Protecting Teens from Addiction to Technology

By Jamison Monroe

 

Addiction to technology is real. Numerous studies over the past decade have shown that tech dependence has the same effect on the brain as drug addiction.

This is bad news in a nation where more than 90 percent of teenagers use social media and play video games—two of the most addictive forms of technology.

In fact, technology addiction statistics reveal that 50 percent of teens feel that they are addicted to their smartphones. And that’s just the ones who admit it.

What Is Tech Addiction?

Addiction to technology is also known as Internet Addiction Disorder, Compulsive Internet Use, Problematic Internet Use, and iDisorder. While it is not recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is becoming increasingly common. Some studies suggest that as many as 38 percent of people in the United States and Europe may suffer from tech dependence.

According to a growing body of research, technology use triggers pathways in the brain in the same direct and intense way that particular substances affect a drug addict’s brain. Specifically, technology use, particularly games and social media, increases the release of endorphins and dopamine, catalyzing the craving for another rush. Moreover, this constant overstimulation shifts the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, which disturbs the biological and hormonal systems—resulting in mood and mental health disorders.

Consequently, in 2018 the World Health Organization classified gaming disorder as a mental health condition. And the effects of technology on mental health include not only addiction, but also teen depression and anxiety.

Furthermore, adults with a history of drug abuse are more likely to experience addiction to technology. And research shows that teens with Internet addiction are also prone to substance abuse and eating disorders. In other words, the tendency toward addiction can encompass various forms of addictive behaviors and substances—including addiction to technology.

Tech Dependence and Technology Withdrawal Symptoms

Teens who suffer from addiction to technology feel extreme anxiety when separated from their digital devices, video games, and social networking sites. Hence, their emotional symptoms mirror those seen in substance abuse and drug withdrawal.

Signs of Tech Dependence

  • Preoccupation with social media, video games, or other digital activities
  • Sadness, anxiety, restlessness, and/or irritability when separated from digital devices or deprived of Internet access
  • Inability to reduce time spent using technology, despite problems caused by it
  • Loss of interest in offline activities that they previously enjoyed
  • Lying to family members or others about the amount of time spent on computer gaming or other online activities
  • Using technology to relieve or self-medicate negative moods, such as guilt, anxiety, or hopelessness
  • Ignoring personal hygiene, eating, and other self-care as a result of ongoing tech use
  • Losing a job, losing a relationship, or doing poorly in school as a result of technology dependence.

Depression and Technology Dependence

The research is clear on the link between technology and mental health: Teens who use social media and play video games are more anxious and depressed. However, experts aren’t certain whether teen depression stems from too much tech time, or if overuse of tech is a symptom of depression. Either way, it’s a vicious cycle that creates a perfect storm for addiction to technology.

Nicholas Kardaras writes about technology dependence in his book Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids—and How to Break the Trance. According to Kardaras, addiction in general is “less about the particular substance or behavior than about the underlying perfect storm of genetic, psychological, environmental and neurobiological factors that make a person ripe for addiction.”

In the case of tech dependence, kids who are isolated and in pain are particularly vulnerable to onscreen experiences that help them feel a sense of escape and connection. Furthermore, Kardaras writes, those children may be drawn to other addictive substances “once they taste digital drugs.”

Treatment for Addiction to Technology

The first step in preventing addiction to technology is reducing dependence on the Internet. One study found that technology itself can be harnessed to help teens avoid addiction. A team at Cornell Tech tested a tool that triggered smartphone vibrations every five seconds when a participant stayed on the Facebook app past a predetermined time limit. In their study, participants spent 20 percent less time on Facebook while using the reminder tool.

In addition, a digital detox can support teens in reducing tech dependence. Unplugging from the constant stimuli offered by the digital world gives a teenager’s nervous system a chance to rebalance. Moreover, disconnecting creates space and time for IRL (in real life) activities, like connecting with friends, spending time in nature, and being more physically active.

Creating healthy habits around tech use is essential for teens. However, a serious addiction to technology, like an addiction to substances, requires professional treatment. That’s because it’s almost always a symptom of underlying issues, such as trauma, low self-esteem, attachment issues, and depression.

At Newport Academy, our teen treatment programs address these core issues. Teens can heal from tech addiction just as they heal from substance abuse: through clinical approaches and experiential therapy that help them find balance and build positive coping skills for the long term.

 

Sources:

Data Brief. 2018 Dec; 21:1216–1219.

J Addict Med. 2012 Mar;6(1):77–84.

Nature. 1998 May 21;393(6682):266-8.