Gone are the days of encyclopedias, library card catalogs, and land lines. The teens and young adults of today have never known a world without the internet, smartphones, and mp3 players. The world has been at their fingertips from the time they were born.
With the rise of smart technology comes the risk of technology addiction. The problem is pervasive. Friends and family are enjoying a meal out together, yet everyone is buried in their phones. Accomplishing straightforward tasks at work takes twice as long with each social media notification to check.
This problem is not only impacting how we relate and connect to one another, it is actually causing structural, physical changes in our body. Neuroscience has been looking at internet and technology addiction and how it is damaging the tissues of our brains:
- Atrophy of gray matter – tissues of the brain actually shrink in key areas of the brain that control functions such as organizing, planning, prioritizing, and impulse control. Damage was also noted in areas of the brain that play a role in our ability to be empathetic and compassionate towards others.
- Damage to white matter – the white matter of the brain forms the connections between different areas and plays a critical role in communication of nerve signals. Interrupted connections means loss of normal communication between the brain and body.
- Impaired dopamine function – the release of dopamine forms the basis for addiction, whether it be to food, smoking, gambling or screen-time. Dopamine is the brain’s feel-good fuel. Prolonged internet use leads to a reduced number of dopamine transporters, which results in a vicious cycle of excess dopamine creating a reward for winning that internet game or getting another “like” on your Facebook post, only furthering the addictive behavior.
The concern is even greater with younger people whose brains are still actively developing. The average child clocks more than 7 hours of internet usage daily. This can easily contribute to a nervous system that is on overdrive, akin to a car with a gas pedal but no brakes. This can lead to many secondary issues, including attention span problems, mood changes, impulsivity, and a lack of restorative sleep.
In a nutshell, excessive screen-time causes structural changes in the brain, leading to functional impairments. The majority of the damage happens in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that will effectively determine the capacity for success in every facet of life, from academics, to relationships, to your sense of well-being.
Breaking The Cycle
Limiting screen time, for ourselves or our kids, can be a challenge. Phones and tablets are a ubiquitous part of our society now, but arming yourself with the facts of the ramifications they have can help rein in addictive behaviors.
Rules of thumb to follow:
- Stop using your phone as an alarm clock. Not only can having your phone nearby interrupt your normal sleep cycle, having it within an arm’s reach on your bedside table makes it very easy for it to be the first think you reach for in the morning.
- Set up phone-free times for you and your family. Some good times to consider are meal times (dining in or out), and at least an hour before bedtime.
- Use an app such as Freedom to set appropriate limits on app and internet access. If you need to be on the computer to get things done, Freedom will keep you from losing focus and finding yourself down a social media rabbit hole 20 minutes later.
The internet isn’t going anywhere, and it’s not all bad. We are more connected than ever before, and this has many positive effects too. The important part is being able to control our technology use, and especially that of our children. Technology is an incredibly powerful tool when used appropriately, but care must be taken to not cross the line into addictive behavior that can have lifelong negative effects.