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ADHD and Internet Addiction

By Meghan Vivo

One would think that a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) would be tough enough on a child – but research shows that kids with ADHD are also more prone to a host of other problems. Difficulty focusing can lead to academic problems, and impulse control issues can lead to behavioral problems, car accidents, substance abuse and other risky behaviors.

Internet addiction has become another serious concern for teenagers and their parents, and teens with ADHD are at even greater risk for developing this compulsion. A 2009 study of more than 2,000 seventh graders, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, found that boys and girls with ADHD were more likely to be addicted to the Internet (particularly online gaming and chatting) than teens without the disorder.

In many ways, the Internet is naturally attractive to kids with ADHD. The Internet is fast-paced and offers a never-ending supply of information, games and social outlets. According to researchers, the Internet has unique appeal to teens with ADHD for the following reasons:

  • Kids with ADHD are easily bored and thrive on instant gratification.
  • On the Internet, teens with ADHD can open multiple windows and engage in a variety of activities at one time, all with the click of a mouse.
  • Scientists believe teens with ADHD may have a dopamine deficiency, which may be counteracted by the dopamine produced while playing online games.
  • Because of abnormal brain activity, teens with ADHD lack self-control, making it difficult for them to control their Internet use and leaving them more susceptible to Internet addiction.

The Causes of Internet Addiction

Although the causes of Internet addiction differ depending on the teen in question, experts at Stone Mountain School, a private boarding school for boys in North Carolina, have observed the following common precursors to Internet addiction:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor self-image
  • Lack of achievements
  • Feeling undervalued
  • A feeling of lack of control over one’s life
  • A feeling of being trapped
  • Lack of a structured environment
  • Stress and real-world problems
  • Difficulty making and sustaining relationships
  • Strained home environment
  • Lack of community or friends
  • Difficulty regulating persistent negative emotions
  • Lack of a stimulating learning environment
  • Lack of opportunities for mastery
  • Lack of opportunities for exploration
  • Lack of opportunity to play

Warning Signs of Internet Addiction

Computers are going to remain a central part of American life, so it is essential for parents to learn ways to monitor their child’s computer use and detect the symptoms of Internet addiction.

The experts at Stone Mountain School advise parents to watch for the following signs of Internet addiction:

  • Preoccupation with the Internet
  • Change in eating habits, sleep patterns or school performance
  • Physical ailments such as numbness in the hands, eye strain, weight gain or loss, and headaches, back aches or neck aches
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Missing school or work to surf the Web
  • Refusing to do chores or fulfill other responsibilities because of Internet time
  • Using the Internet longer than allowed or desired
  • An inability to cut back on Internet use
  • Giving up previously enjoyable activities in order to spend more time on the Internet
  • Neglecting friends and family in favor of spending time on the computer
  • Defensiveness or efforts to hide or lie about Internet use
  • Becoming irritable when unable to use the Internet
  • Isolating oneself socially or viewing the Internet as an escape

Like other forms of addiction, Internet addicts experience difficulty quitting, tolerance (craving more and more screen time) and withdrawal (irritability, anxiety and boredom) when not using the Internet.

Treating Teens with ADHD

Teenagers are spending more time on the computer than ever before. And though computers are valuable for homework, research and socializing, too much can lead to problems in other areas of life, especially for teens with ADHD.

“The Internet is a stimulating place for teenage boys with ADHD. Many of our students are addicted to ‘World of Warcraft’ and other video games for that very reason, and will spend 13-plus hours straight on the computer without eating or tending to their basic hygiene needs,” says Leigh Uhlenkott, MS, LPC, NCC, LMHC, the clinical director at Stone Mountain School. “They lose their place in the real world because they’re so focused on virtual reality.”

At Stone Mountain School, boys with ADHD learn new coping skills so that they don’t turn to the Internet and video games when they return home. In a residential treatment setting, the boys work with a therapist and their families to understand their motivation to compulsively use the Internet, find healthier pastimes and establish appropriate boundaries.

Addressing the underlying issues that led to Internet addiction is also a focus at Stone Mountain School. The students get plenty of exercise, outdoor activity and play time as well as opportunities to build their self-esteem. A token economy provides a system of positive reinforcement, a daily schedule provides structure and organization, and a positive peer support network helps the boys build lasting friendships.

Internet addiction requires intervention and treatment just like other addictions. Kids with ADHD have a rough road ahead – make sure there are as few bumps as possible by monitoring their computer use and getting help right away if you notice the signs of Internet addiction.


 

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