To recognize warning signs of a child’s internet addiction, parents must keep a watchful eye on his or her online activities as soon and as persistently as possible.

This is the advice of Klaus Woelfling, psychological director of the gambling addiction outpatient department of the Clinic and Polyclinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the University of Mainz in Germany.

“Parents should make sure their child doesn’t become withdrawn and isolated,” Woelfling said in an interview with dpa. If family members notice this sort of behaviour in a child, they should address it, he advised, adding that “the lines of parent-child communication must be kept open.” Online computer games, experts say, hold the greatest addictive potential for young people. “Games are very compelling because they stimulate the desire to keep solving new tasks,” Woelfling noted.

Social networks and chatrooms can become addictive as well. “Users try to take on an attractive identity they may be unable to in real life,” Woelfling said. They then have fewer negative experiences and a chance to make innumerable friends on the internet. “Basically they’re never lonely and always find an open ear.” Woelfling said that internet consumption was problematic when users developed an irresistible urge to be online and could no longer control the start, end and duration of an internet session. “They continue even though they know it’s harmful,” he said. If they are forbidden from going online, they can show withdrawal symptoms including aggression, insomnia or depression.

Parents of such children should turn to an addiction counselling centre for information on possible psychological therapies, Woelfling advised.

According to a study by Germany’s Federal Health Ministry, young people aged 14 to 24 are especially prone to internet addiction: 2.4 per cent of them are considered addicts, and 13.6 per cent are classified as “problem users.” Woelfling said there are no hard and fast guidelines on how much time online is safe. “The content can affect people differently,” he remarked. But he said experience had shown that non-addicted users were online fewer than three hours daily, and addicted ones about eight hours.

Children who are at risk need not be kept away from the internet altogether, Woelfling pointed out. They can continue to visit areas of the web that lack addictive potential. “It’s important to learn how to use the internet in a controlled way,” he said. This can only succeed when potentially addictive sites are avoided.