Teens disconnected from family are more addicted to the web

Nicole M. King
May 17, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story: Is Internet Addiction Everybody's Problem?

"We've probably all grumbled or joked" about tablemates at dinner being glued to their smartphones, begins a story from the Belfast Telegraph. But "Internet addiction is real," and no laughing matter.

The UK's Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently conducted a survey of 540,000 15-year-olds from around the globe, and the results are startling. Britain's own adolescents spend more time than any other nation online - about 188 minutes a day, surpassing even American and Chinese children. And although "the internet is not an inherently 'bad' thing," it is also true that "youngsters who spend the most time online, tended to be the least happy." The author closes by highlighting a litany of other problems that face such web-addicted teens, and suggest that perhaps it is high time for adults as well as adolescents to log off.

Indeed. But what this story fails to cover is just which adolescents turn to technology for entertainment and even companionship and solace. Yet once again, family structure makes a crucial different.

(Sources: Abi Jackson, "Is Internet Addiction Everybody's Problem?" Belfast Telegraph, April 28, 2017.)

The New Research: Teens Disconnected from Family, Addicted to the Web

Though it comes with far fewer physical symptoms than addiction to drugs such as cocaine or OxyContin, addiction to the Internet - especially among adolescents - has emerged as a public-health concern. That concern recently motivated two teams of Chinese researchers intent on identifying the circumstances in which Chinese adolescents are most vulnerable to this cyber-age affliction. Though the foci of the studies conducted by these two teams differ, both conclude that young people are significantly less likely to use the Internet compulsively in China when they enjoy strong family ties. The data in these studies identify two threats to such ties: the now nearly global epidemic of parental divorce (taking a parent out of the home) and China's distinctive one-child policy (preventing siblings from entering the home).

The link between parental divorce and adolescent Internet Addiction emerges in a study completed by social scientists at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the Chinese Academy of Science. Worried about the way "Internet addiction (IA) among adolescents has become a global health problem" - one that affects young people's "physical health, psychosocial development, academic performance, and family relationships" - the scholars from these two institutions explore "the relationship between Internet Addiction [IA] . . . and family functionality."

To probe this relationship, the Hong Kong researchers parse data collected from 2,021 ethnically Chinese students ages 12 to 18, enrolled in two area secondary schools. These data reveal that "being an adolescent with divorced parents was a strong predictor of IA." Indeed, the percentage of adolescents identified as Internet addicts ran almost twice as high among those living with divorced parents as among those living in intact families (43.6 % vs. 23.5%; p < 0.001). Contemplating this pattern, the researchers suggest that "in a divorced family, a single parent needs to support the entire family, which means there is limited time to build a relationship with the children."

The kind of environment that fosters Internet Addiction may develop not only in homes where an adolescent lives with only one parent but also in homes where an adolescent lives with no siblings. The second team of Chinese researchers, working in China's eastern Anhui province, is motivated by concerns over the way Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) incubates both physiological and psychological problems, including "suicide ideation, disordered eating attitudes . . . [and] depressive symptoms." In their investigation of IAD, these scholars examine data collected from a randomized cluster sampling of 5,249 students in grades 7 to 12. These data "showed that the IA rate of only-child students is higher than that of non-only-child students," meaning that "IAD has more effect on . . . single-child families" than on families with more than one child.

The authors of the first Chinese study - the one implicating parental divorce in fostering Internet addiction among adolescents - conclude by calling for "family-based interventions." These interventions, the researchers explain, should aim at "improving parents' communication proficiency and fostering the skills required to achieve healthy family interactions and strengthen family functionality, rather than directly restricting Internet use."

The authors of the second Chinese study - the one identifying only children as a population especially exposed to Internet addiction - end their study by arguing that "related education should be strengthened for susceptible subjects of IAD" and asserting that in this education "more care must be taken of . . . only-child students" because of their distinct vulnerability.

Perhaps it is not surprising that researchers in a communist country would evince the same kind of political orthodoxy that keeps many of their politically correct North American and European counterparts from stating the obvious: truly improving life for children and adolescents means preventing parental divorce and ending the global birth dearth.

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, forthcoming in "New Research," The Natural Family. Study: Cynthia Sau Ting Wu et al., "Parenting Approaches, Family Functionality, and Internet Addiction among Hong Kong Adolescents," BMC Pediatrics 16 [2016]: 130, Web; Yan Chen et al., "Investigation on Internet Addiction Disorder in Adolescents in Anhui, People's Republic of China," Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 12 [2016]: 2233-2236.)