Some children and teens are more likely than their peers to become addicted to the Internet, and a new study suggests it's more likely to happen if kids are depressed, hostile, or have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or social phobia.
Although an Internet addiction is not an official diagnosis, signs of a potential problem include using the Internet so much for game playing or other purposes that it interferes with everyday life and decision-making ability. (The diagnosis is being considered for the 2012 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the "bible" of mental ailments published by the American Psychiatric Association).
Past research suggests that 1.4 percent to 17.9 percent of adolescents are addicted to the Internet, with percentages higher in Eastern nations than in Western nations, according to the study published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
Definitions vary, but an Internet addiction usually includes symptoms such as spending a lot of time on the Internet (especially more time than intended), an inability to cut back on usage, a preoccupation with online activities, and symptoms of withdrawal such as anxiety, boredom, or irritability after a few days of not going online.
Boys were at a higher risk of Internet addiction than girls, and those who used the Internet for more than 20 hours a week, every day, or for online gaming, were at higher risk as well.
Michael Gilbert, a senior fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, says the findings were no surprise.
"The study's indication that children who are hyperactive or diagnosed ADHD are finding an outlet on the Web makes such perfect sense," he says, because those children crave the constant stimulation of fast-paced video games and interactive social networks.
If at-risk children -- such as those identified in the Taiwanese study -- are given sufficient time and exposure without careful monitoring, Internet addiction could easily become one of the most chronic childhood diseases in America, says Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development, in Seattle.
Since adolescents cannot easily avoid computers, treatment for addiction cannot simply involve abstaining from the Internet, says Christakis. Parents, educators, and medical professionals need to identify high-risk children early on and monitor their Internet usage to prevent problem behavior from forming.
Time on the Internet needs to be monitored as well, especially for children who may be at high risk for addiction because of depression, ADHD, or social problems, says Christakis.