Smart phones and tablets have made it easy to get online anytime and anywhere, but for some, going offline is getting harder.
Experts say there are growing numbers of people addicted to their screens, leading to calls for more treatment services, especially in regional and rural areas.
Experts say girls in their early teens are finding it difficult to disconnect from social networking sites like Facebook, while boys are more likely to be addicted to video games.
According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, smartphone ownership among Australians aged 14 to 17 rose by 30 per cent in the past 12 months.
It took a long time for Launceston university student Gavin Lewandowski-Timson to realise that a fun pastime – playing online video games – had turned into an addiction.
“It’s so subtle, as opposed to cigarettes or alcohol or marijuana which are addictive and they’re in the media and they’re in the spotlight constantly,” he said.
“Whereas in my head gaming was to a lesser degree, so it just crept up on me and it’s something that I didn’t take as seriously.”
He decided he had a problem when he found he was avoiding other people in order to spend up to 70 hours a week in the virtual world.
“I was wagging school, I was avoiding seeing friends and my girlfriend, so I could get that next piece of gear or new piece of loot,” he said.
Once he knew he had a problem, he took action.
“The easiest way for me to get out of that was to give away all my game items and currency to my guild members, and then delete my account.”
For other young people, going “cold turkey” is not as easy and experts say that with the rise in ownership of smartphones, tablets and other wireless internet connected devices it is getting harder.
In northern Tasmania, an increasing number of young people are turning to local mental health services for help to kick their internet addictions.
Cate Sinclair is the chief executive of Cornerstone Youth Services, which runs the Headspace centres in Launceston and Devonport in northern Tasmania.
She says girls aged 12 to 14 are most likely to report they cannot disconnect from social networking sites like Facebook, while boys are more likely to be addicted to video games.
Ms Sinclair says young people who report online addictions are sleep deprived and face problems at school.
“[They have] really low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, wanting not go to school for fear of what might happen, so lots of social issues and mental health issues,” she said.
Sometimes the screen addictions are combined with other problems like cyber bullying and gambling addictions.
“Young people, especially guys, [are] saying that they’re addicted to gaming,” Ms Sinclair said.
“And then what can happen from an addiction to gaming, online gaming, can actually turn into an addiction to gambling as they grow older. So we can sort of predict some patterns and outcomes that can happen as a result.”
Mental health problems often cause of addiction
Dr Philip Tam is one of a handful of Australian psychiatrists who specialise in treating internet and video game addiction.
He has patients at the Rivendell Child and Adolescent Unit at Sydney’s Concord Hospital and is a board member of the Network for Internet Investigation and Research Australia.
He has been contacted by young people and families from all over Australia wanting help to overcome internet and video game addictions.
During treatment he conducts long interviews with the young person and their family, to determine if there are underlying problems like depression, anxiety or family dysfunction.
“Really you’ve got to do a very holistic, thorough and empathic family interview, and then ultimately you’ve got to treat the cause, which almost always [is] one of those underlying mental health conditions,” he said.
Dr Tam says the biggest barrier to young people getting treatment is the reluctance of many to accept their online activities are causing problems.
Those in regional areas can face difficulties because there are few psychologists who can recognise and treat the condition.
“Since this is such a very newly emerging disorder, there probably are very few GPs and psychologists and even school counsellors who really know how to handle this disorder, because it’s really only been with us for a few short years,” he said.
Dr Tam hopes the increasing recognition of internet addiction as a legitimate health problem will mean more Australian health services offer treatment.
“Hopefully there will be, if you like, in the years ahead, a kind of network of interested clinicians, that are if you like skilled in treating what is a very complex disorder,” he said.
Families need to set boundaries for children
He says education programs to help young people and their families set realistic boundaries about time spent online are essential.
“Really the message is yes, it needs to get taken seriously, not just by government, but by schools, by families, and by parent groups,” he said.
In Launceston, Cornerstone Youth Services is considering a program in which specialists in Melbourne and Sydney would treat Tasmanian teenagers through video conferencing.
Ms Sinclair wants greater funding from the State and Commonwealth governments for treatment and education programs.
“Have it as a key agenda item, and something that they monitor and review periodically,” she said.
“Have a look at some trials where we might, for example, have some funding to see how we could test certain strategies that help in achieving balanced use of smart phones and social media.”
The federal Health department says it provides funding to organisations like Headspace to provide mental health services, including treatment for internet and video game addiction.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC News’ on 9 December 2013.