The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Teens Disconnected from Family, Addicted to the Web

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Though it comes with far fewer physical symptoms than addiction to drugs such as cocaine or OxyContin, addiction to the Internet—especially among adolescents—has emerged as a public-health concern. That concern indeed recently motivated two teams of Chinese researchers intent on identifying the circumstances in which Chinese adolescents are most vulnerable to this cyber-age affliction. Though the foci of the studies conducted by these two teams differ, both conclude that young people are significantly less likely to use the Internet compulsively in China when they enjoy strong family ties. The data in these studies identify two threats to such ties: the now nearly global epidemic of parental divorce (taking a parent out of the home) and China’s distinctive one-child policy (preventing siblings from entering the home).  

The link between parental divorce and adolescent Internet Addiction emerges in a study completed by social scientists at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the Chinese Academy of Science. Worried about the way “Internet addiction (IA) among adolescents has become a global health problem”—one that affects young people’s “physical health, psychosocial development, academic performance, and family relationships”—the scholars from these two institutions explore “the relationship between IA . . . and family functionality.”  

To probe this relationship, the Hong Kong researchers parse data collected from 2,021 ethnically Chinese students ages 12 to 18, enrolled in two area secondary schools. These data reveal that “being an adolescent with divorced parents was a strong predictor of IA.” Indeed, the percentage of adolescents identified as Internet addicts ran almost twice as high among those living with divorced parents as among those living in intact families (43.6% vs. 23.5%; p < 0.001).  

Contemplating this pattern, the researchers suggest that “in a divorced family, a single parent needs to support the entire family, which means there is limited time to build a relationship with the children.”  Accordingly, the researchers reason that “adolescents in divorced families may resort to accessing the Internet to relieve the psychological insecurities that develop in a single-parent family environment.”

The kind of environment that fosters Internet addiction may develop not only in homes where an adolescent lives with only one parent but also in homes where an adolescent lives with no siblings.  The second team of Chinese researchers, working in China’s eastern Anhui province, is motivated by concerns over the way Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) incubates both physiological and psychological problems, including “suicide ideation, disordered eating attitudes . . . [and] depressive symptoms.”  In their investigation of IAD, these scholars examine data collected from a randomized cluster sampling of 5,249 students in grades 7 to 12.  These data “showed that the IA rate of only-child students is higher than that of non-only-child students,” meaning that “IAD has more effect on  . . . single-child families” than on families with more than one child.  

The researchers recognize that their finding that only children are especially vulnerable raises difficult questions about the way “the Chinese Communist Party government has been forcefully promoting its one-child policy for 3 decades.” In China’s urban areas, the researchers acknowledge, the government’s “One-child policy . . . [has] performed better than [in] rural areas; thus the only-child proportion in the city is much higher than in rural areas.” Given the distinctive vulnerability of only-children to Internet addiction, it is therefore particularly unfortunate that “in recent years, computer and Internet ownership has dramatically increased in cities,” the very areas where a higher proportion of only children live.

The authors of the first Chinese study—the one implicating parental divorce in fostering Internet addiction among adolescents—conclude by calling for “family-based interventions.” These interventions, the researchers explain, should aim at “improving parents’ communication proficiency and fostering the skills required to achieve healthy family interactions and strengthen family functionality, rather than directly restricting Internet use.”

The authors of the second Chinese study—the one identifying only children as a population especially exposed to Internet addiction—end their study by arguing that “related education should be strengthened for susceptible subjects of IAD,”  and asserting that in this education “more care must be taken of . . . only-child students” because of their distinct vulnerability to this disorder.

Perhaps it is not surprising that researchers in a communist country would evince the same kind of political orthodoxy that keeps many of their politically correct North American and European counterparts from stating the obvious: truly improving life for children and adolescents means preventing parental divorce and ending the global birth dearth.

(Cynthia Sau Ting Wu et al., “Parenting Approaches, Family Functionality, and Internet Addiction among Hong Kong Adolescents,” BMC Pediatrics 16 [2016]: 130, Web; Yan Chen et al., “Investigation on Internet Addiction Disorder in Adolescents in Anhui, People’s Republic of China,” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 12 [2016]: 2,233-36.)