Understanding Digital Addictions

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Mobile digital devices, from smart phones to iPads, have become essential aspects of daily life.  In fact, 98% of children under age 8 in America have access to mobile devices at home.

The Good and The Bad

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The internet and mobile technology literally allow us to hold the whole wide world in our hands.  Our kids have the opportunity to explore far away lands and cultures, to gain valuable knowledge about any conceivable topic, to access and produce amazing artistic creations – all at the tip of their fingers.

Yet, for all it’s potential, let’s face it, this has become a bad thing.  The adult world is literally being downloaded onto our kids at younger and younger ages.  Degrading sex, violence, vulgarity, hate speech, cyberbullying – all are merely one click away.  Repeated exposure to these aspects of the digital world is seriously affecting our children’s mental, moral, and emotional health.

Unfortunately, there are even more insidious and negative consequences occurring with our children’s unfettered, and often unsupervised, use of digital technology.  The pervasive problem we’re all facing is one of quantity, as much as quality, of screen time.

Computers, tablets, cell phones – videos, music, games, social media posts and tweets and snaps – have become ubiquitous.  Current studies show that children (ages 8-12) spend, on average, 6 hours a day on screen time.  And teens are spending nearly 9 hours a day, on average, on their digital devices!

So what?  Well, here’s what.

50% of teens feel addicted to their mobile devices (78% check their devices at least hourly).  Nearly half of teens who spend 5 hours a day or more on electronic devices report suicidal thoughts or attempts.  A recent study shows that increased time on Facebook contributes significantly to increased depression in teens.  And, correlating with increased screen usage over the past decade, children ages 10-14 now die by suicide more frequently than they do car accidents.  The average level of anxiety in teens today is equal to that of an inpatient psychiatric patient a generation ago.  Children hooked on media devices by age 2 have increased attention, memory, and self-control problems by elementary school – executive function deficits that predict many adjustment problems later in life.  I could go on…

I’ve been saying it for years, and now the research results are confirming what our common sense already tells us: information overload is producing emotional overwhelm in our kids (and ourselves) at toxic levels.

Why Is This Happening?

It’s important for you to know something.  This hasn’t happened by accident.  Video game programs, digital apps, and social media platforms are built by “persuasive design.”  That is, they are purposely constructed to get you to keep coming back for more.  These are, remember, commercial applications, built by businesses seeking to make a profit.

And the way they make a profit is to grab your eyeballs on their screen pages, over and over and over again.  Then they can a) sell more ad revenues, b) get to know more about you, and c) target you for more of the same.

These companies are in an arms race for the most valuable commercial commodity – your attention.  And they use sophisticated neurologically-based ways to grab your attention, keep your attention, and most importantly, have you craving and coming back for more.

Netflix and YouTube use “Autoplay” to keep you watching just one more video – repeatedly – until well past your bedtime.  Snapchat entices kids to extend their “streaks”, making sure they return daily to the app, and redefining how our children measure their friendships and self-worth.  Notifications beep and light up at us on “variable reward schedules” just like slot machines at casinos – sucking us in to checking our phones repeatedly throughout the day, lest we succumb to the newest malady of our times: FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

You and your children are literally being programmed to keep seeking more digital stimulation.  Each time you do, you light up the reward center of your brain and get a little squirt of dopamine – the pleasure hormone.

The problem is, as with anything, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.  We can get hooked into seeking more of that fleeting little “feel good” buzz – until we build up a tolerance and dependence on it.

Eventually, these neural circuits get so overloaded they start shutting down.  We can go from repeated bouts of anxious anticipation and excitement, to anxiety and stress about missing out or not keeping up, to chronic fatigue, burn-out, and depression.

What Now?

With mindful attention, we can harness the power of the digital age for good.  We can practice healthy digital hygiene, develop smart digital literacy skills, and promote positive digital citizenship in our children.

Next month, we’ll explore the Top 10 Tips for parenting children in the digital age – so you can have practical tools to consciously combat the forces that pull us towards digital addictions.  You’ve already taken the first step – becoming aware of the problem, with your eyes hopefully more wide open.  Next time, we’ll get real about what to do about it.

If you can’t wait until next month, then I highly recommend you go to the best online resource (yes, I know, ironic) for common sense solutions to modern media madness – CommonSenseMedia.org – and start practicing some of their sage advice.

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