In my work with children and adolescents, I have seen a growing number of kids drifting into excessive absorption in the Internet. Though this behavior is not usually the primary reason for their first coming to see me, it soon surfaces as a nettling and contentious one. Addressing it is often pivotal in any clinical progress, so how should we view this problem in a broader clinical perspective?
Kids overly immersed in the Internet begin to have difficulty living without it. The Internet becomes a kind of friend or conduit to friendship elsewhere, or a way of fleeing from themselves and their inner pain. They drift into heavy-duty game playing and Internet fixation for a cluster of reasons related to depression, anger, awkwardness, and anxiety. Essentially, the Internet becomes a hideout from the difficulties of life. Since it seems to offer solace or balm from their distress, some kids flee from their social and familial realities through the portal of the Internet, hoping to “live” in that alternative universe. In so doing, they run the risk of truly getting lost in it, only heightening their social isolation.
Still other children are drawn by their peer groups into the Internet. In fact, some actually find their peer groups on the Internet itself, via chat rooms or Facebook, or while immersed in games with multiple players—games they’ve either retrieved directly from the web or purchased at video stores. Such games can become the hub of their social lives. Many of their so-called “friends” they only know through these games. Some “friends” live on other continents entirely, or in very different time zones. They begin to play the games night and day, but whether in groups or alone, they become ensconced in their bedrooms, playing compulsively.
Regardless of the underlying causes of these phenomena, we can say that the web now serves for some kids as a very new outlet for responding to the angst of adolescence—newer than drugs, alcohol, overeating, sex, or risk-taking. So the problem is one buried in a social and psychological web of much complexity. But when other parts of the young person’s life, like family connection, sports, or academic work start to fall by the wayside, we can say we face a serious problem.
Dr. George Drinka is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author ofThe Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians (Simon & Schuster). His new book, When the Media Is the Parent, is a culmination of his work with children, his scholarly study of works on the media and American cultural history, and his dedication to writing stories that reveal the humanity in us all.