Internet addictions and mental health: Tools and considerations for parents

July 19, 2019 Dr. Helen Hanson

Summer is right around the corner and parents of school-aged children everywhere are plagued with the same question: “How will I fill my child’s time this summer?” Many parents may anticipate a few struggles in setting limits around their children’s use of devices, and perhaps anticipate their children challenging those established limits. There are certainly healthy ways to utilize the internet and other internet-related activities (social media, video games, handheld devices) available to us. However, without intentional monitoring and boundaries set around the usage, your child may fall into unhealthy patterns and behaviors.  This begs the question, “How much is too much media use? Is my child addicted to his devices?” 


Currently there is no diagnostic criteria in existence to classify Internet Addiction.  In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5) identified Internet Gaming Disorder as a condition to be further researched.  Some providers in the field have adapted our current understanding of substance addiction to understand online addictive behaviors. Similarly to a person who is dependent on a substance, a person with online addictive behaviors may need more of the stimuli to keep him going, become irritable or aggressive in the absence of such stimuli, and spend more of his time seeking out online content, to the detriment of affecting functioning in multiple areas including school, extracurricular activities, hygiene, eating, sleep, and relationships.


Addictive behaviors have their effect on our brain’s reward center that releases a hormone called dopamine, also known as the “feel good hormone.” This experience of increased euphoria, concentration, and motivation, especially when paired with intermittent reinforcement, can have a huge addictive potential. The old principle of slot machines are now equated to social media “likes” or reaching a new high score in a videogame. Especially for children and teens who struggle with social interactions or self-confidence, this boost in their confidence in the virtual world can serve as an escape from reality.


Research exists that show an associated link between social media use with experiences of online harassment, short sleep hours, sleep disruption, and body image dissatisfaction in teens. There is also a correlation of higher prevalence of social media use (> 5hours) in teens with mental health concerns and depressive symptoms.  There may also be some effect of the specific content we are engaging in, type of engagement (active seeking of information vs passive scrolling through feeds), as well as duration of time spent engaging.


Here are some considerations for parents to prevent an emergence or further exacerbation of problematic online use behaviors. 

  1. Set a good example as parents. Limit the time you spend distracted on your device while your child is home. Prioritize giving your child your full attention and be available for your child to come to you for questions and conversations vs. going to the internet for answers or emotional reprieve.
  2. Involve your children in setting household rules around appropriate use of the internet. Take a collaborative approach and openly talk about benefits of social media/internet use and potential risks involved.
  3. Consider setting time limits. An example includes setting a timer to spend 20 minutes catching up on a social media platform then reconnecting with family members or doing another intentional self-care activity.
  4. Set technology-free zones or technology-free times. Considerations include family meal times and bedrooms at night time. Designate a phone charging station outside of your child’s bedroom as a way to promote quality sleep.
  5. Continue to check in as family, re-engage in conversations in a collaborative way, and provide empathetic support to your child as needed.


If you are concerned about your child’s internet use and problematic behaviors, reach out to your child’s pediatrician or primary care physician. Consider getting connected with a mental health provider who specializes in internet addictions in the community using the online SAMHSA Treatment Locator at or by calling the SAMHSA 24/7 Treatment Referral Line 1-800-662-HELP(4357).



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