When I was a teen, going online still meant getting in the car and driving to the local library. At some point we got a dial-up connection at home, which felt like a luxury; whenever I wanted to check my Yahoo! Mail account or go on AIM, I just sat down at the computer and waited to connect.
Today, things are different. According to a 2015 Pew study, nearly three-quarters of US teens have or have access to a smartphone. Twenty-four percent go online “almost constantly,” and another 56 percent are online several times a day. According to one review of studies in over 25 countries, about 8 percent are actually addicted to the Internet.
What can we do to help? According to a new study published in the journal Mindfulness, training teens to cultivate moment-to-moment awareness and intentionality may be part of the solution.
Researchers recruited over 900 teens from 12 schools in Spain, and surveyed them on their levels of mindful awareness (the ability to regulate their attention and focus on the present) and Internet addiction.
Teens are considered addicted to the Internet to the extent that they:
- Prefer to interact with others online rather than face-to-face.
- Use the Internet to regulate their mood and relieve sadness or stress.
- Have compulsive thoughts about getting online and can’t control their usage.
- Report problems in life because of Internet use, like missing out on socializing and other activities.
According to the researchers’ analysis, the less mindful the teens were, the more addicted they were to the Internet—by all four criteria. Those problematic feelings and behaviors seemed to fuel each other: Teens who preferred online social interaction were more likely to use the Internet to regulate their mood. These teens, in turn, felt a greater compulsion to be online constantly, which was linked to more problems in life.
Why might mindfulness protect against Internet addiction?
“Individuals with high trait mindfulness are able to maintain a sense of calm and balance and can make thoughtful decisions rather than acting automatically,” the researchers explain. Mindful teens should be more comfortable acknowledging negative emotions and realizing that they are temporary; they will pass.
For these reasons, mindful teens experiencing all the stresses and insecurities of teenage life might be more skilled at processing their feelings, rather than turning to the Internet for solace and distraction. They might feel more capable of braving embarrassment and rejection out in the real social world, rather than cocooning behind a screen. (Indeed, mindfulness—which has previously been shown to help with substance abuse and gambling addiction—is linked to less social anxiety and better interpersonal skills.)
And if teens do start compulsively scrolling through Facebook, mindfulness could help them snap out of it—and consider whether their time might be better spent doing something else.
This study involved a one-time survey, which means that the relationship could conceivably work the other way: Perhaps it’s Internet addiction that reduces teens’ mindfulness. But if the researchers are right and mindfulness is the driving force, this suggests that teaching teens to be mindful—through exercises or school programs—might help prevent and treat our modern digital obsession.