by Caroline Nersessian, LCSW

“How do you know when things are getting out of hand?”

Are you concerned that your child may be addicted to playing online video games, using messaging apps or posting selfies? If you are, it’s understandable. The ubiquitousness of the online world and the level of distraction it creates for young people today simply did not exist a generation ago. So, as a parent, how do you know if your child’s use of the internet is just part of life in the 21st century, or if it has become a problem? We are here to help you sort it out.

Although the mental health community has not yet officially recognized internet addiction as a disorder, researchers have formulated diagnostic criteria for it. And recently, the World Health Organization classified gaming disorder—an addiction to playing video games—as a real mental health condition. So, it’s a good idea to be aware that your child’s time spent online can get out of hand. When parents do become concerned, it usually has to do with one of two things: the amount of time their kids spend online, or arguing with their children about getting them to turn off their device to come to dinner, communicate with family, do homework, or go outside to play.

In moderation, the online experience can be positive for young people. It enables them to stay in touch with friends and family, offers easy access to educational and entertainment resources, and video games can help promote good hand-eye coordination and strategic thinking. But, too much screen time can prevent children from engaging in healthy face-to-face human interaction, reduce physical activity, be a source of over stimulation, or even mask serious mental health disorders. If you believe your child is becoming addicted to the internet and/or gaming, don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician or mental health provider.

Parents who complain that their children are addicted to online gaming or other screen time in the same way that substance abusers become dependent upon drugs or alcohol may be on to something. A 2012 study published in Plos One showed that the brains of people who become dependent on the Internet may undergo chemical changes similar to those of alcoholics and substance abusers. So, how do you know when things are getting out of hand?

“Are you concerned that your child may be addicted to playing online video games, using messaging apps or posting selfies?”

Here are side-by-side signs that your child’s use of the internet is harmless, and signs that it’s time to either intervene yourself, or seek the help from your pediatrician or mental health provider:

HEALTHY

Your child may whine when you tell him or her to turn off the computer, they are honest and comply.

Your child functions well, gets enough sleep, and is keeping up in school.

Video games or internet use is just one of many activities that your child enjoys. They also play sports, enjoy music, spend time with friends and/or participate in other activities.

Your child can hold a reasonable conversation with you and other adults about their time spent online or gaming.

Your child can easily cut back on the amount of time he or she is online when they decide to, or upon your request.

Your child can go a day or two without going online and still feel good.

Your child is in good physical health.

UNHEALTHY

Your child refuses to turn off the computer, and continually finds ways to use devices behind your back.

Your child is up all night playing video games, is exhausted all day, and his or her grades are slipping.

Nothing brings your child joy except being online. During other activities, they are distracted by constantly thinking about when they can go online again.

Your child becomes defensive and/or explosive when you suggest their time spent online is excessive. They are continuously argumentative when asked to turn off their computer or device.

Your child has tried in vain, time and time again, to limit their online time. They always revert to old habits.

Being offline for even a day causes your child to become irritable, depressed, or unable to concentrate.

Your child shows physical symptoms of spending too much time online, including poor personal hygiene, skipping meals, headaches, dry eyes, weight gain or carpal tunnel syndrome.