Illustration: Matt Golding.
ADDICTION to the internet has moved a step closer to being classified as a mental illness with the inclusion of ''internet use disorder'' in a worldwide psychiatric manual.
The move has been welcomed by Australian psychology professionals in response to a wave of always-on technology engulfing children.
The Sunday Age
has spoken to parents of children as young as seven who are aggressive, irritable and hostile when deprived of their iPads or laptops.
Psychologists say video game and internet addictions share the characteristics of other addictions, including emotional shutdown, lack of concentration and ''withdrawal symptoms'' if the gadgets are removed.
Other fallout can include devastating impacts for children and families as social interaction and even food are neglected in favour of the virtual worlds the children inhabit.
The rule book for the psychiatric profession, known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), will include internet use disorder as a condition ''recommended for further study'' in its revised edition in May next year.
The inclusion acknowledges risks posed by overuse of seemingly benign technologies, classifying internet use disorder alongside other mental disorders that need further research before becoming a recognised mental illness that can be formally diagnosed.
Australian experts contributed to the Australian Psychological Society's submission to the international manual, supporting the inclusion of an addiction focused on internet gaming.
But they have called for a broader diagnosis of internet-use addiction, allowing proper treatment of children obsessed by other technologies such as sexting and a proliferation of devices such as iPads, tablets and Nintendo DS.
Professor Mike Kyrios, of Swinburne University of Technology, one of the authors of the APS submission and a clinical psychologist with more than 15 years' experience, is formally pushing for the revised manual to broaden internet use disorder beyond gaming addictions.
Professor Kyrios, the director of the Brain and Psychological Sciences Research Centre, says more research would allow health professionals to diagnose children with addictive behaviours from technology overuse and treat them appropriately, including strategies to change their obsessive over-reliance on being connected.
''With kids, gaming is an obvious issue. But overall, technology use could be a potential problem,'' he said.
Kara Wright was so concerned her 12-year-old son, Jack, had an internet addiction she banned him from using the laptop over his school holidays.
After playing the computer game Minecraft for an hour on his laptop, Jack would become frustrated, angry and often cry, she said. ''It is only when he is using technology that those emotions emerge,'' said Ms Wright, who
-lives at Caloundra in Queensland. ''It had a huge impact on the family.''
Ms Wright said Jack was first introduced to technology when he was seven.
Her first attempt to tackle the problem was to limit Jack's use to an hour. When that didn't work, she enforced a full ban.
''He has demonstrated he can cope without it,'' she said. ''I'll introduce it slowly if he can demonstrate responsibility for his time limits.''
In January, Emil Hodzic, a psychologist with seven years' experience, established a video game addiction treatment clinic in Sydney's CBD, because of what he saw as growing demand from frustrated parents and damaged children.
He said he was seeing clients as young as 12 addicted to the internet and video games.
''The most typical sign of addiction is anything that looks like withdrawal symptoms,'' he said. ''So any expression of distress, frustration, irritability when they don't get to play.''
Mr Hodzic said about 70 per cent of the people he treated were children and teenagers, with many showing addiction symptoms closely related to anxiety and depression.
''A lot of kids I have coming into the clinic have difficulty in being able to tolerate distress without zoning out via the internet or via the games,'' he said.
But psychiatrist Professor Rhoshel Lenroot, the chair of child psychiatry at the University of New South Wales, said it was still too early to be able to see how detrimental technology overuse could be for children.
''I think [it] can be dangerous in not learning how to pay attention in a focused way, but in balance there is nothing wrong with technology,'' Professor Lenroot said.
''A lot adults are doing the same thing.''