Parental support linked to teen internet addiction

23 January 2023
New study has surprise findings
Teenagers who feel well-supported by their parents are more likely to report increased internet addiction over time, in a surprise finding from a new University of Sydney Business School study.

Dr James Donald

The researchers studied nearly 3,000 adolescents across four critical years of development, from Year 8 to Year 11 (age 14-17), to examine the link between social support and compulsive internet use.

Surprisingly, 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.

Compulsive internet use, also referred to as problematic internet use, refers to 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 Senior Lecturer in Work and Organisational Studies, said the study became even more relevant with the unexpected difficulty of COVID-19 lockdowns seeing young people spending even more time online.

The research, as featured on 7 News.

"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," Dr Donald said.

“As the online world plays an increasing role in young peoples’ 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. Do high levels of online activity strengthen or erode young peoples’ social support?”

Drawing on ecological systems theory, the researchers examined the longitudinal links between adolescents’ compulsive internet use and perceived social support from three sources: parents, teachers and friends.

“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 explained.

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A total of 2,809 students from 17 Catholic high schools in NSW and Queensland took part in the study, completing a survey three-quarters of the way through the school year from Years 8 to 11.

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

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

Dr Donald said the biggest surprise was that parental social support led adolescents to experience greater compulsive internet use over time – which in turn led to less support from teachers.

Research suggests parents need to do more than support their adolescent children — they also need to set limits on screen time. Picture: Adobe Stock

“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. 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 speculates the reason for this surprise finding comes down to teen’s 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.

“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.”

Disclaimer: The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this research. The data collection for this research was funded by the Australian Research Council.

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