Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA
Is Internet addiction the main cause of today's at-risk crisis for teenagers? It's a topic most people shy away from, but one that our society needs to
address. Every day more and more teens are getting hooked on the Internet and the effect of surfing may be taking its toll on them.
There's no question that Internet use among teens is on the rise. The Internet has quickly become the number one medium of entertainment that occupies
our children's attention. Worse, not only are teens spending one to several hours a day surfing the web, the content they view has become progressively
more violent and contains more explicit material than ever before.
According to a study of 1,500 youths, ages 10 to 17, by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention:
·More than one-third of youth Internet users (34%) saw "inappropriate" material online they did not want to see.
·The increase in exposure to unwanted material occurred despite increased use of filtering, blocking, and monitoring software in households of
young Internet users.
·Online harassment of youth has increased by 9% over the last five years.
·Twenty-eight per cent of solicited youth said an incident left them feeling very or extremely upset and in one-quarter of all solicitation
incidents, youth had one or more symptoms of stress, including staying away from the Internet or a particular part of it, being unable to stop thinking
about the incident, feeling jumpy or irritable, and/or losing interest in things.
These statistics should sound an alarm for parents concerned about their children's development. Here's why: For many teens, surfing the Internet has
become an addiction, and like all other addictions, teens who use the Internet in excess may require a therapeutic approach that can wean them away
from this form of self-destructive behavior.
I know it may take a slight leap of creativity to connect overuse of the Internet to drug abuse, but here are the similarities: As in addiction to
drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or caffeine, Internet addiction is marked by symptoms of increased tolerance, withdrawal, mood changes, and interruption of
Children and adolescents who have become addicted to the Internet will require increasing amounts of time online in order to feel satisfied. When they
do not have access to the Internet, they may have symptoms of withdrawal, which include anxiety, depression, irritability, trembling hands,
restlessness and obsessive thinking or fantasizing about the Internet.
Independent of the depressing effects of excessive Internet use, the most devastating impact of Internet addiction may be the decreased amount of
quality time teenagers spend with their parents. Just as in other addictions, the Internet addict may suffer from emotional and physical isolation from
his or her friends and family and therefore spend little time involved in healthy relationships, which are the basis for positive emotional
As I outlined in my book "At Risk - Never Beyond Reach," the lack of quality time spent with parents may also be the most significant
factor leading to at-risk behavior. In fact, I once asked a group of high school juniors and seniors at a well-known Jewish day school what they felt
were the most important issues teens face. Following are the students' answers according to their own ranking, starting with the most important:
·Disappointment and anger with parents
·Dislike of teachers
·The intense desire to be accepted and fit in with friends
·The desire to be adults and the fact that they were still under parents' control
·The internal pressures of trying to develop and act on personal values as opposed to those of parents and friends
·The powerful forces of media encouraging experimentation with sex and alcohol
·The enormous physical and psychological changes that occur at this time of life
Surprisingly, issues like physical changes, peer pressure, and drug use were placed low on the students' list, whereas the issues of poor relationships
with their parents and teachers were ranked highest. In general, these teenagers seemed alienated from their parents and felt that their teachers had
somehow let them down.
Add to this teenager's sense of isolation from parents and family members, and the connection between Internet use and the at-risk crisis becomes more
and more apparent.
Study after study show that a strong parent-teen relationship is the key to addressing the at-risk crisis. The Internet may be a major culprit pushing
teenagers further away from maintaining healthy relationships with their parents.
For example, a comprehensive research brief was published by Child Trends, entitled Parent-Teen Relationships and Interactions Far More Positive Than Not. It showed a direct correlation between the quality of the parent-teen relationship and the impact
that relationship has on a teenager's life.
Similar conclusions were also reached by two other studies. A Columbia University study in September 2002, found that "isolation from parents make
affluent students more likely to become depressed, and to smoke, drink and abuse drugs."
The National Institute on Drug Abuse 1999 study showed that "Family-focused programs have been found to significantly reduce all the major risk domains
and increase protective processes" and that "even those [families] with indicated 'hard-core' problems can benefit from family-strengthening
In addition to the damage the Internet may cause to family relationships, excessive Internet usage may also be masking more difficult problems that
teenagers face. It may therefore be necessary to seek outside help for a child with Internet addiction.
Next week, we'll discuss strategies that can help parents wean their teenagers off the Internet.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch is the executive director of Shalom Task Force and author of a new book about parenting teenagers called
At Risk- Never Beyond Reach: Three Principles Every Parentand Educator Should Know
. He maintains a practice in family counseling and is a popular lecturer on parenting and relationships. You can visit Rabbi Schonbuch on the Web
at www.neverbeyondreach.org or e-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.