Digital heroin

Current research suggests that teenagers are so glued to their smartphones and tablets they no longer have time for drugs or alcohol.

Without realising it, we are all becoming addicted to technology. With the younger generation – and by the younger generation I mean anyone who can’t imagine what life was like without computers, mobile phones and instant access to all the world’s information – the habit starts early.

The trend has been building for a decade and experts believe that technology is providing young people with a similar kick to drugs – an experience that comes complete with highs and lows.

In the United States, according to the annual Monitoring the Future study, teenagers’ use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco has declined significantly since the 1990s and addiction rates are at their lowest. Considerably fewer teens report using any illicit drug (other than marijuana) than at any time since 1991 and the proportion of secondary school students in the US who used illicit drugs fell significantly between 2015 and 2016.

Smartphones are so new to our lives that researchers are just starting to understand how they are changing our brains.

Anti-drug campaigns in the West have failed miserably and this fact has led researchers to believe that phones are now giving teenagers so much stimulation they are less likely to seek out drugs or alcohol. Nora Volkow, the director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse is exploring the link between the decline in drugs and the rise of technology to find if there is causation – as well as a correlation – between the two.

Teenagers playing games on their devices experience the same kind of highs and lows as drug taking without the need to commit crime to get their fix. In addition to this, there is also the peer driven effect interactive media can have as a moral re-enforcer.

Dr Nicholas Kardaras, a leading psychotherapist, addictions specialist and senior clinical consultant at the Dunes East Hampton, one of the world’s top rehabilitation units, says that screen time is digital heroin for children – especially for those under 10 years old. Dr Kardaras claims that it’s harder to get someone over a digital addiction than it is to get them off crystal meth.

I suspect that this is perhaps a small exaggeration, not least because given a choice, I would far rather my kids were at home glued to their devices than selling their souls on the streets for substances that will eventually kill them.

In any event, unlike illegal drugs, smart screens are everywhere and in the long run, they’re also an awful lot cheaper.

Believe it or not, the average age of the video game addict is 35. But it is children who are particularly at risk from screens because the pre-frontal cortex, the centre of our personality, doesn’t finish developing until their early twenties.

A study conducted by research staff at Indiana University asked teenagers who didn’t usually play video games, to play for a fortnight. In that short space of time, before and after brain images showed changes in the frontal cortex that mirrored substance addiction. So beware the digital babysitter.

Interestingly, Steve Jobs gave his own kids a very low-tech childhood. Maybe there was a good reason for that.

To add insult to injury, the technology giants are employing tactics to get us hooked on their apps. Tech companies are using techniques common in the gambling industry to get us addicted to checking our social media.

Programmers call the phenomena ‘brain hacking’ and the methods are affecting children’s ability to focus on anything else. The trick is to get you using the app for as long as possible.

For example, activity notifications on sites such as such as Facebook and Instagram are designed to excite the brain’s pleasure centres in much the same way as slot machines. Building the number of LIKES on Facebook and checking how many followers you have on Instagram is just as addictive as getting three of a kind.

Kids in particular continually check their social media – more than is reasonable – in the hope of seeing good news or exciting gossip – exactly the same as waiting for a win on a slot machine. It’s an easy way of forming a habit, and the more people do it, the more advertising they are likely to view, and that means more revenue for the companies.

So are companies deliberately embedding these designs in their products? It could explain why apps allow users to gather rewards over time and why Snapchat is the most popular messaging service for teenagers. Next time you get a positive notification, stop for a moment and ask yourself how it makes you feel. Tech companies seem to be competing with each other in a race to monopolise our attention and keep us hooked.

Are these features being designed to improve our lives – or to grab our money? There is already a substantial body of research that points to devices weakening human relationships, and so it might be that profit is the more likely enthusiasm. Of course, the effect may be an unforeseen and unintended side effect of a highly competitive industry. Either way, it might be time for social media companies to take a more responsible course of action.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.