Beyond The Screen: Exploring The Dark Side Of Internet Addiction Among Youths  

By Jachintha Joyce 

While much emphasis has been placed on the gains and opportunities that accompany digital technology, there persists a pressing need to explore the dark side of Internet Addiction (IA) and its far-reaching ramifications for the lives of youths. 

Online activities such as social media use, gaming, and streaming have become normalised in today’s digital age, making it challenging to differentiate between healthy engagement and addictive behaviour.

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM), Malaysia recorded a notable increase in national internet usage from 66.60% (2014) to 97.70% (2023), with the highest percentage of internet users (99.60%) being individuals aged 20-39 years old.  

Relatively, the 2022 Online Internet Survey (IUS) revealed that the percentage of heavy internet users was highest among individuals in their teens (16.10%), 20s (15.30%) and 30s (13.70%). On average, these individuals spend 18 hours or more daily on the internet. Similarly, a cross-sectional study conducted by Chor et al. (2020)  found that among 921 respondents aged 10-19 years old, 56.4% of the respondents were addicted to the internet. 

Excessive internet usage, lacking control, can result in addiction. Initially, engaging with digital spaces, like social media, may serve as a harmless hobby, providing relaxation and enjoyment. 

However, when hobbies transform into addictions, particularly among children and youths, negative implications for their well-being emerge. 

Social risks of IA among youths 

The internet has become a favourite escape route from reality for many youths these days, serving as a coping mechanism to de-stress from academic or work pressure, family or relationship issues, etc. 

A research by Wang et al. (2023) involving 1,044 students aged 12-18 years old with childhood trauma discovered that  473 (45.6%) of them had IA, and the prevalence rate was as high as 45.6%. 

The transition of IA may occur when the leisurely enjoyment of social media evolves into compulsive and detrimental behaviour, overshadowing other aspects of life and leading to adverse effects on their well-being, relationships, and daily functioning.

Essentially, youths who are addicted to the internet have a higher risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of cyberviolence. Cyberviolence creates a harmful online environment by affecting trust, respect, and morality in digital interactions.

Fundamentally, the most common risk in IA is the vulnerability of being affected (or affecting others) by hate speech, cyberbullying, trolling, and similar behaviours. 

For example, trolling and throwing hate speech at content creators or celebrities on online social platforms such as TikTok is now considered normalised behaviour in society.

As another example, in the context of Malaysia’s political landscape, this group is highly susceptible to online hateful content, disinformation, and radicalising influences, potentially contributing to their engagement in cyberviolence. 

Social media algorithms and recommendation systems often prioritise engaging or sensationalised content, as emphasised by EMIR Research, (refer “The line between truth and fake is blurring like no other”, EMIR Research, 2023), leading users, including young people, down rabbit holes of extremist propaganda and echo chambers where hateful ideologies are reinforced and normalised

This, again, is especially felt by young people who, due to feeling of being disenfranchised, marginalised, or in search of identity and belonging, may be particularly vulnerable to online radicalisation and recruitment by extremist groups. 

Cyberviolence can have serious consequences on victims’ mental health, well-being, and safety, leading to anxiety, depression, substance abuse and even suicide in extreme cases. 

A cross-sectional study in Myanmar by Thazin et al. (2020)  involving 412 university students found that 44.20% of the respondents were victims of cyberbullying. Among these, 18.70% started using substances, and 6% of the respondents attempted to commit suicide. 

It’s important to understand that cyberviolence is not limited to online harassment, trolling, or cyberstalking; it also extends to crimes such as sexual crimes (i.e., online sex grooming, revenge porn etc) and online sales of trafficking goods and services (i.e., drugs, sex, labour). 

The easy access to pornography via dark webs, Telegram, etc., allows children as young as 14 to be exposed to porn. 

As they reach an age where they begin to explore, they may engage in and become addicted to porn. 

As they grow older, they may fall victim to online grooming scams, etc. — these predators are known for exerting particularly exploitative behaviour towards young girls and boys.

Recently,  the principal assistant director Senior Asst Comm Siti Kamsiah Hassan revealed that in just an hour, a child can fall prey to sexual predators lurking online. 

Uncontrolled internet addiction may also pose a significant risk to youths who lack adequate financial literacy, particularly in e-commerce and online gambling. 

This vulnerable demographic often faces heightened risks associated with compulsive spending behaviours, as they are easily influenced by trends, online platforms, and promotional strategies, especially as online shopping and digital entertainment become prominent in developing countries like Malaysia.   

Research, such as the 2023 Ipsos survey of 1,023 Malaysians, shows that within six months, 70% browsed e-commerce platforms, with 39% making purchases. Among them, the highest purchasing rates were among individuals aged 18-24 years (53%), followed by those aged 25-34 years (54%). 

Due to the current trend of “buy now pay later” purchases, those with low financial literacy may find themselves struggling to deal with the serious repercussions of financial strain resulting from impulsive purchases, excessive gambling, etc., aggravating the already precarious financial situations they face due to their limited financial literacy and incapacity to responsibly navigate their expenditure.

Besides, according to Barclays, a British-based universal bank, one in four individuals aged 21 to 30 years are falling victim to purchase scams. 

The lack of knowledge and naivety among youths make them vulnerable to fraudulent schemes, where scammers exploit their trust and entice them to purchase non-existent or misrepresented goods or services, resulting in financial loss.

Crucially, IA among youths have significant repercussions, including disconnection from reality, subpar brain functioning, deterioration of social skills, social comparison, and identity issues. Additionally, excessive reliance on the internet and digital devices may impede the development of crucial social skills, such as empathy and effective communication, as face-to-face interactions are now replaced by virtual exchanges.  

Therefore, these combined effects underscore the need to promote mindful internet usage and foster balanced offline connections to mitigate the adverse impact of internet dependency on youth well-being.

Following are the proposed policy recommendations by EMIR research to promote healthy digital habits: 

  1. As previously emphasised by prof. Dr Shivali Shamsher,  a National Policy for Internet Use should be established to ensure the safety of internet users, especially children. As a country with high access to internet users in the world, there is a need for us to investigate the safety of internet users, especially, concerning online child protection. 

In extension of the policy, there should be regulations compelling social media companies to actively monitor and remove content from their platforms that violate specific provisions outlined in the national policy for internet use. 

This approach mirrors the implementation of similar legislation in Germany, such as the “Germany Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG).” Under NetzDG, online platforms can be fined up to €50 million for systematically failing to delete illegal content. 

This proactive enforcement mechanism will serve as a deterrent to online platforms, ensuring compliance with legal requirements and promoting a safer online environment for users.

  1. While parents have an important role in creating healthy digital behaviours in children, it is critical to recognise that many are also brought up in dysfunctional families with limited communication. Hence, comprehensive education in primary, secondary and tertiary education is critical for preparing children for the digital age. This includes teaching courses such as sex education and cyberviolence awareness in primary and secondary schools, as well as financial, digital, and cyber safety literacy in tertiary education, to provide students with critical skills and resilience against online influences.
  1. Enhance support and assistance for victims and perpetrators of cyberviolence, especially children and youths. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), as previously emphasised by EMIR Research in “Addressing the Escalating Crisis of Youth Violence in Malaysia”, can be beneficial for both victims and perpetrators of cyberviolence. By offering focused support and interventions, we can address the underlying causes of cyberviolence and empower individuals to overcome its negative consequences.
  1. Media and news outlets must produce and promote credible digital information that educates the public on digital literacy. This encompasses fact-checking, internet safety, and responsible digital citizenship. Through these measures, media outlets may assist in reducing the spread of misinformation and building a safer online environment for everyone by distributing correct information and encouraging critical thinking skills.
  1. Lastly, parents play an important role in instilling healthy digital habits in their children and protecting them online. Effective methods may include promoting family time, setting an example, and utilising monitoring and parental control tools. By actively participating in their child’s online activities and setting boundaries, they can help reduce the risks of internet addiction and cyberviolence, creating a safer and more supportive online environment for the children.

In summary, we cannot avoid digital progress, but we must find methods to alleviate the obstacles and barriers associated with managing Malaysia’s digital ecosystem. 

The author is Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research. 

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