FOMO, which is the fear of missing out on something when you are not connected. The exchange of photos, videos and news becomes a virtually endless stream of experiences that generate the compulsive need to stay connected to not miss anything and react quickly. This generates a feeling of constant internal tension that can end up becoming an anxiety disorder.
• Sudden mood swings
Addictions are often a maladaptive strategy to escape unpleasant emotions. When adolescents or young people are connected they feel happy or euphoric, but when they have to disconnect, sadness, irritation or even anger ensues. They soon become reliant on the Internet to feel optimistic, accepted, and listened to, so their emotional states begin to fluctuate more and more depending on the daily dose of online activity.
Addiction to the Internet, and especially to social networks, contains also the seeds of depression. The often unrealistic images that youth and adolescents encounter on social media, can lead them to compare themselves to others and feel disadvantaged, fueling a state of dissatisfaction and despair. It is no coincidence that using social media for more than two hours a day has been associated with poor mental health, increased levels of psychological distress, and even suicidal ideation, a phenomenon that has been labeled “Facebook blues.”
• Sleep deprivation
Many adolescents and young people do not leave their cell phones throughout the day, not even at night. In fact, one in five wake up in the middle of the night to check social media messages. However, blue light from screens interferes and blocks the natural processes that trigger feelings of sleepiness, as well as the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Since sleep is particularly important in these stages of development, a lack of it not only generates daytime fatigue, irritation and bad mood, but can worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as affect the ability to self-control, for which will further aggravate the addiction.
• Low academic performance
Adolescents and young people use the Internet, among other things, to search for information and do homework and school projects. However, those who suffer from addiction tend to spend a large part of their time online playing games, surfing the Internet and checking social networks. As a result, these activities take up more and more time, pushing school obligations into the background. By neglecting to study, the academic performance of these young people and adolescents plummets, which can seriously compromise their professional future.
How can parents help? Treatment for internet addiction
It is important that parents are aware that addiction to the Internet and social networks is a mental disorder that should not be underestimated. Many of the adolescents and young people who suffer from addiction, need psychological help to recognize that they have a problem and to be able to disengage from the Internet.
The main objective of treatment for Internet addiction is to ensure that young people and adolescents diversify their leisure activities and resume their usual activities, so that they make responsible use of social networks and the Internet. It is intended that they understand the consequences of their addictive behavior and develop new self-care habits that break the vicious cycle of addiction. They are also taught to assertively manage their emotions, and are given tools so that the Internet stops being the center of their life and they can learn to enjoy other activities that promote balance and improve their mental health.
Throughout this process, parents are essential as their unconditional love and support will greatly help their children to overcome addiction. Applying digital hygiene rules at home, following healthy lifestyle habits and spending quality time together creating positive experiences, will help adolescents and young people to understand that there is life beyond the Internet and social networks.
Karacic, S. & Oreskovic, S. (2017) Internet Addiction Through the Phase of Adolescence: A Questionnaire Study. JMIR Ment Health; 4(2): e11.
Wallace, P. (2014) Internet addiction disorder and youth. EMBO Reports; 15(1): 12–16.
Kuss, D. J. et. Al. (2013) Internet addiction in adolescents: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior; 29(5): 1987-1996.
Hong, S. et. Al. (2013) Decreased functional brain connectivity in adolescents with internet. PLoS One; 8(2): e57831.