Risk of Internet Addiction Higher in Teens with ADHD and Depression

By Leslie Davis

Between school, work, home and cell phones, it is hard to escape the Internet. As society becomes more reliant on the World Wide Web, the risk of Internet addiction increases. For one segment of the population, that is especially true.

Children and teens who are diagnosed with one of several emotional and behavioral disorders are more likely than their peers to become addicted to the Internet, according to a recent study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine:

  • Boys diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or hostility are more likely to become addicted to the Internet.
  • Girls diagnosed with depression or social phobia are more likely to develop an addiction to the Internet.

For children and teens with ADHD, the constant stimulation offered by the Internet (including social networking sites that are constantly updated and fast-paced video games) offers the perfect outlet. For those with depression, social phobia or hostility, the Internet has a therapeutic effect, permitting them to create their own online identity without having to function “normally” in the real world.

“If you have a child that is hyperactive, the Internet can move at their pace,” Michael Gilbert, a senior fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, said in an Oct. 6 HealthDay News article. “If you have a child that is depressed or has social phobia, they can get in touch with other kids dealing with the same kinds of issues. They can go into artificial worlds, like ‘Second Life,’ where they can live out fantasies or take on different personas. For kids who have anger or hostility, the Internet gives them a chance to play out their aggression there.”

Internet Addiction and ADHD

Researchers from the study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine determined that teens with significant ADHD symptoms are at high risk for becoming addicted to the Internet. The researchers say this is because of several factors:

  • Children and teens with ADHD are easily bored and have an aversion to delayed reward.
  • Internet behavior is characterized by rapid response, immediate reward and multiple windows with different activities, reducing feelings of boredom or delayed aversion.
  • While playing online games, striatal dopamine is released, possibly compensating for the dopamine deficit in teens with ADHD.
  • Children with ADHD have abnormal brain activities associated with impaired inhibition. This lack of self-control may make it difficult for them to control their Internet use, making them vulnerable to Internet addiction.

Internet Addiction and Hostility

The study indicated that male teens with significant hostility were more likely to become addicted to the Internet than those teens not characterized as hostile. For teens considered hostile, the Internet allows them to express their hostility and engage in violence through such activities as online gaming.

Because they are able to get out their aggression via the Internet, hostile teens may be more prone to spending more time online than in the real world.

Internet Addiction and Depression

Females with depression were found to have a higher risk of Internet addiction. The study’s researchers determined that this was likely because the Internet can be used to alleviate depression through social support, achievement, the pleasure of control and a virtual world in which to escape from emotional difficulties.

However, too much Internet use can worsen the symptoms of depression and make depressed teens particularly vulnerable to developing an Internet addiction.

Internet Addiction and Social Phobia

As with depression, females with social phobia are more likely to become addicted to the Internet. Researchers believe this is because the Internet can provide social support in a non-face-to-face setting, allowing teens with social phobia to feel more relaxed and engaged.

The researchers warned, however, that becoming too reliant on the Internet for social support could result in an online addiction.

What Constitutes Internet Addiction?

If your child or teen is excessively using the Internet to the detriment of grades, family relationships and emotional health, an Internet addiction may be to blame. No set definition of Internet addiction exists, but the diagnosis is being considered for inclusion in the 2012 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Any of the following may indicate an Internet addiction:

  • A preoccupation with the Internet
  • Excessive time and effort spent online
  • Falling asleep in school, not keeping up with assignments and worsening grades
  • Lying about computer or Internet use
  • Choosing to use the Internet rather than see friends
  • No longer engaging in social activities
  • An inability to cut back on usage
  • Symptoms of withdrawal (such as irritability, anxiety and boredom) when not online
  • An impairment of decision-making ability

Physical symptoms of an Internet addiction can include headaches, dry eyes, weight loss, neglected personal hygiene and sleep disturbances.

Treatment for Internet Addiction, Underlying Disorders

Previous reports found that anywhere between 1.4 percent and 18 percent of children and teens are addicted to the Internet. Among those teens, a large percentage likely suffers from ADHD, depression, social phobia or hostility.

If you have determined that your child or teen is addicted to the Internet, it is important to get help immediately. Doing so can also help you identify any disorders that are underlying your teen’s addiction, such as ADHD or depression. If necessary, an adolescent residential treatment center can help teens overcome both their addiction and any underlying disorder.

Don’t let the Internet take over your teen’s life. If you are worried that your teen has an Internet addiction, or undiagnosed ADHD, depression, social phobia or hostility, seek treatment today.

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