Can kids develop internet-use disorder?


For those who haven’t noticed or are gripped by denial, 2013 is irrevocably underway. By mid-February, there’s no more hiding behind the fantasy that it’s still summer holiday season. Workplaces are on full throttle and schools are in. For adults and children alike, spare time is again at a premium and homework, sport and after-school activities are conspiring to telescope down time. And just as I am lamenting the loss of my holiday pleasures, such as getting lost in literature, my kids are also mourning their favourite pastime.

Screen time.

All over the country, children are going cold turkey or suffering heavily restricted hours of iPods, iPads, computer games, X-box, Wii and DS. For many, the withdrawal from games such as Minecraft and Super Mario is excruciating; no less than an adult abstaining from their addiction to cigarettes, alcohol or chocolate.

And the battle is unrelenting. Excuse me as I suffer the latest attack …


My son and his friend are hassling me for my computer. It is Sunday afternoon - they were coaxed away with biscuits when I began ten sentences ago, but are now back. “Please, just a few minutes, I’ve got to finish something, I didn’t get a proper go’. They are on either side of me pleading, begging, cajoling and pestering.  

Ah, my bloke has intervened. They’ve gone. Where was I?

Most parents let their kids almost self regulate their screen time during the holidays.  I confess it got to the point in my house that boys would arrive at my doorstop with a hand-me-down laptop and a mumble of ‘hiwhat’syourwi-fipassword’. There’d be relative peace for hours as they played side by side, as their avatars met in ‘Minecraft’.  Yet it was always a borrowed peace, as ordering them off would trigger resistance, pleading, nagging and often compete meltdowns.  And that was just me.  One day I spent an hour with a child on my heels, pulling at my sleeve snuffling as fat tears slipped down his face. “Just one more hit, five more minutes. Pleeeeeaaaaase”.

I’m no anti-computer Luddite. It’s hypocritical to ban screen time when I spend much of my life online. As for TV, I watched an awful lot of it as a kid and still depend on a drip feed of certain shows (presently ‘Madmen’, ‘Girls’, ‘Q and A’ and even, God help me, ‘Survivor’).  And despite my early scepticism, I have come to appreciate that games can improve spatial intelligence, design skills, problem solving and hand-eye co-ordination.

I don’t even buy the ‘gaming is anti-social’ line. The interaction may not be eye-to-eye but it can build relationships, bind friendships and is vital social currency. It’s a brave parent who banishes their child to social death by denying them knowledge of Skylanders. Besides, many of these games are, simply, a hell of a lot of fun.

So there’s no problem, right? Oh, excuse me again, please …

I have now been hassled another four times for my computer, since I began writing. The plea has changed from ‘Minecraft’ to ‘Club Penguin’. What’s worse, every time I get up to get a drink or go to the loo I have had to shoo them off another screen.  Now they can’t think of anything to do.

‘Trampoline?’ ‘Too hot!’

‘Skateboard?’ ‘I’ve lost my helmet.’ 

‘Lego?’ ‘Too boring’. 

They are driving me nuts.

Some psychologists argue video game and internet-dependence share the characteristics of other addictions, including emotional shutdown, lack of concentration and withdrawal symptoms if the gadgets are removed.  The culprit, they argue, is dopamine; a brain chemical we produce when we see something that is new and stimulating or experience pleasure. We produce more when we drink alcohol, listen to music, have sex, or play a video game. We pump it out in a spurt if we have drugs such as cocaine. Research has shown it’s related to arousal, addiction and reward. Hence, kids become aggressive, irritable and hostile when screens are turned off.

My son is now screaming – hyped up and aggressive because he has been told he can’t get back on the Wii or the computer.  His friend is quietly sobbing ‘just one more game, one more game, please’. I can hear my partner starting to crack.

In recognition of threats posed by increasingly prevalent electronic devices, the bible for the psychiatric profession, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), will include internet-use disorder as a condition ''recommended for further study'' in its revised edition, the DSM-V, which will be issued in May.

The inclusion classifies internet-use disorder alongside other mental disorders that need further research before becoming a recognised mental illness. It seems an overreaction until you hear about the Taiwanese teenager who collapsed and died at an Internet café last year after playing the online video game Diablo 3 for 40 hours straight. There are now special clinics in Asia and Sydney for those addicted to video gaming. 

My 8 year old is now weeping as his father has announced he’s taking him for a swim. Sometimes the only way to get them away from the screen is to take them out, but the boys don’t want to go.  It also pains me to tell you that the girls are playing café and doing cartwheels. Ask many a parent and most will probably agree that boys seem more screen dependent than girls. Certainly use is higher.  

I don't want to spread fear and pathos. I have read lots of studies that make unproven claims about brain chemistry and the like that I have not included in this piece. Pathologising technology use is clearly stupid. We all are reliant upon our technology - parents and children alike.

I am also dubious about notions that ‘a proper childhood’ must take place outside. We actually have a Billy cart in our garage, a bit of bush close by and kids play cricket in our street for hours. I spent much of my childhood days in front of the idiot box and my kids have probably replaced my own blank-faced TV stare with far more interactive computer use.

I’m also cautious about new psychological disorders and concerned about over medicating our children.   It’s clear more research is warranted. 

Yet I know many parents are so worried they are banning TV, computers and gaming on weekdays, in term time, or even in holidays. When they tell me of such rules I look at them with a mixture of incredulity, jealousy, awe and guilt. I know I couldn’t manage and frankly I don’t want to. 

Yet I must now admit, my son has just come back from the local pool chlorine soaked, goggle marked and joyful.  He’s lost the strung out, surly attitude.  He has energy, enthusiasm and a bounce back. 

It is clear parents have to set their own parameters, and it’s a personal choice. I wish them well in the battle. The hours allowed on screens shouldn’t be judged or used as another form of parental guilt.   I know this is an area of concern, friction, fear and for myself, even some confusion.   I’ve decided to restrict combined screen time to an hour a day on weekdays and 2 hours on weekends. Well, I’m going to try anyway.  What about you?

I also have to admit that the swim has earned my boy the reward of some technology time. So I’ve got to go - he wants my computer.



  • "I know I couldn’t manage and frankly I don’t want to."
    You're the parent. You're the responsible one - the role model. Someone has to make the tough decisions and as a parent it's you. And sometimes that means your child will be unhappy for a time. But they'll be better adults and who knows - they may even thank you one day for teaching them a bit of self-control and resilience.

    Date and time
    February 19, 2013, 6:30AM
    • yep - vote 1+ for parents setting the ground rules - I see this all the time - parents who didn't want to say no early on to their kids later wondering why their kid refuses any of their 'sensible' suggestions.

      parents who set strict fair and reasonable guidelines to kids from an early age and keep to them - teach good habits - that you do some work to earn some pleasure - set up kids for great self-control, self-esteem and ability to define their own future.

      parents who give their kids whatever they want, and let them rule the roost, and then later complain - I gave them everything - why don't they respect me ? - hello - have simply dug themselves a hole of their own making - after you've trained your kid that you are a doormat, it's pretty hard to pick yourself up and say please respect me.

      kids need boundaries - and if you let them spend every waking hour attached to the internet - evidence suggests they tend to lose confidence in face to face interactions, become depressed, to say nothing of obesity, diabetes from inactivity and junk food diets and dropping dead after 30 hours of gaming.

      Date and time
      February 19, 2013, 10:36AM
  • Thank you! This article resonated with me as I'm despairing of my kids' technology addiction and struggling to put limits back in place after the school holidays. My oldest son doesn't know how to entertain himself without technology. As soon as it's gone his favourite sport is to aggravate his brothers - which in turn aggravates me so within five minutes of saying 'no more technology this morning' we are all yelling at each other!

    I also found it refreshing that you described your own childhood spent in front of the TV. I'm so tired of commentators who say 'remember the good old days when kids played outside all day. Kids don't walk to school anymore or ride their bikes or play cricket in the street'. In my neighbourhood that stuff all still happens. And yes, computer games can be very social and creative and imaginative (Minecraft is all of the above). I just wish my kids didn't want to spend every waking moment in front of the computer.

    Date and time
    February 19, 2013, 9:40AM
    • I struggle when issues as new as Problematic Internet Use (PIU) are addressed so superficially with broad brushstrokes like this. Where DSM-IV is demonised, and everyone freaks out like a bunch of Scientologists at a UFO conference that a whole generation will be medicated.

      The point here is that aspects of internet technology (certain games and features of social networking ARE IS THE DRUG acting on young brains. Wiring them for the dopamine triggers and floods. Believe that or not, most research on neurochems is pretty clear.

      No matter how much you'd like to justify you own tech usage and popular culture consumption, and even your parenting choices - for some people their use of technology will become so problematic it will negatively impact their life. It might not be many - but any is enough to take a closer look at - something that the APA (authors of the DSM) along with a range of researchers world wide will doing....

      That's not to say games and gameful design isn't super awesome and that Hannah Horvarth isn't the voice of a generation... :)

      Date and time
      February 19, 2013, 10:03AM
      • Ok, so does anyone have any suggestions on what else 13 year old boys might want to do? Lets say he has done his homework quickly, walked the dog, his room is tidy. There are still 4 hours or more, left till bed time. All his friends are home on their computers, trying to get him to join the group Skype and online game. This is what they do, every day, until kicked off. If I kick him off the screen, then what else is there to do? Suggestions, please! He has apparently grown out of Lego. He reads, but not that much. It's innercity, not really safe to send him outside alone! A bored, screen deprived teenager is really not pleasant to live with, but he is always open to good ideas of other things to do....

        Mum of screen addict
        Date and time
        February 19, 2013, 10:28AM
        • Investigate the 'serious games movement' - there are a range of games which kids can access win which they contribute to solving larger world problems without it being dorky/lame/obviously educational! Gaming and tech use per se isnt so problematic as some of the design principles which 'hook' kids in reward loops (and without grounding in any form of 'reality' - however you define that!). :)

          Date and time
          February 19, 2013, 11:16AM
        • Our 12 year old loves the computer too and we have some fairly strict time limits otherwise he'd be on it all day. Because there are set limits (1/2 an hour on weekdays, 1 hour a day on weekends) he knows once the time is used up there is no point in complaining - it is what it is!

          When not on the computer he fills his time reading, playing around on his guitar, practising his ball skills for football and basketball and helping prepare dinner. In the past we have done things like see how many things he could make from the Dangerous Book for Boys, show me a kid that doesn't like making a sling shot or doing target practise with spitballs.

          As for the claim in the article about it being too hot for the trampoline, what about letting the kids put on their bathers and squirt them with the hose here and there or the kids could fill balloons with water and then jump around until the balloons break.

          A great trick I learnt from my Mum - if the kids say they are bored I tell them that there is always stuff that needs to be done around the house like raking up the leaves or sorting the laundry - it's amazing how they can find something to do if the alternative is housework!

          If it all sounds a little too perfect believe me it's not! There is still plenty of time in the day to fill and I do let the kids watch an hour of TV a day on top of their computer time.

          Screen time
          Date and time
          February 19, 2013, 1:34PM
      • As one alternative to screen time, how about the Scouts once a week. My 10 yo boy loves Cub Scouts along with the other 23 in the pack (with another 20 waiting to join). Great opportunity to learn outside school and get involved with new activities including camping at the weekend. I agree it is not easy managing screen time - the issue I have is that interactive games make other activities (eg reading a book) seem boring in comparison.

        Date and time
        February 19, 2013, 10:44AM
        • It's a hard thing to manage. Our computer is in the family room, and during the school week, our aim is to allow two half hour sessions of screen time (tv, computer, etc), providing that school work (homework and assignments), music practice, outdoor time, home reading, chores and general household assistance are completed before bedtime. I have tried to explain that screen time is not a 'right' and needs to be the first thing to go if it doesn't all fit in. But unless I monitor screen time with a timer, it always goes over, and later they are upset if they want to watch TV after an hour of computer games. If I am out, or other wise occupied, their whole afternoon can be spent in front of a screen. And having two kids makes it harder, as they want to do their 'own' thing, but then watch the other too, and argue that that time should not count. I am getting to a point where I want to unplug the computers on school days.

          Date and time
          February 19, 2013, 1:20PM
          • I am also having trouble with the same issue.
            I have had my parenting on this issue challenged recently after reading this article in Newsweek article about technology use and mental illness.
            This article is a collection of all the evidence based research on the topic and the after reading this article it may challenge your views on this topic.
            Sarah Macdonald, I would be really interested in hearing your views on this subject after reading this article and I urge your readers to spare 5 mins to read it.
            I suffer the same frustrations as you, in fact his week I've unplugged my whole household because the tech is OUT OF CONTROL!
            Since reading the NEWSWEEK article I have come to feel that this is a much more serious issue than I previously thought. With skyrocketing rates of mental illness in young people even in my own family with no history of mental illness, I've realized I need to step up and be the parent and take a stand.
            We have also recently withdrawn our 11 year old from a school which provided a laptop to all of year 6 children with parental filters only in place during school hours. The amount of pornography and violence that group children took in over that period was breathtaking. When we complained to the private school our son was attending they informed us that the power of the internet is too strong & you can't fight it. We shifted schools.
            I've realized most young children will be exposed to literally thousands of sexual images before they have their fist sexual feeling.
            If the NEWSWEEK article is anything to go by the whole tech and children issue may be much damaging to kids development than current wisdom suggests.

            Date and time
            February 19, 2013, 2:16PM

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