Are Teens Hooked on the Internet?

By Dirk Hanson 05/04/11

Trouble in River City—or maybe not. Lack of quality research fuels “Internet addiction” fears.

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Internet addicts or just kids?
Photo via thinkstockphotos

First, it was pool. Then comic books. Then pinball machines. Then violent TV shows. Then violent video games. Then violent web pages. And now, well, it’s sometimes hard not to fall in with the legions of detractors who see signs of “Internet addiction” wherever they look among American youth. But no matter how troubled their elders may be by the hours kids spend on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or any of a million other possible websites, when parents turn to the science on the subject, they won't find many answers.

Investigators from the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine and from the University of Washington went digging through the medical literature, searching for all the reputable studies available on the subject of problematic Internet use. Then they subjected all of those studies to rigorous methodological scrutiny, and concluded that…they really couldn't conclude much of anything at all. If Internet addiction exists, you certainly couldn’t prove it on the basis of existing scientific research, anyway.

In the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the researchers concluded, somewhat anticlimactically: “The evaluation of problematic Internet use remains incomplete and is hampered by methodological inconsistencies…..Despite the newness of this area of study, most studies in our review were published more than three years ago.” Out of 600 possible studies, the researchers had to throw out all but 18  due to low-quality reports, low response rates, and missing data. At this point, it appears that Internet addiction remains more folklore than fact.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]