Risky Internet Use: At What Point Should Parents Worry?

A New Scale Can Help Parents Set Limits

Posted May 12, 2014

The Eternal Battle Over the "Net"

It’s a rare parent these days who does not worry at times about just how much time their son or daughter spends on the Internet. While a few brave souls might opt to eliminate the problem by eliminating the “net” altogether from their family’s life, the overwhelming majority of those I know can attest to the ongoing tug of war over “how much is too much”? when it comes to time spent gaming, texting, You-Tubing, and so on.

Thus far parents turning to one another for solace or advice has yielded little more than personal opinion. Speaking as a father, the closest I can come to identifying a yardstick to guide the limits my wife and I have set has to do with how much time I was allowed to spend watching cartoons and reading comic books as a child. Yet even that it seems at times like a strained analogy, since it’s clear to me that while my childhood activity was pure escapism, what my kids derive from the Internet is only part that. They are, I know, also learning what appear to me to be valuable skills, as attested to by the YouTube videos and complex PowerPoint presentations that my 12 year old son routinely produces, but which are clearly outside my realm of ability. So what’s a parent to do?

The Problematic and Risky Internet Use Screening Scale (PRIUSS)

To the rescue—or at least a decent attempt at a rescue—comes a team of researchers from the Universities of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Washington, who just published an article describing a screening tool aimed at helping parents (and individuals who spend a lot of time on the Net) to decide exactly where to draw the line between fun and dysfunction (Computers in Human Behavior, vol 35, pp. 171-178, 2014). This instrument, which they thankfully use the acronym PRIUSS for, was developed through the cooperation of a pool of 714 university students between the ages of 18 and 25 drawn from seven diverse university courses in subjects including journalism, mass communications, biology, education, nursing, public health, and (or course) computer science.

The researchers identified three areas where they believed excessive Internet use could create problems:

  • Social Impairment: Problems with face-to-face communication; failing to pursue real-life relationships, skipping social events.

  • Emotional Impairment: Being anxious, angry, or irritable when away from the Internet; experiencing feelings of “withdrawal” when away from the Internet.

  • Risky/Impulsive Internet Use: Internet use interfering with school performance; losing sleep due to Internet use; loss of interest in non-Internet activities.

The pool of participants reported using the Internet an average of 17 times a day. They then rated a large collection of statements about Internet use on a scale of 1 (not a problem) to 7 (very much a problem). These statements reflected the three dimensions defined above.  Statistical analyses were then utilized to pare down the larger list of statements to a total of 18 questions that are divided among the three problem areas.

To take the PRIUSS the individual responds to each question on a scale of 0 (Never) to 4 (Very Often). Here is a sampling of the questions:

  • Do you choose to socialize online instead of in person?

  • Do you fail to create real-life relationships because of the Internet?

  • Do you skip out on social events to spend time online?

  • Do you feel irritated when you’re not able to use the Internet?

  • Do you put Internet use in front of important, everyday activities?

  • Do you lose motivation to do other things that need to get done because of the Internet?

  • Do you lose sleep due to nighttime Internet use?

  • Does time on the Internet negatively affect your school performance?

Readers who wish to access the entire PRIUSS can refer to the referenced article. It provides the average score for the PRIUSS along with statistics that indicate “abnormal” (significantly higher than average) scores.  As a parent, though it’s also possible to complete the entire PRIUSS (or even the above subset of questions) as they apply to your child or teen. It’s a safe bet that scores of 3 or 4 on four or more questions point to a problem.

What To Do?

Rather than arguing from a perspective of personal opinion, parents can use the PRIUSS as a point of departure for not just a one-time discussion but an ongoing dialogue about their child’s Internet use. That dialogue will be a rational one, based on concrete, observable behaviors.  Though the battle will no doubt continue, at least we parents now have some "objective truth"on our side. As such it can help us in  setting limits we feel more objectively confident about.

@ 2014 by Joseph Nowinski, PhD.

Dr. Joe Nowinski is author of Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder.