Digital Dependence and Internet Addiction

Does managing screen time in your house turn into shouting, crying and slamming doors?

Does a family member feel anxious and irritable when their phone is not in their pocket, backpack, purse or being handheld?

During family dinners, is there always a cell phone present on the table? And, does someone always feel compelled to quickly glance at something on the phone?

Does a loved one respond with rudeness and irritability, when they are asked to turn off the digital device.

In some homes, managing screen time is the source of much stress and tension. I always ask parents, “You may be right, but are you effective? The intensity of the struggles, the fights, and the rifts within the family can be stressful.

The Internet. It’s a world at our fingertips that most of us can’t live without – complete with friends, music, videos, games, shopping, and an abundance of information. We can access it all without ever leaving our desks, cars, chairs, or even our beds. But increasingly, it is becoming harder to digitally disconnect.

Yet, this constant use of our digital devices has become normalized. The toddler tinkering with a tablet, the teen hiding in their bedroom tethered to a computer and to the adult buried in their phone during professional and social engagements are all examples of “commonplace digital device use”.

One of the most common concerns I hear from families is how they feel stressed around setting screen time limits for video games or digital device use and trying to understand if there are other underlying issues that digital device use is masking.

Like addiction to drugs and alcohol, the Internet offers children, adolescents, teenagers and adults a way to escape painful feelings or troubling situations. They sacrifice needed hours of sleep to spend time online and withdraw from family and friends to escape into a comfortable cyber world that is an alternative reality to Planet Earth.

Without a doubt, much of what children learn about digital device use starts at home. Parents and primary caregivers innocently hand over a cell phone, tablet or gaming console to a child without thinking of the consequences. What happens when a parent quickly learns that a child prefers to spend all their time online and doesn’t learn to read or play with other children? Parents are essential in helping children form healthy and positive Internet behaviors. Yet, parent beware, your children are watching you.

All family members need to look at their own Internet use and model healthy appropriate behavior. If you are always online and using your mobile devices, a family member will think this is family activity as usual.

2. They do not go to bed when they normally would and appear exhausted in the morning.

Here are some behavioral indications that Digital Device Dependence or Internet Addiction may be a family struggle and professional mental health counseling can help with:

1. Internet usage interferes with your family members normal everyday activities such as getting ready for school or work, attending to family meals or attending family activities such as sporting practices, church or family events.

3. They sneak online or lie about the extent of Internet use.

3. They can’t focus on a task long enough to finish an assignment without logging on to the computer or tablet for recreational use (e.g., social media, gaming).

4. If you try to cut down their Internet time, they become belligerent and abnormally irritated or violent.

5. The family member has lost any interest in things that used to excite they, such as hanging out with friends or family, playing in sports or a hobby, or attending work, school or important events.

The World Wide Web and the digital devices that we use to travel the cyber highway, will be a part of our culture for generations. Let’s get positive about using technology and engage your family in a positive way. Both children and adults really do want to do the right thing, they just don’t always know how. It’s quite simple; people want to be entertained, to connect with family and friends, find like-minded peers and communicate about their identities and feelings. Digital technology can add layers of complexity to these very normal and natural desires. Let’s prioritize Internet use with digital positivity. Here are some ways that we help you to do just that at Fuller Living:

  • Try to create a tech-positive environment in your home. Try to foster tech use in a shared space, so that you can “play what your kids & significant others play.” Design planned activities, online and offline.
  • Create fun, attractive, unplugged spaces as well to show that not everything has to be techy and digital. Make it OK to get messy. Cook. Jam on instruments. Go outside even when it isn’t “nice.”
  • Create family-defined boundaries and adhere to them. If you are easily interruptible by a text message from work during unplugged time with your family, they will get the message that digital communication is more important than face to face interaction.
  • By the same token, modeling respect for privacy and boundaries in the digital world is crucial. Not everyone handles technology in the same fashion. An easy way to start is to ask permission before sharing or posting something about someone. If the person says no, respect that boundary without judgment.
  • Recognize that the digital world is more complex – it’s changing all the time, with the rules of netiquette are still evolving. Both you and your family are going to make mistakes – and that’s OK. Get comfortable with that notion. The important thing is to find a positive way to offer some guidance, and teach others how to repair, apologize and move forward.

Applying these principles can help us feel empowered in the face of technology that influences all of our lives. Certainly, some concern is warranted – there are real dangers. Yet, we always want to be able to invite discussion, be role models, influence habits, and even inspire team family to use the power of technology to make a positive difference in the world!

Katy Karas, Ph.D

At Fuller Living, Katy Karas, Ph.D., has a passion and desire to help people who are struggling in this area. She has immediate openings. Book with Katy!