Most people associate the word “addiction” with problems like gambling, alcoholism or drug abuse. But look at a child bent intently over the electric-blue glow of a smartphone, and it’s hard not to wonder whether we need to expand our definition of “addiction”.
The question of whether kids are actually addicted to technology loomed large at a day-long conference sponsored by Common Sense Media and the Center for Humane Technology. Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics focused on endocrinology at the University of Southern California and author of The Hacking of the American Mind, said at the conference the answer was unambiguously yes.
“It’s not a drug, but it might as well be. It works the same way … it has the same results,” he said.
Lustig studies what happens to our brains when they’re addicted, be it to sugar or heroin. He’s found that the brain responds to technology much in the same way it responds to other addictive substances. “Technology, like all other ‘rewards,’ can overrelease dopamine, overexcite and kill neurons, leading to addiction,” he said. Too much use of technology can cause stress in the brain, which has two negative effects. First, more stress leads the brain to release cortisol, which can kill neurons on the “memory” center of the brain (the hippocampus). Second, the stress can inactivate the brain’s prefrontal cortex, or the “executive” part of the brain, which normally limits dopamine and our sense of pleasure or reward. When the brain gets used to a higher level of dopamine, it wants us to keep seeking out the addictive substance or habit.
Jenny Radesky, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician who wrote the screen time guidelines for the American Academy of Pediatrics, was more nuanced. “From the early childhood perspective, we don’t use the word ‘addiction’ clinically or in research because it is early childhood,” she said. “We use the idea of ‘functional impairment,’ when media use is getting so heavy that the content is influencing a child’s behavior.”
Research shows that screen time interferes with fundamental factors in healthy child development: sleep, healthy eating, and so-called “serve and return” moments between parents and children, in which parents respond to babies seeking assurance and connection with eye contact, smiles, and conversation, and which help lay the foundations of baby’s brains.
One focus of Radesky’s work is young children’s self-regulation and executive function skills—that is, whether children are able to concentrate, prioritize, and learn to control passing impulses. These skills are predictive for many health, social, emotional, and cognitive outcomes. She worries that parents might be using technology to replace or reduce critical family routines and parenting practices—say, by calming a child who is hurt or upset by letting them play a game on the phone instead of talking to them or giving them a hug. That could impair the development of children’s ability to regulate their own emotions. (Radesky is embarking on a large research project to examine this issue more, among others.)
This article has been excerpted from an article originally published on Quartz Media. To read the full article, click on the title link.