Today's parents have plenty of new things to worry about -- concerns not even on the parental radar screen of the previous generation. Among them is the potential harm of Internet use and abuse.
Internet addiction can take various forms. Perhaps the most common and also the most potentially dangerous type is the frequenting of chat rooms. As a result of the anonymity provided by the chat rooms, teenagers are especially vulnerable to becoming infatuated with their conversation partners. And, in many cases, young people have even been exploited by ill intentioned adults who prey on victims they find in the chat rooms.
Other young people are hooked on video games. They spend endless hours playing the thrill-packed, adrenalin-pumping electronic challenges provided by the limitless array of computer games available on the internet.
Still others are enticed to view the readily available pornography which can be viewed for little or no cost. These sites are easy to find, sexually arousing and extremely habit forming. What starts out as a momentary "peek," can quickly turn into a compulsive routine that consumes many hours each day.
There are also unlimited "opportunities" to gamble online. Who needs the race track, betting parlor or even the neighborhood bookie? It doesn't take long for someone to get habituated to the adrenalin rush he feels while wagering hundreds and even thousands of dollars from the comfort of his own bedroom.
All these forms of internet addiction share a number of common features. In all cases, the individual never intends or expects to become addicted to the behavior. Initially, he is simply browsing or surfing the internet.
Once hooked, the individual becomes enslaved to the behavior which consumes more and more hours every day. Finally, in spite of the compulsive nature of addictive behavior, the individual exercises massive denial. He will insist he is not really addicted; he can stop whenever he chooses; and, the internet addiction in no way interferes with his functioning.
HOW TO PREVENT INTERNET ADDICTION
There are steps that parents can take to reduce the chances that their child will fall prey to this modern affliction.
1. Pay attention to your child's mood. If your child is discouraged, disappointed, dejected or disgruntled, don't assume that his unhappiness is only a brief, temporary state of mind which will pass by itself. If your child is chronically unhappy, you must attempt to uncover the origin of his discontent. If, however, you ignore his sadness, he may turn to his computer for comfort and/or escape, which will render him extremely vulnerable to falling prey to an internet addiction.
2. Cancel your internet connection. (Yes, it really is possible to live without it.) Even without an internet connection, computers can be used for word processing, some computer games, compiling and storing lists for shopping, simcha invitations or family finances, and watching movies. Today you can also get internet connection accessible only for email usage. Canceling your internet access will not render your computer obsolete or your child out of touch.
3. If you must have an internet connection at home, there are various website blockers and security measures available. Consult your local computer store for details. You can also install electronic surveillance which gives you a record of the sites your child is using and frequenting on the web so that you can monitor his use or misuse of the internet.
4. Insist that the computer be kept in a central location at home. Keeping the computer in a more public space can deter your child from using it to join an on-line poker game or to view pornography.
ONCE YOUR CHILD IS HOOKED
If your child is already addicted, do not despair. It is still possible to change the situation -- but rational arguments, I'm afraid, will be completely useless in this battle. Reasoning with an internet addict is like trying to extinguish a house fire with a squirt gun.
Traditional, individual psychotherapy or counseling may help those addicted to computer games or chat rooms, but will be ineffective in battling a more hard core internet addiction such as gambling or pornography. As explained earlier, internet addicts are notorious for denying their addiction. This massive denial places the internet addict beyond the reach of traditional therapy.
As with all addictions -- whether they be substance abuse, chemical dependency or compulsive behaviors -- the only successful intervention is a "12 step program," patterned after the original success of Alcoholics Anonymous. Today, there are regular weekly meetings of Gamblers Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous which can empower people to overcome their behavioral addictions. So far, there are no 12 step programs specifically geared to internet addictions, per se. But it is only a matter of time.
From your end, as a parent, the best help you can offer is twofold. First and foremost, encourage your child to attend meetings of whichever twelve step program suits his particular internet addiction.
Secondly, be sure that you avoid supporting your child's addiction through codependency. Codependency refers to the role family members of an addict often unwittingly play in enabling the addict to continue his self-destructive behavior.
For example, if a child is caught stealing money to support his online gambling addiction and his parents bail him out of the jam, they are enabling their son to continue gambling. Or, suppose a child stays up late to play video games and comes late to class or falls behind. If his parents then write excusal notes or do school work for him, they are acting as codependents.
The internet can be an incredible source of information which, if used properly, can provide invaluable research and learning opportunities for everyone, and especially for teenagers. It can also be an extremely dangerous trap that can ensnare innocent young people into self-destructive addictions, causing unimaginable grief and heartache to themselves and their parents.
Forewarned is forearmed.