Teens, Computer Addiction and Mental Health
Is a teen who spends every waking moment on the computer “addicted?” Computer addiction is a worry expressed by parents, debated in the media and sometimes brought to Dan Becker, M.D., an experienced adolescent psychiatrist and medical director of Mills-Peninsula’s Behavioral Health Services programs.
Everyone agrees there are legitimate concerns about what – and whom – teens might access through the internet, but excessive use may be more an indication of other problems than computer addiction in and of itself, Dr. Becker says.
- Changing Perspectives on Electronic Media
- Understanding the ‘New Normal’
- How Much Electronic Media Is Too Much?
- Setting Healthy Limits to Avoid Internet Addiction
Changing Perspectives on Electronic Media
“Part of what is unsettling is that so much is changing so quickly in how people behave in our culture. We haven’t had enough time to see what happens later in life to kids who spend extensive time with electronic media.
We aren’t going to know whether there will be negative long-term effects until these kids have their own kids,” he says.
“Meanwhile, we can’t pretend youngsters won’t use these tools,” he notes. “They are neutral, not good or bad. Think about cars. Learning to drive is almost indispensable today, but cars can also be misused.”
Back to top
Understanding the ‘New Normal’
“Extensive use of electronic media is a relatively new behavior among kids, and all new behaviors can be unsettling to parents. We should remember that what was considered normal behavior 10 years ago doesn’t necessarily apply today,” Dr. Becker says.
For instance, “Today, kids use computers to do their homework and learn new skills. That’s good,” he says. Even computer games can be beneficial within limits. “Fantasy is an important part of growing up. But if you spend every waking minute escaping from reality, it’s taking up too much of your life.”
The pre-electronics parallel to on-line relationships might be pen pals, he says. “In my day, many kids wrote letters and had friendships with people all over the world whom we would never meet.
That was great, but we also needed to spend time with the kids next door to learn important social skills. There’s a lot to be said for having face-to-face friends. It’s a different level of relationship.”
Back to top
How Much Electronic Media Is Too Much?
“Kids who spend hours from after school to midnight or later in front of the TV or computer are hurting themselves in a number of ways,” Dr. Becker says. “They are narrowing their range of activities and limiting the social involvement we need to build self esteem.
“Children benefit from a variety of opportunities and experiences growing up. We don’t want them obsessed with only one thing – whether it’s math or basketball or electronic media. “Our task is to help kids use information technology tools in a helpful, productive way,” he explains.
His #1 tip for parents is to be aware of what your child is doing on line, and when.
“We know that at the extreme there are real dangers,” Dr. Becker says. “Kids can be drawn into unhealthy behaviors or on-line relationships. Social media also have taken bullying to a new level. Instead of taunting a peer on the school yard, now you can be a bully on Facebook and get many more people involved.”
Back to top
Setting Healthy Limits to Avoid Internet Addiction
As with all good parenting, he says the key to helping youngsters manage overwhelming electronic opportunities is basic communication.
“There is a limit to how much we can control, but try to be aware of what your kids are doing online,” Dr. Becker says. “Have an open conversation. If it’s clear they can’t set healthy limits on their own, help them, and enforce time boundaries to avoid internet addiction.”
“If pragmatic interventions don’t help, parents might need to consider whether there are other underlying problems,” he says.
“By the time a teen gets to me, we often find that obsessive internet use and internet addiction is just a coping mechanism for other developmental issues such as inadequate social skills or diminished self-esteem,” he says.
“That can have a snowballing effect. The coping mechanism further stunts social development and becomes a problem itself. Time limits aren’t the solution for these kids. They need help with the underlying issues.”
He advises parents: “If you are really concerned that your child is excessively involved with electronics, talk to your pediatrician. Pediatricians see so many kids. They have a very good sense of what’s developmentally acceptable in our world today. They understand the “new normal.”
Back to top
Contact Us:To Schedule an Appointment:
8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Mills Health Center
100 S. San Mateo Drive
San Mateo, CA 94401
Google Map to Mills Health Center
For Psychiatric Emergency Services:
Mills-Peninsula Medical Center
1501 Trousdale Drive
Burlingame, CA 94010
Google Map to Medical Center