Guiding adolescents away from Internet addiction to become the best they can be

Guiding adolescents away from Internet addiction to become the best they can be

“If they fail, we fail together, so it’s our problem not their problem and one we can solve together – children should not feel left alone with failure?” (Jennifer Fox Eades)

Can you remember, as an adolescent, how you dealt with self-doubt or friendship issues?

I remember building a wall around myself for a while, not wanting to communicate, except at a superficial level, with my peers, even my family, faking illness because I didn’t want to go to school, trying unsuccessfully to be ‘cool’, so I could join a peer group and have that important sense of belonging that all adolescents crave, occasionally wishing I was someone else and not liking myself.

When psychologists and neuroscientists describe the adolescent years as confusing, I can easily identify with that word from my own adolescent experiences and, of course, having been a teacher for so many years and mentored hundreds and hundreds of adolescents in that place of confusion, observing the highs and lows of their journeys through adolescence to adulthood, I probably have many stories to share.

16-year old Annie (not her real name) shared with me issues she was having with her best friend. Annie was confused and also said she was finding all the gossip and friendship issues draining.Annie and I shared some strategies she could use to help her through the issues, most especially understanding that, when approached with an open and positive mind, it is possible to look at conflict as having a positive value. When handled constructively, conflict can help us to:

  • learn new problems
  • build better and more durable relationships
  • learn more about ourselves and others, including the style of behavior we follow when dealing with conflicts.

Annie, just as I experienced as an adolescent, is also wanting to belong and that led to a discussion about creating a number of circles of friends so that she could move around, rather than become isolated if she has a setback with someone in a particular circle and finds herself on the outside.

And all this had me thinking about young people and the impact that social media, indeed, the online world might have on that adolescent who struggles to fit in anywhere.

Baroness Susan Greenfield is a British scientist, writer, broadcaster and speaker. She shares thoughts about what we shall be seeing in adolescents, as they explore Social Media and the Internet: “… an all too human mind-set amplified in all its frailty and vulnerability, craving attention as a unique individual and, at the same time, paradoxically, needing desperately to belong and to be embraced within a collective identity and mind-set.”

The CRC Health Group is the largest provider of specialized mental and behavioral health care in the USA. They talk about Internet addiction and list a number of behavioral and physiological indicators that ‘might’ suggest an adolescent has an internet addiction:

  • most non school hours are spent on the computer playing video games
  • falling asleep in school
  • falling behind with assessments and assignments
  • worsening grades/test/exam results
  • lying about computer or video game use
  • choosing to use computer or play video games rather than see friends
  • dropping out of other social groups such as Clubs, sports or youth groups
  • being irritable when not playing a video game or not on the Computer
  • carpal tunnel syndrome – joint pain in fingers, hands and wrists – from repetitive motions that come with excessive keyboard use
  • insomnia
  • forgoing food in order to remain online
  • neglecting personal hygiene and grooming in order to remain online
  • headaches, back pain and neck pain
  • dry eyes and vision problems

Of course, we are looking for persistent issues eg, if a student falls asleep in class, it might be because he or she worked most of the night on a project. However, if there is a pattern of the student sleeping in class more regularly, that should raise alarm bells and lead to a discussion with the student about his or her wellbeing.

Only yesterday I was hearing about 15-year old Emily (not her real name) who seems to be developing anxiety issues and, from all accounts, showing signs of disengaging from some activities she has been involved in on a regular basis. Self-image? Sense of belonging issues? Internet issues? I don’t yet fully know her story, yet she is in all probability just a normal adolescent also confronting a time of confusion in her life. But what if Annie had no-one to talk to, or didn’t feel she had anyone she could trust to share these deeper feelings? She might easily retreat to the online world, join questionable chat rooms and so on. Her anxiety levels ‘might’ also increase and this would probably negatively impact her academic studies.

It’s at times like these, when one is aware of a student possibly becoming drawn into the world of online addiction or withdrawing from their social group, as examples, when an adult has such an important role to play in the adolescent’s life.

If an adult can have a conversation with the adolescent, listening, showing empathy and being non-judgmental, the young person ‘might’ hesitantly, at first, allow that adult into their lives. No matter what occurs, rest assured that the young person WILL BE LISTENING, even if every facial gesture, the body language, tone of voice and lack of eye contact might suggest otherwise, seize the opportunity and start sowing the seeds underpinning the Spirit of Mentoring:

  • chat about the student’s WELLBEING, looking after themselves physically by having a healthy diet and doing their best to have nine hours sleep EVERY night;
  • share with them how they can undertake a self-empowering journey and take control of their lives, by setting GOALS and working towards achieving them one small step at a time. Initially encourage the student to set set fairly simple goals that you suspect the student will easily achieve. Once he or she has tasted success they will start stepping up and set more challenging goals that will take them out of their comfort zones;
  • focus on what they want with regard to their RELATIONSHIPS and help them to develop strategies to develop meaningful relationships, a process that will take time. Encourage the young person to take time away from the Internet and Social Media and engage in DISCUSSIONS about their feelings, challenging issues they are dealing with etc. with someone who will listen to them, someone they are prepared to trust –  a relative (grandparents are often brilliant in this area), a positive peer, a teacher, a coach, a mentor.

Hopefully, you will be one of the people the young person trusts and embark on a journey with them for as long as is necessary.

This is what I am doing with Annie at the moment. Her stress levels and anxiety levels have already decreased as a result of the communication we have been having, the fact that she knows I am not sitting in judgement on her and am encouraging her to be the ‘real’ Annie. She and her friend have agreed to disagree on their issue and the friendship is getting back on track. Thankfully, unlike Leon (not his real name), Annie is not addicted to the Internet. I am not sure who will reach out to Leon at this stage.

Finally, Hilary Smith, a parent and writer for Teensafe, a company which specializes in helping parents of adolescents navigate the challenges of digital parenting, sent me this infographic linked to self-image, which contains some user-friendly information to assist us as we encourage young people to become the best they can be.

Have you any stories to share about working with young people, especially those caught up for too many hours on the Internet?

About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organiser, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in Australia and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can join him on Twitter @million2016coxy or on Facebook or see his daily posts on Instagram or contact him through his YES! website