Caught in the Net - By Taylor Atkins

The Capital-Journal

Published Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Once dismissed as foolish, Internet addiction is now getting second look from parents worried about teens' time online.

Oh, what a tangled Web we weave, when first we practice to... get online.

Many Topeka teenagers admit they never feel quite right until they have checked their MySpace, Facebook or e-mail accounts in the morning and when they get home from school and again before bed.

None, however, believe they are addicted to the Web.

Since the term "Internet addiction" was introduced in the late 1990s, Web users and medical professionals have dismissed the idea. Some think the long hours of isolation characteristic of too much Web use are just a by-product of other mental issues such as depression.

But Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, said the idea is gaining popularity. Parents are starting to research the addiction as they watch their teens become more attached to the computer.

Sue Scheff, a Florida mother who helped start PURE, an organization for parents to help other parents with struggling teenagers, said Internet usage should be a major concern for parents.

"Parents aren't as concerned with their teens who are online once in a while," she said. "Parents are concerned with the teens who are completely addicted to MySpace or some other Web site. The ones who are not able to tear themselves away."

A January media survey released in China showed 2 million Chinese teenagers are Internet addicts. The survey also indicated the crime rate among teens has risen dramatically in the past five years, and some officials have linked the two findings. Other studies from sociologists and psychiatrists around the world have linked Internet addiction to growing levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, self-consciousness, obesity and other problems facing youths.

Numbers for U.S. Internet addicts aren't as exact. Young said the belief is that 6 percent of the population are online addicts, with the numbers rising to 19 percent of the population on college campuses.

Internet addiction, Scheff said, is only part of the problem. Not only are teenagers spending more and more time online — and subsequently less and less time in reality — they are clueless about the rules governing the virtual world.

"There are several issues here," Scheff explained. "The fact is that these teens can become introverts. It affects levels of growth and maturity. The other thing is teens don't understand that people lie online, people aren't honest online. Do you really know who is on the other end of those messages or chat rooms?"

Scheff recently won an online defamation suit that was one of the largest jury-decided victories to date. She was given an $11.3 million decision after an organization attacked her and her family verbally online with threats and rumors.

She continues to be concerned about the abuse that goes on between teens. Web sites have become the new school playground where teasing and bullying begins.

And, Scheff said, punishment isn't as easy as throwing someone in time out.

"I was told from the very beginning my case would be difficult because Internet laws aren't concrete," she said. "Internet defamation is a new law. We set the precedent."

In Topeka, teenagers, too, have recently run into issues with Internet regulations. In a December issue of the Topeka West's newspaper, The Campus View, staff members ran photos from students' Facebook accounts in the paper. The pictures were blurred out, but parents said not enough to prevent lawsuits.

However, lawsuits about Internet ownership are hazy. Chris Joseph, a Topeka lawyer, said, though he couldn't speak directly about the Topeka West issue, like defamation, ownership rights on the Internet also are hard to prosecute.

"It may be that the person who puts a picture on the Internet doesn't forfeit rights to that photo, but I just don't know that anyone short of Paris Hilton would be able to afford going to court over it," he said.

According to Facebook and MySpace, anything posted on a profile, comment, blog or message still belongs to the user, but the Web site has the right to use it in the advertising for their site. This means if someone posted song lyrics on MySpace, the site, owned now by Fox's Rupert Murdoch, could use the song in a MySpace commercial.

With the possibility of teenagers becoming isolated and the hazy regulations, Scheff said she has to wonder why parents allow teens to be online as much as they are.

"I just don't understand why the time they are on the Internet is growing," she said.
According to a study by the Pew Internet Project, teenage internet usage increased by 24 percent between 2001 and 2005, and still continues to grow. It is estimated that more than 77 million children and teenagers are online.

But some Topeka teenagers say they aren't worried about the downsides of the Web. For the most part, they haven't experienced depression, isolation or anything falling into the grey area of legal issues.

"I'm on the Internet all the time," said John David, 17. "I still have friends, and I'm not sad. We always here about the bad things that could happen, but they haven't happened to those of us who are smart online."

Scheff said making sure teenagers use their brains online is the best way to keep them safe, but she said she still thinks its necessary to enforce some limitations.

"It's really sad because it use to be family time. Now it's computer time playing Free Cell," she explained. "People need to go back to being a family together and being safe."

Taylor Atkins can be reached at (785)295-1187 or taylor.atkins@cjonline.com.

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