There's more to cyber dependency than meets the eye

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am


The technological revolution has brought many advantages. But a concern for parents is that their child may develop an abusive or dependent relationship with computer-related technologies (CRT), whether in the form of laptops, tablets or mobile phones.

It is not possible to receive a diagnosis for CRT 'abuse/ dependence' as there is no official diagnostic category. But speaking generally, your child has an unhelpful relationship with CRT if it causes marked distress or interferes with daily life at home or school.

You may notice changes in the following areas: CRT directed behaviour, self-directed behaviour and behaviour towards others.

CRT directed behaviour includes increased desire for, and actual time on, CRT. Children are in a happier mood when using CRT and are irritable, anxious or sad when not.

Prolonged CRT time is not sufficient or necessary to classify someone as being abusive/dependent. But a German study found that participants who were CRT dependent engaged for longer each day than non-dependent participants. This was about 4.7 hours compared to about 2.5 hours.

Examples of behaviour change include adolescents neglecting their own health, for instance, getting insufficient sleep due to continued gaming; neglecting their hygiene; related physical problems, for example, repetitive strain injury; reduced interest in previously enjoyed activities; dreams about CRT; increased expenditure, or debt incurred, on CRT activities; and a denial to self that a problem with CRT actually exists.

Things you may notice include your child spending less time with others; a deterioration in relationships; lying; stealing; denying to others that there is a problem; poorer school attendance and performance, including homework; and a disconnect between the child's online and offline worlds.

Some of the behaviour outlined above may be normal adolescent behaviour. That can make it hard to know if you simply have teenage angst on your hands, or if it is something more serious.

This uncertainty can be exacerbated if your child believes that they do not have a problem. Are they correct, or in denial? A simple guide is that the more evidence you see, the more likelihood there is that a difficulty is developing.

So why might your child develop a problematic relationship with CRT? Principally, people repeat rewarding activities and CRT provide adolescents with enjoyable, exciting experiences. A German study found teenagers enjoyed the flexibility of characters and the ease in which they could enter and exit games. This enables them to explore different identities safely. There is evidence to suggest teenagers may engage in CRT to compensate for perceived deficiencies in their offline world, such as friendships or physical appearance.

It is also a way of interacting with people without needing the same thick skin that is required in the real world. It can also be an adolescent's attempt to cope with difficult emotional experiences such as stress and frustration.

Drawing on a British study of adults' use of the online game EverQuest, teenagers may experience a sense of achievement from progressing through a game. They may feel liberated by the scope of the internet and a gain a sense of community through being able to form or maintain friendships. This is particularly relevant to expatriates.

More generally, there is evidence that mechanisms relevant to other dependencies are present in CRT abuse/dependence.

These include a tolerance to the brain's reward system which partly explains the need for more CRT activity; sensitivity to CRT cues; expecting better outcomes from continued use ('just one more game!'); and expecting to feel relief from any agitation associated with a lack of CRT activity.

At present, there is no body of evidence to suggest that there may be a genetic component to CRT dependence. There is mixed evidence about whether it is related to other forms of psychological distress such as depression or OCD.

Few studies have looked at the prevalence of CRT abuse among adolescents. But a Norwegian study found about 10 per cent of its sample of 2,372 adolescents were abusing the internet. Boys were three times as likely as girls to be abusers. A small number of studies have found CRT dependence rates of between 2.7 per cent (Norway) and 20 per cent (Britain).

More research is needed to better understand why and how often problems arise.

But what can be agreed is that some adolescents do develop problematic relationships with CRT. Research demonstrates that clinical interventions can be successful in helping people of all ages in managing their CRT relationships.

There is a limited research base into the phenomenon of CRT abuse/ dependence. It has a number of problems, including a use of different criteria for abuse and dependence. There are also different criteria in use for varied CRT activities, for instance, gaming versus internet activity.

Please consider these methodological shortcomings when reading the findings above. This article is based on a presentation given by clinical therapist Anuradha Mathur and clinical psychologist Dr Justin Grayer.