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The internet is a relatively recent aspect of our daily lives, so research on the effects of what most of us consider as a wonderful source of knowledge and a fast communication tool is limited. In fact, there are no fixed measurement criteria, but there is a disturbing amount of evidence showing that an increasing number of our youth is spending far too much time surfing the web and playing games on the internet. They have become addicted.

This is particularly disturbing as educational facilities are increasingly attracted to the use of the internet as an educational medium, with iPads taking the place of pens and paper in the classroom. It is therefore, imperative that teachers, lecturers and parents familiarise themselves with the signs of addiction, and that a strong support system to treat the resultant personality disorders is put in place.

And this information has to be communicated.

Exactly how much research is available?
One of the problems with researching Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is that – unlike gambling, alcohol and pornography addictions – IAD is multi-faceted. For example, someone going online to fulfil sexual fantasies is getting a very different set of ‘rewards’ than a person who uses the internet for social reasons. TechAddiction in fact divides IAD into Physiological Addiction and Psychological Addiction, pointing out that far more research needs to be undertaken into all the sub-categories of IAD before successful treatments can be offered.

Early research (2001) was conducted in Finland, with the results published in 2004 in a scientific paper entitled ‘Internet addiction? Potentially problematic use of the internet in a population of 12–18 year-old adolescents’ presented by Riittakerttu Kaltiala-Heino, Tomi Lintonen and Arja Rimpela. Problems with addiction were already evident in the 7292 responses to the questionnaires distributed. Two factors raised are of interest: the researchers questioned from the responses whether the ‘great involvement illustrated in preoccupation and investing time resources is purposive and pleasurable rather than compulsive’ indicating that their test subjects were spending time on the internet through choice rather than compulsion and could therefore, not be termed addicts; and they raised a debate around whether the addiction was not to the internet itself, but to the subject matter itself, as in sexual content.

In July of this year, renowned psychologist and school consultant Catherine Steiner-Adair posed the question ‘Are you addicted to the Internet?’ in her article that delves into the growing problem of compulsive viewing of the internet.

While many of us feel almost helpless without all our electronic gadgets, few of us would consider our reliance on them an addiction. To those who didn’t grow up in the computer era, use of the internet is mainly in a supportive role and to the younger adult generations the internet is a vital communication tool. Although the compulsive use of the internet is high in the 18-25 year-olds (16 per cent in the US, for example), the problem of addiction is developing with most prevalence in our young children.

Sarah Cassidy dubbed the children surveyed in the UK the online generation. It was found that of the 2200 children researched, four out of every ten felt they could be described as internet addicts.

However, it is in China and Korea that the biggest negative impact has been felt to-date. Ten per cent of the youth between the ages of 10 and 19 have been identified by the South Korean government as being addicts. In China, with 632 million internet users identified in 2014 (the highest number of internet users worldwide), the government has calculated that approximately 24 million minor children are internet addicts. Interestingly, the large number of youth addicts has been accredited to the Sars epidemic in 2003. Scholars having to stay housebound with no supervision coincided with the rising popularity of the internet – thus the creation of budding addicts.

The internet was introduced to Pakistan in 1995 only, but recent research among university students has also created concern. A paper by Noreen Akhter identified the results of a study of 359 students, confirming a ‘negative impact’ on academic performance, and showing that male students are prone more than female students to internet addiction.

Information on IAD in South Africa includes a paper in the South African Journal of Psychology which shows internet addiction stats of between 1.67 per cent and 5.29 per cent, while identifying youth as the high-risk group. And mybroadband reported the results of an in-depth study into the effect of a variety of social media channels on the lives and study patterns of South African university students which were released on 31 October 2013 by World Wide Worx and Student Brands. The nationwide SA High-tech Student 2013 research study interviewed 1435 college and university students. Fifty-nine per cent of those surveyed admitted to being addicted to social media; 81 per cent felt that technology such as smartphones and the internet ‘enhanced their quality of life’; and there was an almost unanimous affirmation of the positive impact that social media – including the internet – had on their academic and social lives.

A more comprehensive study of internet use in the US, the UK, Germany, Japan, Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa, and Nigeria has been conducted by ATKearney (Connected Consumers Are Not Created Equal), reporting that ‘of 10 000 connected consumers across the globe, over half (51 per cent) noted they were online almost every hour of the day.’ Detailed graphs and results show that South Africans like the internet, with ’25 per cent of respondents pointing to all-day online activity, and 26 per cent logging on every hour.’ Tech Addiction’s worldwide statistics does not include South Africa.

The effects of IAD
These vary from weight loss, problems with concentration, cyber-bullying (which has resulted in suicide), and withdrawal from any physical social interaction.

Research undertaken by Professor Kang of Dankook University revealed that IAD was damaging critical thinking. The frontal lobes of the brain, vital for critical analysis, are affected. ‘Reading a book where one is guessing what happens in the story next shows activity in frontal lobes but playing internet games shows no activity.’

NCBI PubMed published the results of a paper by Chinese researchers entitled ‘Effects of internet addiction on heart rate variability in school-aged children’ which showed that internet addiction ‘is associated with higher sympathetic activity and lower parasympathetic activity.’

In the US, a video chronicling the life of a teenage boy who became addicted to the internet, changing from an honours student and talented musician to an academic failure, showed how the addiction can harm a child physically. Andrew Fulton lost 30 pounds, playing games and surfing the internet for over 16 hours per day and most of the night while surviving on bread and cheese. As he was away at college, his parents weren’t aware of his addiction, and until then they had accepted his hours in front of the computer at home as ‘normal’ teen behaviour.

Colonel Tao Ran of the Daxing Internet Addiction Treatment Centre in Beijing maintains that internet addiction is more damaging to the brain than heroin, with a reduction of 8 per cent in brain capacity. Eyesight and back problems are also prevalent. He also mentions that official statistics claim that ’67 per cent of juvenile misdemeanours are committed by internet addicts that idolise the mafia and have difficulty differentiating between reality and fiction.’ Ninety per cent of the addicts being treated suffered from depression, while a startling 58 per cent had actually attacked their parents physically.

Catherine Steiner-Adair tells of parents complaining about the lies their child tells when confronted about the time spent on the internet, and how restless, angry or depressed the child becomes if deprived of the ‘fix’, mirroring the reactions of a heroin addict.

Bullying at school has received a lot of attention in the media recently, and while it is a serious problem with often-tragic consequences, cyber bullying is more difficult to recognise and therefore more of a challenge. A study on internet addiction in the UK was prompted by the suicides of 2 youths, one of whom was being blackmailed, with the other a victim of bullying. ChildLine in the UK reported that calls from victims of online bullying jumped from 2 410 in 2011-12 to 4 507 in 2012-13.

The reasons behind the alarming growth of IAD
Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of parents, which is not necessarily the root cause in general but could be a reason in specific cases. Kathryn Doyle reported on a study held in Greece, which came to what would seem to be an obvious conclusion, in that uncaring and distant parents evoke feelings of loneliness in their children, which in turn is said to encourage the turning to social media – and particularly the internet – for companionship. However, earlier Greek studies found the internet addiction rate amongst teens to be between one and eight per cent with little correlation between any particular type of parenting and internet addiction.

Some of today’s young parents are known to use the television as a baby-sitter for small children while chores are completed, and this is easily translated to the computer as a nanny for older children.

It would seem, though, that children who do not fare well socially at school are more at risk. A 12-year-old girl told researchers that the internet controls all her actions, and she prefers its company rather than being with other people; Andrew Fulton claimed that his addiction – which began in high school – was like a ‘therapeutic release’ for the social anxiety he felt, as he could be whomever he wanted to be when online, claiming it was ‘like a full-body buzz’; and 81 per cent of the students in the South African Journal of Psychology paper said the use of technology – including the internet – ‘enhanced their quality of life’.

Recognising the signs of possible internet addiction
As with most addictions, there are easily-recognisable signs that parents and educators must look out for. It would seem obvious to all that the amount of time spent in front of the computer or on other devices would be the most obvious clue. But just how much time is too much? And does a large amount of time spent on the internet indicate addiction?

Tao Ran believes that if someone is spending six hours or more on the internet, that person can be considered to be an addict. But in ‘Internet Addiction – Symptoms, Signs, Treatment, and FAQS’, Dr. Brent Conrad points out that a number of business people spend many hours on the internet for example, so a diagnosis would have to take other symptoms into consideration.

Scholars have an enormous amount of research to undertake for assignments, and iPads are proving an excellent technological opportunity for learning. The Department of Education is committed to providing children even in outlying rural areas with this functionality, and the planned implementation of extensive broadband – although behind schedule – will provide easy internet access to all.

This is all excellent news, but it must be remembered that the country with the biggest internet addiction problem – South Korea – is the ‘most wired’ nation in the world, with cheap high-speed broadband available in almost every household. Control will therefore, be vital, much of which will rest in the hands of the parents and by educators to a lesser extent. While techno-savvy parents may find it easier to recognise signs of addiction, those whose access to technology is either limited or non-existent will have to be ‘educated’ in what to look for.

While many of the side-effects of addiction may sound easily recognisable and even a ‘no-brainer’, we live in a world where parents are busy and children are often left to their own devices. In fact, many of today’s parents are so techno-savvy that they may also spend hours on the internet and therefore, have slightly impaired judgement when it comes to their offspring. In addition, as IAD as a term covers a variety of behavioural problems, recognition of the addiction has had to be narrowed down to general symptoms until further research can offer more details.

Some of the more obvious signs of internet addiction include:
oSpending hours on the computer, iPad or cellphone
oMood swings – aggression if not allowed to use the computer or cellphone
oLoss of appetite
oLack of sleep
oIncreased lack of social interaction whether with family of friends
oMajor fall in academic results

Current solutions available
Methods of ‘curing’ IAD vary from country to country, and can differ vastly in approach with some treatment facilities in countries such as China and South Korea preferring a hard, militaristic method. The US, Australia and the UK have a softer approach. In South Korea, the government is treating the high incidence of internet addiction as a national crisis, and have set up ‘detox boot camps’ in remote areas around the country, where addicts undergo intense one-on-one counselling while being encouraged to become more sociable. In China, one of the facilities based in the bustling city of Beijing believes in a harsh approach where the addicts are deprived of comforts and are treated as trainee military personnel, undergoing physical discipline as well as accepted addiction treatment. This treatment has been designed by Tao Ran, who is a qualified a psychiatrist but is also a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army. The successes claimed by this controversial facility are difficult to prove. In contrast, America’s first residential facility catering to internet addiction – reSTART – believes in positive, intensive therapy coupled with regular exercise and monitored computer use with proven success.

South Africa’s treatment centres are not exclusive to internet addiction, but offer assistance to internet addicts in conjunction with those suffering from substance abuse and gambling addiction, for example. There are also very few psychologists and/or counsellors specialising in the relatively new field of online addictions.

The role of marketing
As with so many addictions, the group most likely to be caught in the web of self-destruction is our youth. Drug addicts are getting younger, as are those becoming increasingly dependent on alcohol.

However, as already mentioned, these addictions can be identified, with specific treatments available. But recognising the symptoms of IAD within a classroom or lecture hall of technologically-adept scholars is difficult, particularly with the growing reliance on electronically-driven education. How are teachers and lecturers supposed to recognise that one scholar is more prone to IAD than the others?

Add this confusion and lack of expertise to that of many parents, and the dangers become obvious. The solution? Education. It would be a giant stride in the right direction if the companies making millions out of the sale of hardware and software spent some of their profits on educating teachers, lecturers and parents on IAD. Or if the Department of Health recognised the problem and began campaigning in schools and tertiary centres. OK – maybe Neverland also exists….

In the meantime, there are steps that can be taken at schools, colleges and universities:
oAcceptance of the real and present danger that is developing at a faster rate than either the research or the treatments offered.
oSerious recognition is given to addictions such as substance abuse, with trained counsellors available. This support structure must be extended to IAD, with fully-trained personnel at hand, whether in-house or at the closest treatment centre.
oParents should be encouraged to attend presentations and/or workshops organised by educational facilities.
oInformation is readily available to education facilities online. Sources such as TechAddiction and Net Addiction are excellent.

Internet Addiction is already a very real threat to our youth, and with the prolific growth of electronic technology, education management structures have a duty to deal with this potential epidemic as proactively as possible, in line with the steps taken by for the treatment of substance abuse.

Hopefully, those PR, marketing and advertising agencies with clients within the IT industry can suggest that such clients take steps to encourage users to act responsibly. For example, holding workshops for educators and parents. It’s a start!

Article written by Sandy Andrew: 
Sandy Andrew is a writer by profession. She offers clients services ranging from editing, press releases, features, web content – in fact all marketing content – through to the compilation of presentations, including training. Contact details: 082 433 6085 or

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