Recently, I answered a question from a mother who wanted to know whether she should be concerned that her teen son was spending several hours a day on Wikipedia. When the answer was featured on Ask the Mediatrician and discussed on the Center on Media and Child Health Facebook page, several readers challenged whether this boy's intense interest in Wikipedia or excessive internet time was really that bad compared to other things he could be doing. I agreed with many of these comments and realized that I had not made my thoughts totally clear.
I am so glad to see parents engaged in this issue, and I agree with many of the respondents that the Internet is a place where positive things can happen for media-savvy teens. As I mentioned in the original post, Wikipedia’s crowd-sourced content is extremely valuable for research purposes, especially when students understand the importance of evaluating the sources being used in the articles. In fact, I agree with the growing pushback among some thoughtful bloggers and educators who see Wikipedia, used correctly, as an important information source. As several commenters pointed out, the kind of in-depth exploration and clarification of entries described by this mother is an important aspect of using a source like Wikipedia. Curious young people interested in research, academia, or literature can use it to detail, clarify and help shape the public’s understanding of topics in which they’re interested.
But this parent’s concern was not over Wikipedia as a source or even the internet as a place to spend time, but about her son’s behavior. He has problems with time management, sleeps poorly, and is clinically depressed. Her research led her to articles about internet addiction, but nothing on Wikipedia per se.
There is no scientific evidence that Wikipedia in particular or the internet in general have a negative effect on young people. However, new research published just this month reveals that kids who spend more than two hours per day watching TV or using a computer are more at risk for exhibiting psychological difficulties, regardless of whether they were sedentary or engaged in physical activity (although the risks of depression were even higher if they didn’t exercise regularly).
It is very difficult to know whether this particular teen I was answering the question about was affected by his screen media use or whether he took refuge in it. Do his online activities contribute to feeling out of control? Or are they an attempt to overcome anxiety or depression by working on a website which he could edit and help control?
As a pediatrician and health scientist, I don’t like labeling problematic internet use with the sensational and imprecise term “addiction.” (As a parent, I know how negative it sounds, especially as it relates to kids.) Television addiction, an equally inaccurate term, has long been discussed as a problem behavior, but neither it nor “internet addiction” currently meet established standards for formal psychiatric diagnoses as I’ve mentioned in a previous column. Some doctors say the term “pathological use of the internet” would be more accurate, even arguing that it merits inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the handbook of psychiatric and behavioral diagnoses. As both a clinician and a parent, I take a pragmatic rather than dogmatic approach: I really don’t care what it is labeled, but if a child’s internet use might be affecting his physical, mental or social health, it is worth a try to alter or eliminate that use and see whether the child improves. If there is no difference, the child’s issues may be unrelated or have preceded his media use. If things get better, the problem is taken care of.
There is still much to be learned about how we are affected by the way that we use media. Discussions such as these, where we share observations and experiences with the goal of greater understanding and control of our media environment, will be a key part of our efforts to improve our health and citizenship in the Media Age. Thanks to all our CMCH fans on Facebook who commented on this post. It is conversations like this that make Ask the Mediatrician the resource it is intended to be. Let’s keep the conversation going!