A short time after Jennifer (16) got her own computer, her parents started to notice changes in her behavior. Generally a well-motivated, active teen with good grades, Jennifer now had difficulty getting up for school in the morning. Assignments were being missed, her grades were slipping, she was missing scheduled activities like soccer and band practice and she seemed unusually quiet and withdrawn. When her parents tried to discuss these changes with her, she became defensive and irate and she always seemed to have a reasonable explanation for what she was doing.
Jennifer’s parents were aware that she was spending an inordinate amount of time on the computer. She was on it first thing in the morning, immediately after school and the last thing at night. Often Jennifer was still on the computer when her parents went to bed. Jennifer explained she was using the computer for research and to complete her homework assignments. Whenever they entered her room, however, she seemed to be secretive about her on-line activities. Jennifer would generally react angrily to any such intrusions and would quickly try to hide the screen. Discussions with other parents seemed to confirm that this was typical of some of their children too. Jennifer’s parents weren’t sure what to do or even if they had anything to be overly concerned about.
Jennifer may be experiencing depression, social problems, drug use, self-esteem issues, or academic difficulties and these should all be considered. What we do know, however, is that Jennifer appears to be obsessed with the Internet. She is exhibiting the classic warning signs of potential Internet addiction: excessive fatigue, academic problems, declining interest in other activities, withdrawal from family and friends, and defensiveness about Internet use. Many parents and, in particular, those with limited computer savvy are at a loss about how to handle this situation. Some quickly adopt one of two extreme responses: benign neglect or outright banishment. Neither seems to resolve the issue.
Teens will use the computer for many things other than schoolwork. At the top of the list is their ability to maintain direct contact with their friends through programs like MSN Messenger. This allows for a great deal of privacy without the worry of being hassled by parents for tying up the phone line. Although many teens appear to spend a lot of time in this activity, most simply enjoy the acceptance and camaraderie that comes with staying socially connected to their friends. Unfortunately, some will engage in anonymous and intimate conversations with “virtual” boyfriends and girlfriends in far away countries through open chat rooms. This may be harmless, yet there are stories of teens who do meet with their net contacts and find themselves in awkward or dangerous situations.
Once parents have determined that they need to approach their teen about his or her Internet use, consider some of the following communication strategies:
* Find a good time to talk. This is ideally when they are not on-line. “Before you log-on, I need to talk to you for a few minutes.”
* Decide in advance what you want to say. “Jennifer, we miss you spending time with us like before and you seem so tired and depressed lately.” Try not to blame, accuse, or sound critical.
* Listen empathetically and be prepared for a defensive stance. Don’t argue.
In addition to how you’ll be communicating, consider some of the following ideas:
* If there are two parents, either separated or together, present a common front.
* Set reasonable rules around use of the Internet.
* Make the computer visible while ensuring reasonable privacy.
* Be aware of what activities your teen is engaged in on the Internet without being unduly intrusive.
* Educate yourself and your children about the potential dangers of Internet use.
* Use outside resources as needed.
The Internet has been compared to a large city without a police force. There are exciting adventures as well as dangers. We don’t want to deny our children the freedom to exercise personal responsibility but we do want to maintain an open dialogue about the Internet so that it doesn’t become an unknown private world. Responsible parents stay informed and have the courage to address problems as they develop. How we handle these issues will determine how safe our children feel to approach us when they too recognize that there is a problem. If you feel this issue is beyond your ability to handle, consult with a professional who is familiar with this topic. Ô
Reference: Young, Kimberley. (1998) Caught in the Net. John Wiley & Sons Inc.