Teens and Tech: New Research on the Dangers of Screen Time

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By Jamison Monroe, Jr.

Research shows that tech screen time is bad for our kids. The overuse of technology can lead to long-term addictions. Hence, tech dependence can damage the mind and body just like alcohol, cocaine, or heroin. This is bad news in a nation where teens consume an average of nine hours of media a day and 50 percent of teens feel they are addicted to their smartphones.

Tech and the Nervous System

We’ve known for 20 years that screen time increases dopamine levels. According to a 1998 study, M. J. Koepp showed that video gaming upped dopamine in the body as much as sex does, about 100 percent. More recently, researchers find that the use of social media increases the release of endorphins as well. California State University psychology professor Delinah Hurwitz says her study suggests that people become hooked on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking websites. As a result, endorphins rush through their brain and body every time someone responds to their post. Hence, this constant overstimulation shifts the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, which disturbs the biological and hormonal systems. Thus, it can lead to disorders such as ADHD, teen depression, oppositional defiant disorder and anxiety even worse.

Teens and Tech Use

Doctors and researchers aren’t clear, though, about which comes first: Does teen depression, for example, lead to increased screen use as a form of escapism, or does screen use create symptoms of depression? Or might both the depression and the overuse of technology stem from underlying issues?

Indeed, Nicholas Kardaras details tech dependence in his new book, Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids—and How to Break the Trance. Kardaras writes that addiction 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. As Kardaras writes, those children may be more drawn to other addictive substances “once they taste digital drugs.”

Trauma, Tech Dependence, and Teen Treatment

As detailed by Nicholas Kardaras, these new “digital drugs” are truly dangerous. However, many parents play down a teen’s obsessive behavior in regards to gaming consoles and mobile devices. Still, such tech dependence engenders a taste for immediate gratification. Indeed, tech dependence isolates the adolescent from real-life social interactions. Such isolation by “digital drugs” affects the neurochemistry of the teen brain. Hence, tech dependence reduces an adolescent’s already vulnerable resistance to addictive substances.

At Newport Academy, we treat kids using a holistic approach. This is built on the understanding that addiction to substances is a symptom of deeper issues, such as isolation, low self-esteem, attachment issues, and trauma. Addiction to technology is no different. And teen treatment addresses these core issues. Teens can heal from tech addiction just as they heal from substance abuse: through experiences that help them find balance and build healthy habits for the long term.



Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens 

Nature. 1998 May 21;393(6682):266-8

Psychology Today, February 2014 and August 2015