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Teen Internet Addiction Is Now a More Frequent Concern among Parents than Substance Addiction

November 1, 2023

Child Mind Institute researchers explore the benefits and harms of adolescent internet use in a new paper published in JAMA

Increasing dependence on the internet, on display during the COVID-19 pandemic, has created deep concerns about the negative impact of internet use in youth. Identifying and intervening with young people who are particularly vulnerable to developing excessive or problematic internet use (PIU) are central to recent research on this topic. However, small, non-diverse samples and limited information on key familial and offspring characteristics have been barriers to putting research into action.

To provide the field with more insight into adolescent internet use, parent perceptions, and how parenting styles may impact PIU, Child Mind Institute scientists ran a large survey of US parents of children aged 9 to 15. The survey revealed that parents perceive benefits of internet use, like family connectedness, and concerns, like cyberbullying and addiction. Twice as many parents reported specific concerns about internet addiction than substance addiction.

“The primary goal of this survey was to characterize parental perceptions and concerns about internet use associated with child and adolescent development, well-being, safety, family connectedness, and potential for PIU,” explains Giovanni Salum, MD, PhD, Program Director at the Child Mind Institute and a member of the research team. “Understanding parent perceptions is important both to gauge the extent of problematic internet use as a public health issue, and to better understand the family dimension of problematic use.”

Using previously validated questionnaires, expert stakeholders including psychiatrists, psychologists, and epidemiologists, designed a 20-minute, English-language survey. In 2022, a diverse sample of 1,005 US parents of youths ages 9-15 completed the survey anonymously via Ipsos, an online survey platform. 1,005 US parents of youths ages 9-15 were recruited and weighted to be representative of the US population. About half of parent felt that internet use can increase family bonds and most reported confidence that their child can use the internet responsibly; nevertheless, about one-half of parents expressed specific concerns about internet use on their offspring’s social (51.1%), cognitive (46.2%), and physical development (46.7%). Approximately one third of the participants in this study reported concerns about addiction to both internet and substances. Equivalent proportions expressed concerns about one of these types of addiction in their offspring, whereas another third did not have worries about addiction at all. Internet addiction concern outweighed that of substance problems. In particular, the potential for addiction was most evident for social networking programs and video gaming. This survey highlights the growing influence of internet use in children’s lives and the importance of monitoring for potential harmful use in youth.

Additionally, the researchers’ analysis of responses found that problematic internet use among adolescents was associated with negative parenting styles and parent internet use. And intriguingly, there was a positive association between adolescent use of social networking and family connectedness.

These results open the door to several ways forward. Parents indicated that internet use improved the sense of family connectedness through an ability to share positive experiences, an increased sense of family closeness, an increased ability for family flexibility, and positive benefits on family time spent together. The association of social networking platform use in youths with family impact scores suggests that enhanced within-family network communication may be a benefit of internet use. Perceived benefits of internet use were balanced by parental concerns about the potential of social networking platforms to contribute to internet addiction, echoing recent warnings by the US Surgeon General.

“This research strengthens and extends the literature on correlates of PIU among adolescents, including parenting styles and parental internet use,” says lead author Michael P. Milham, MD, PhD, Vice President of Research at the Child Mind Institute. “The perception of enhanced familial interconnectedness afforded by internet use in this study should be leveraged into family interventions designed to enhance open communication and monitoring of potential dangers of internet use in youth.”

This work was supported by a grant from Morgan Stanley; gifts to the Child Mind Institute from Phyllis Green, Randolph Cowen, and Joseph Healey; awards R01MH124045 and R01MH091864 from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) (Dr Milham); and grant ZIAMH002953 from the Intramural Research Program of the NIMH (Dr Merikangas).

The full article can be found here.

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Tagged with: Concerns, Media and Tech