Teens who feel supported by parents more likely to develop internet addiction - study

Teens who feel supported by parents more likely to develop internet addiction - study
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Teenagers who feel well-supported by their parents are more likely to struggle with an internet addiction over time, a new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Sydney Business School studied 2809 students from 17 Catholic high schools in New South Wales and Queensland. For the study, students completed a survey three-quarters of the way through the school year from years 8 to 11.

The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found on average that:

  • adolescents engage with the internet more intensively as they go through high school
  • support from friends was consistently higher than support from parents and teachers across the four years of the study
  • parental support marginally declined over the course of years 8 to 11.

But what surprised researchers the most was teenagers who reported high social support from parents were more likely to later report compulsive internet use. The teenagers who reported compulsive use were likely to afterwards report a decline in social support from teachers.

According to the researchers, compulsive internet use, also referred to as "problematic internet use", is the difficulty regulating internet use and often involves withdrawal symptoms, rumination about being online when not online, and disengagement from daily activities.

Dr James Donald, lead investigator and a senior lecturer in work and organisational studies, said he was surprised to see that parental social support led adolescents to experience greater compulsive internet use over time.

"When youth saw their parents as being relatively supportive compared to the parents' own average, they reported more compulsive internet use in the following year," he said. 

"This is contrary to what we predicted but consistent with previous studies which found children who reported low levels of neglect by their parents were more likely to increase in internet addiction over time."

Dr Donald speculated the reason for this surprise finding comes down to teens' perception of what constitutes parental support.

"There are several ways parents can manage the threat of internet addiction. They can take no action, co-use or joint access the internet, discuss usage in a positive way, monitor, and/or set rules and limits, which may involve punishment," he said.

"We speculate that refraining from mediation may be popular with youth and even lead them to perceive their parents as being more supportive. However, previous studies have found parental refraining is associated with increased compulsive internet use. This 'popular parents, compulsive youth' explanation appears consistent with our results.

"And it's important to note this methodology is only useful for predicting change in behaviour. On average, supportive parenting is still associated with less compulsive internet use."

The researchers drew on ecological systems theory, which is a framework community psychologists use to examine individuals' relationships within communities and the wider society.

"Perceived social support is an inherently subjective belief that people care for them and are willing to help when needed. It may not match the extent that others think they are being supportive, but perceived support is most strongly linked to wellbeing," Dr Donald said.

Dr Donald added the study became even more relevant with the unexpected difficulty of COVID-19 lockdowns, which saw young people spending even more time online.

"The internet and social media are radically changing the way young people interact with their social environment. Recent surveys have found that US adolescents spend approximately seven hours of non-school or study time per day online," he said.

"As the online world plays an increasing role in young people's lives, and given the social richness of the online world, we need to better understand how compulsive internet use influences adolescents' social support - and vice versa."