Escaping from a Web of Fantasy; These Days, Nearly Every Child Has Access to a Computer, but What Happens When Their Virtual World Becomes More Important Than Their Real One? Andrew Higgins Examines a Growing Phenomenon
Byline: Andrew Higgins
ADDICTION. Some people say we are all addicted in some way or another, be it to cigarettes, gambling, shoe-shopping or television.
Usually, though, when people mention addiction, the image is one of heroin addicts stealing car stereos and the public woes of tabloid-magnet Pete Doherty.
But what if an addict's vice is secret, what if it does not manifest itself via the hazy eyes of heroin or the telling reek of alcohol? What if children could be succumbing to just such an addiction while their parents watch Coronation Street in the same room?
Internet addiction is a growing problem in our computer-reliant world, with anyone from working adults to young children at risk.
From lack of sleep to severe depression, the symptoms of Internet Addiction Disorder or IAD (a term first presented by Dr KS Young, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh) are more disturbing than you might expect.
And a US study estimates that between 5% and 10% of people are affected to some degree.
In Liverpool, three mothers are working together to tackle the issue. Natalie Taylor, Liz North and Pat Kendall are the mums behind PLN (Pat Liz Natalie) Associates, an organisation formed to help tutor parents in internet safety.
They run workshops to help concerned parents monitor their child's internet activities, coaching parents in some of the finer points of the web.
"We launched because we are three mums struggling to keep up with technology," says 29-year-old Natalie Taylor, from Maghull, who, with a technical background, deals primarily with parents' computer problems.
"These days, kids know more than parents. Parents walk into the room and have no idea what their child has been talking about online."
The team, which has been operating for around 18 months, and is currently seeking accreditation from the government body Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, first became involved in treating internet addiction a few months ago when a number of worried parents, seeking advice from PLN, mentioned some early signs of problems with excessive computer usage.
Natalie, a qualified counsellor, and Liz, a life coach, have already dealt locally with two cases of young children whose internet activities seriously affected their lives and those of their families. But while they play on The Sims or chat to friends via Windows Messenger, what should parents look for?
Dr James Cruickshank, a psychologist and lecturer at Liverpool University, with experience in the psychological aspects of "cyberspace" and internet addiction, says distinguishing addiction in children is difficult.
"We're seeing the first generation of children who have had the internet available throughout their whole lives," he explains. "It is much more normal for them to use computers."
Dr Cruickshank adds that research reveals a lot of people that spend a lot of time on the internet match a lot of characteristics of substance abusers. This is backed up by estimates that as many as 50% of internet addicts go on to develop other addictions.
So when does curiosity end and a worrying obsession with the web begin?
The first sign parents should be wary of is defensiveness, advises Natalie. If a child is unwilling to talk about what he or she does online or becomes annoyed when disturbed while using the internet, it could be cause for concern.
Natalie explains that children who are shy and unpopular are most likely to be drawn towards the idea of being able to create new identities and live a new life, and highlights the thrill that some children feel through this unhealthy form of escapism.
She says: "It's a very adult world, and it is upsetting to see a child get drawn in.
"It can be difficult for parents to identify what's addiction and what is typical infatuation. …