By Dr. Allison Kawa
Picture it: it is the mid-1990s and I am a college freshman at UCLA. My roommate and I decided to make bunk beds in our tiny room at Hedrick Hall to free up space for the essentials, a mini-fridge and a TV equipped with an N64 gaming system. Racing along rainbow tracks while launching turtle shells at my opponents in Mario Kart or rescuing Princess Peach from Bowser in Super Mario 64 were delightful ways to blow off steam after a long week of freshmen seminars. I would spend an hour or so playing games, and then someone would call on my flip phone or the landline with an invitation to dinner or a party, and the weekend would begin. I enjoyed playing videogames enough to carve out precious square footage in my dorm for a gaming system, but gaming was just one of many leisure activities for me.
Fast forward to adulthood and parenting decisions about screens and videogames. Prior to the pandemic, my kids’ access to iPads was reserved solely for cross-country flights and I had long since retired my gaming system. Like many parents, however, March of 2020 found me scrambling to work from home while homeschooling my young children without outside help. The digital babysitter, A.K.A. the iPad, was quickly introduced with daily access. As it became clear that quarantine would be lasting far longer than two weeks, I brought in a Nintendo Switch to try and occupy my kids who were used to afterschool activities and regular playdates. Once in-person school resumed and afterschool activities were once again available, I worked hard to “put the genie back in the bottle” by imposing (and enforcing) screentime limits. My kids are in elementary school, so this is arguably easier for me than for parents of older children and especially teens.
What if the Genie Won’t Go Back in the Bottle?
In my clinical practice, I am seeing more and more students who seem legitimately addicted to screens. Their parents and teachers are at wit’s end, and prying devices away from these kids feels tantamount to surgically removing an appendage. Are we overstating things by calling this tech addiction? Increasingly, research using MRI shows that brains addicted to substances like heroin or cocaine look frighteningly similar to brains addicted to technology.
Smartphones and computers give access to infinite sources of content that triggers the brain to release dopamine. Dopamine is our “feel good” neurotransmitter that is incredibly helpful when released in response to a behavior that ensures survival of the species. For example, you experience pleasure when tasting yummy food because your brain is rewarding you for eating, since that is necessary to keep you alive. According to a survey by Nationwide Children’s Hospital, 45% of American 10- to 12-year-olds have a smartphone. A survey conducted by Pew Research found that 95% of American teenagers have access to a smartphone, and this same group found that 56% of American teenagers report having negative emotions like loneliness and anxiety when the don’t have their smartphones. That last statistic is alarming but not surprising. Children and adolescents often have unfettered access to an infinite supply of dopamine hits, and more than half of them are reporting withdrawal symptoms when their supply is taken away. That sounds a lot like a symptom of addiction.
Trapped in the World Wide Web?
As humans, we have innate drives for things like social connection, novelty-seeking, and meaning-making. From an evolutionary standpoint, early humans were more likely to survive if they lived in groups and when they explored new places to live or invented tools to compensate for their lack of claws and fangs. Mythology has always been a part of the human experience as a remedy for nihilism; it is somehow more comforting to think that a volcano exploded as the result of an angered god than to think of catastrophic events as random. Technology has evolved into an utterly immersive and interactive entity that capitalizes on these drives, sometimes in unhealthy ways. Social media is a readily accessible point of digital connection while TikTok or YouTube provide endless content about new ideas or concepts that feeds our need for novelty. Videogames quite literally allow us to play out a hero’s journey as a character central to the story in a way that satisfies our desire for power, exploration, and purpose.
It feels good to have our natural human needs met, but how do we know when it’s too much of a good thing? A 1998 study measured the amount of dopamine released by the brain in response to various stimuli, including food, sex, cocaine, and meth. Researchers found that dopamine levels in response to videogames were equivalent to those in response to sex. To restate, the brain releases the same amount of dopamine during an orgasm as it does while playing circa-1998 video games. It seems reasonable to me to assume that today’s considerably more advanced video game technology might trigger even higher levels of dopamine. I also don’t want to single-out videogames here. Scrolling through Instagram or TikTok and watching videos on YouTube also fall into the category of dopamine-triggering screen activities.
Flooding kids’ brains with dopamine is problematic because other activities, like reading, are unbearably boring by comparison. Technology use also triggers the release of other chemicals in the brain, including hormones typically reserved for fight-or-flight stress responses. Our bodies aren’t designed for long-term activation of these systems. The result is hyperarousal and hyperstimulation. After a child’s brain and body have been flooded with these stress hormones for several hours, their neurological systems have trouble resetting to baseline. They become “wired and tired,” which can mimic ADHD or cause moodiness and aggression. Over time, excessive use of technology changes brain anatomy in areas that typically help with focus, concentration, and impulse control in the same way that illegal drugs like cocaine or heroin do.
Tech is Not Binary
This is scary stuff, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Not all screentime is bad, and there are some important benefits that we reap as a society because of technology. Videogames can be important sources of connection for some children where they practice leadership skills, teamwork, and critical thinking. There is a limitless amount of important information available online, and marginalized teens in particular can benefit from finding support groups or simply connecting with other adolescents on social media platforms. Videochatting can be an important way that relationships are maintained or even strengthened, both with friends and with family. There are numerous apps that enable children and teens to develop creativity and self-expression through content creation, such as making their own videos or programming a website. We should also acknowledge that technology is not going anywhere, and we need to help kids develop into responsible digital citizens.
What Can the Adults Do?
Parents should also remember that our brains and bodies are capable of remarkable feats of healing. Kids and teens who have been overexposed to technology can benefit from a “digital detox” period. By putting devices away for four to six weeks, the adrenal glands can reset and dopamine levels can return to baseline. Then, there needs to be a gradual reintroduction of technology with much thought and discussion about which screen activities are helpful and positive (e.g., FaceTiming with friends) and which ones should be enjoyed in small amounts if at all (e.g., playing Halo). Every brain is different, so each child or adolescent will have a unique plan of just-right technology exposure.
Mindful use of screens is important even if there are no concerns about tech addiction because everyone who has access to a smartphone or a computer is vulnerable to the effects of hyper-stimulating content. Parents are encouraged to examine their own screen habits and model healthy behavior. Keep screens off the dinner table, for example, and put your phone away when spending time with your kids. Nurture your child’s development of healthy past-times like sports, reading, or arts and crafts; don’t be afraid to let your kids be bored. Talk openly and honestly with your children and teenagers about what they are doing online, what concerns you have about their screentime habits, and how screentime might be affecting their emotional health. Finally, consider a once weekly “digital fast” for the whole family. Turn off phones and computers for the day to develop or rediscover analog hobbies, or just reconnect with each other face-to-face instead of through text. In my humble opinion, everyone’s face is much lovelier without the blue glow reflecting off a screen.
Our knowledge about the pros and cons of technology is evolving every day. For more information about screentime and parenting, check out Common Sense Media: www.commonsensemedia.org. To learn more about tech addiction or to get help, the National Institute for Digital Health & Wellness is a great resource: www.nidhw.org.