One teen out of ten is hooked on the Internet

  • Chats, downloads, online games and gambling add up.
  • A thousand teens tell how they use their mouse.

Almost one adolescent out of ten suffers from difficulty setting limits on their Internet usage and almost one out of thirty have reached “abusive levels”. These findings are based on a scale developed by researchers to evaluate this loss of control in a study by Click. The study requested by the public federal research bureau Belspo, was led by the universities of Namur and Leuven.

The investigation is based on a questionnaire completed in-person in schools of all levels, both general and technical, by over 1,000 adolescents whose mean age was 15. Ninety-nine percent of teens of that age have Internet at home and 80% have their own computer. Three out of four use the Internet in their own room. They are connected for over twelve hours per week, or close to 2 hours per day. Their most frequent activities are downloading films and music and chatting, but one out of three visits pornographic sites, and one out of five makes purchases on the Internet. “That’s what they are saying. But, even in an anonymous questionnaire, they aren’t necessarily telling the truth,” points out one expert.

Two-thirds of the teens play games, and 57% of those teens play games whether they are connected or not. Those who play online spend on average an hour and 7 minutes on school days but almost three hours per day on weekends! Four out of ten try at least one new game each month; one out of ten tries at least three. Adventure games are the most popular, ahead of action games where the player is a shooter.

Researchers employed a compulsive Internet use scale based on the frequency and intensity of 14 indicators. This study demonstrates that 9.5% of young Internet users can be categorized as compulsive. Three percent fall into the most problematic usage category.

“Compulsive users spend over three hours per day on the Internet, compared to one and a half hours for non-compulsive users,” the researchers explain. These researchers also detect socio-economic differences: 40% of compulsive users are in the technical system versus 27% in the general educational system. Their parents are less likely to be married (44% as opposed to 60%) and more likely to be divorced (31%). The “compulsives” are more likely to come from single parent households than to be raised by both parents (6.4% versus 2.5%). On the other hand, no difference was found based on the presence of siblings.

Is there anything parents can do to change this situation? The answer seems to be yes!  When questioned about rules for using the Internet at home, teens described restrictions on the number of hours or on acceptable content. Teens who were the most “supervised” had lower rates of compulsive Internet usage than those who had “vague rules” imposed by their parents. It is a moderating effect that was also observed when researchers examined compulsive gaming or social network use. “We might imagine that parents who notice their children spending a lot of time on the Internet put rules in place.”

This research provides a snapshot of the phenomenon for the federal state and the Regions to put oversight measures in place, if not to try to control the supply. Some researchers mention “traps” set for the youngest users, such as amazing rewards hidden inside some adventure games. One study has shown that 5% of online poker players are actually minors, although this is illegal.

All the same, all intense Internet usage is not a problem. “People have impulses and can lose control, but they quickly regain it. Looking for an escape is not an addiction,” explains Professor Joël Billieux.


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