Recently, more and more people have grown concerned about how people’s addictive use of their digital devices may be affecting their attention spans, their brain chemistry, their ability to read and think creatively, and their capacity to relate to others in a more healthy manner which exists apart from obsessive text messages and e-mailing. In addition, parents have become increasingly concerned with how their children’s obsessive use of smart phones are affecting both their capacity to attend and learn, and their social lives, which have become more narrow and stilted now that the cyber world, and the possibility of instant communication with so many people has become a reality.
A recent article in The Atlantic, Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, delineated how the current generation of teenagers is turning away from many of the social activities which had always been staples of teenage culture, such as hanging out with friends, dating, or even being in a hurry to get one’s driver’s office; declining to pursue these in favor of remaining alone in their room while focused entirely on their smart phone while, at the same time, experiencing greater feelings of loneliness and depression.According to Professor Twenge’s article, rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011 as the current iGen generation, as Twenge refers to them, appear to be on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades; much of this deterioration being traced to the use of their phones.
In a similar vein, a recent article in The New York Times, Tech Backlash Grows as Investors Press Apple to Act on Children’s Use, exposed how some of the biggest investors on Wall Street have asked Apple to study the health of its products and to make it easier for parents to limit their children’s use of iPhones and iPads; the investors tapping into the growing anxiety among parents about their children’s preoccupation with the the devices at the expense of more social activities, like reading or sports. In response to this, a number of prominent technology executives, such as Sean Parker, an early investor in Facebook, have become worried about the same creations that once brought them fame and fortune. According to Parker, the social network can change your relationship with society and with other people. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he goes on to say in the Times article.
Of course, before anything else can be considered in this so-called digital epidemic which is affecting the minds and brains of us all, but particularly those in their formative years, the question that seemingly needs to be addressed is what is at the very root of the situation. That is, is it fundamentally the digital devices themselves that are causing so many difficulties and so much consternation? Or is the addictive ways in which people are using their devices what’s actually causing the problem? And although, upon first considering this question, many people might respond by saying that this is really just splitting hairs, and that there really isn’t that much difference between those two dynamics, yet if one looks at them more closely, it seems that there may indeed be a genuine, fundamental difference between the two things, the apprehension of which may go a long way toward making things better.
Some neuroscientists, psychologists, and others tend to lay the blame on the nature of the devices themselves, and how their continual use produces addictive dopamine loops in people’s brains; dopamine being a powerful neurotransmitter in the brain that has been associated with drive and ambition, but at the same time has been tied to OCD and other obsessional behaviors. Recently,a 2016 article in the New York Post referred to young people’s addictive use of smart phones and iPads as being like “digital heroin,” something that affects people’s brain chemistry in the same manner in which an addictive drug does. So for some scientists, although it is acknowledged that people’s own addictive behavior toward their digital devices is very much at the root of the problem, they most definitely cast a jaundiced eye on the devices themselves.
Yet there are significant neuroscientists and others who say that there is no connection whatsoever between the digital devices and the addictive behavior and possible changes in brain chemistry which might occur in people who use them. These scientists urge those studying the issue to focus squarely on the behavior of people who are using their devices addictively, rather than looking at smart phones or iPads as the real culprits. In other words, just like a deck of playing cards can’t cause OCD or effect brain chemistry by itself, it being the compulsive behavior of the addicted gambler which does this, these scientists believe that a smart phone isn’t what causes addictive neurotransmitters like dopamine to flood into people’s brains. It’s the behavior born of a pyschological addiction which ties one to an addictive use of their device which is at the root of the problem.
Although some might tend to see this debate over devices vs. addictive behavior as splitting hairs, it might actually be far from that in terms of solving the problem of digital addiction, particularly in terms of young people in their formative years. If it’s really the devices that are at the heart of the problem, then Apple and other companies who manufacture them need to work to prevent them causing any sort of physiological addiction. However, if it’s the addictive behavior of people that are causing difficulties in concentration and certain unhealthy social behaviors, then it becomes much more of a behavioral issue that needs to be addressed by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals; as well as by teachers and parents.
At the same time, if it is in fact addictive behavior rather than digital devices that is the bass line, so to speak, for the entire issue of digital addiction, then certain broader psychological issues within our society are almost certainly going to need to be investigated; such as what exactly is causing so many people, particularly young people, to have such a compulsive need for immediate communication with others? Could it be that we live in a society where so many people are so lonely and bored, and possess such shallow inner lives, that the need to stay connected with others, and to everything which might be taking place in a world of celebrity culture and fame, become irresistible temptations? That is to say, the rabbit hole leading toward digital addiction may be even deeper than we might think.