Hong Kong’s Internet-addicted youth need understanding, not judgement: experts

Last month, the children and youth-focused NGO Hong Kong Playground Association (HKPA) surveyed more than 4,000 Hongkongers under the age of 18 and found that 13.7 percent have a high tendency for online addiction. Among secondary school students, more than 15% were found to be at high risk.

Youth workers and frontline scholars have called for a better understanding of online addiction and a more empathic look at the psychological needs of children and adolescents who exhibit addictive behaviors online.

Experts say signs of addiction include cravings, loss of control, and individuals isolating themselves from family and friends, as well as exhibiting withdrawal symptoms such as shakiness and anxiety when not online.

Otherwise, although worrying, young people may rely heavily on the Internet.

Joe Tang Chun-yu, who is in charge of Christian Services Hong Kong’s online addiction counseling center, said real-life problems are at the root of many children’s addictive behavior.

I hope more people can understand that it’s not necessarily an addiction but a result of dissatisfaction with reality, she said.

Children who spent a lot of time on the internet often did poorly in school, lacked skills or talent, lacked peer support, all of which could contribute to low self-esteem.

Joe Tang, who is in charge of Christian Services Hong Kong's online addiction counseling center, says real-life problems can lead to addictive behavior in children towards the internet.  Photo: Jonathan Wong

Joe Tang, who is in charge of Christian Services Hong Kong’s online addiction counseling center, says real-life problems can lead to addictive behavior in children towards the internet. Photo: Jonathan Wong

They need friends, happiness, feelings of fulfillment, she said. They want someone to understand and accept them for who they are, but the real world can’t always meet those basic needs.

Tang said the center’s counseling efforts have focused on helping young people explore more choices, piece together reality, and find balance in life.

We prefer not to use the word addiction because it carries a label, and also a lack of understanding towards young people, he said. By using imbalance instead, we hope to make them feel understood, accepted, and motivated to change their habits.

June, who started attending the center last year, has gradually come out of her shell. Counseling and antidepressants from her psychiatrist helped her deal with her social phobia.

Although she still spent an hour or two on the Internet every day, she was no longer afraid to leave the house or talk to people and hoped to pursue her passion for digital art.

Loss of control is a key feature

Venus Lee Yan-yi, HKPA project manager, said parents were concerned about the amount of time their children spent online and their school grades, and this often led to fights.

If parents always assume that using the Internet is a bad thing, their children will avoid talking to them about it, even when they face cyber risks, she said.

Addiction counselor Chau Yuk-shan of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Integrated Center on Addiction Prevention and Treatment, said nearly three out of four young people he attended were addicted to mobile gaming, experienced constant cravings and suffered many consequences including health problems and family conflicts.

Most struggled to understand their condition and counseling focused on helping them realize the consequences.

About a quarter of those who came to the center also had psychiatric disorders, including depression and autism, among others, he added.

HKPA project manager Venus Lee says clashes between young people and parents may start again over concerns about the impact of screen time on school grades.  Photo: Tse jelly

HKPA project manager Venus Lee says clashes between young people and parents may start again over concerns about the impact of screen time on school grades. Photo: Tse jelly

The World Health Organization listed gaming disorder as a mental health condition in 2018, but debates remain over the diagnosis and definition of internet addiction or excessive internet use.

Dr Chan Kai-tai, clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Hong Kong, said: The definition of Internet addiction varies across disciplines, but loss of control remains the primary feature.

He said it was important to create an interdisciplinary platform to better understand internet addiction and develop strategies to address it.

As we talk about finding balance in life, where exactly is the balance and who decides? Young people, who are digital natives, should be involved in this discussion because they are impacted the most, she said.

Instead of regulating screen time, he stressed that the goal should be to support healthy use of the internet, with a conscious boundary drawn between the physical and virtual worlds and digital devices treated as tools.

We also need to be aware of and broadly discuss how digitization impacts humans as a whole before humanity becomes an artifact in museums, he added.

Professor Matthew Lee Kwok-on, a professor of information systems and e-commerce at City University who has researched addiction for the past decade, believed it was part of a bigger problem in a new digital world.

The people of Hong Kong lack digital literacy, i.e. the right knowledge, skills and attitude to use digital technology, especially how to keep ourselves safe, including protecting privacy and our physical and mental health while using, has stated.

He added that more research and education was needed to cultivate the healthy and productive use of technology.

The key is to develop a self-regulatory mechanism so that individuals are aware of their behavior and potential consequences and it is important to recognize that gadgets are not a plague.

*Name changed to protect respondents’ identity.

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