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Web Junkie shows the terrifying reality of teenage internet addiction

I know, I know… PBS… yawn. Especially if you had a long day of dealing with your teenagers, the last thing you probably want to do is spend your downtime watching a documentary about them. But yes, unequivocally yes, you do.

As part of its POV series, PBS aired Web Junkie, a troubling look into the world of teenage internet addiction. The hour-long film is shot in China at one of 400 boot camps set up by the government to help families navigate what China is now considering “a clinical disorder.” In fact, China calls internet addiction “the number one public health threat to its teenage population.”

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You’re probably saying to yourself, “That’s China, not the U.S,” and while it’s true that they likely have cultural issues that play a role in Chinese teenagers’ leaning more heavily on the internet, the film points out that this issue is hardly China’s alone. In fact, a 2010 Kaiser study found that the average American teenager, aged 11 to 18, consumes more than 11 hours of media per day. In the documentary, one boy says he was online playing games, in chat rooms and on the internet for 15 hours per day. One of the featured teens, 16-year-old Nicky, says that he played World of Warcraft 10 hours a day. His mother called it “an abyss that has swallowed my son.”

It’s important to understand that much of what goes on in Web Junkie is the usual teen angst, and if it were 40 years ago, we’d be talking about marijuana addiction or asking why there are so many runaways. This sort of parent-teen conflict is as old as time itself. What makes this so-called “addiction” worse is that we need to use a computer daily, like at work or for healthy communication. So it isn’t like alcohol or drug addiction, where you just can eschew the intoxicant. We live in a society in which we can’t just stop using technology.

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So how do you know if your kid is just blowing off steam, using technology in a healthy and/or recreational way, or if his time online is becoming a crisis? According to Web Junkie, loneliness and isolation are the main predictors. And like any addiction, it can feed itself. Nicky says he feels lonely, so he goes online and finds another lonely person on the other side, which makes him feel less lonely. Yet Professor Tao, the neurologist in the documentary, tasked with treating children with addiction issues, says that in these particular cases, the social part of their brain has stopped developing from too many hours immersed in technology. In other words, being online too much can change the part of a developing brain that helps navigate social situations, so you escape into the internet to avoid social situations, and thus begins the cycle.

While China has determined that internet dependency has moved from a disorder to an illness, the American Psychological Association says, “No research has yet established that there is a disorder of internet addiction.” 

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However, experts say there are six major red flags to look for that can help you determine if your teen is a tech addict. (Interestingly, these mirror other addictions as well):

1. Lying about how many hours they spend online.

2. Sneaking time to get on the internet or to text.

3. Choosing technology over activities they once enjoyed.

4. Skipping meals or missing sleep.

5. Your teen has tried to stop but can’t.

6. Your teen has fewer and fewer friends in the real world and may even begin to feel isolated and lonely.

For younger children, the American Academy of Pediatrics is clear: Children under the age of 2 should use zero hours of technology. Zero. Any usage has been shown to cause major developmental problems, such as a delay in learning as well as a delay in language and vocabulary development. For kids over the age of 2, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 1 to 2 hours a day maximum.

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