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Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
December 23, 2023 ·  8 min read

The Terrifying Side Of Kids Addicted To Technology

In 2015, granola bar company Nature Valley created an ad in which they asked three generations of families one question: When you were a kid, what did you do for fun?

The older two generations shared many wonderful memories of playing outside, building forts, picking blueberries, and going on fishing trips. They reminisced fondly of all the fun times they had as children.

When it came time for the youngest generation to answer the question, however, the responses were decidedly different. Rather than launch into stories of playing tag with their friends, going to the park, or riding bikes through the neighborhood, these kids are spending five hours per day or more texting, emailing, browsing social media, playing video games, and watching shows.

One child even bragged about how they watched twenty-three episodes of a TV series in less than four days. Another young girl claimed that she “would die without her tablet”.

This ad gave us a scary look at the way today’s children are growing up, and touched and what could be a painful truth- that technology is fundamentally changing childhood. You can see it below for yourself if you’d like.

Are Our Children Addicted to Technology?

Common Sense Media conducted a report entitled Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance. The report determined that problematic media use is a growing problem, but there are large gaps in the research on technology addiction.

So far, much of the research that has been carried out has focused on adults and teenagers, with no specific research geared toward the impact of technology on children [1]. Common Sense Media’s report made six key findings:

1. Internet addiction is potentially serious and requires further study.

There is disagreement among experts as to whether or not internet addiction is a new psychological disorder, or if it is a manifestation of another disorder. There is also ambiguity surrounding what internet addiction actually is, given that many things can be done on the internet including watching videos, playing games, or using social media.

Since we are always connected, measuring the amount of time someone spends on the internet is difficult, and there is controversy over whether internet addiction can be classified in the same category as substance abuse or a behavioral disorder [2].

2. Our digital lifestyles may be harming our ability to remain focused.

There have been several studies in which young people have reported that they do not believe that multitasking (for example, texting and watching a show while doing homework), affects their productivity. However, studies have proven that multitasking reduces productivity, and makes it more difficult to create memories that can be retrieved later [2].

3. Technology is a source of family tension.

There has been some research that has pointed to conflicts that are a result of family members being distracted by media and technology use. Many children, in fact, believe that their parents check their devices too often, and it makes them feel less important [2].

4. Problematic media use may cause lower empathy and social well-being.

Some experts believe that because time spent on media subtracts from face-to-face time, so those who use social media frequently have less of an opportunity to become more empathetic by conversing and learning from human facial and vocal cues [2].

5. Technology may facilitate new ways for adolescents to express developmental needs.

Most importantly, this includes the need for social connection and validation from peer groups. What appears on the outside as excessive use and distraction may actually be a reflection of the new way adolescents and teens maintain peer relations and engage in communities that are relevant to them [2].

6. A balanced approach and adult role-modeling can prevent problematic use.

According to the report, a balanced approach includes “fostering awareness of media and self, embracing quality media usage, selective single-tasking, carving out times and places to disconnect, and nurturing relationships and face-to-face conversation.

They point out that technology can have benefits, and can be used to form deeper relationships, to allow for creativity and exploration, and to explore identity. A healthy digital lifestyle should include thoughtful and intentional uses of media and technology [2].

Technology is a Drug

While there is still debate as to whether or not a true technology addiction exists, Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics focused on endocrinology at the University of Southern California and author of The Hacking of the American Mind, believes that the answer is an unequivocal yes.

“It’s not a drug, but it might as well be. It works the same way … it has the same results,” he said [3].

Lustig, who studies what the brain does when it is addicted to anything, be it sugar or heroin, has found that the brain responds to technology in the same way that it responds to other addictive substances.

”Technology, like all other ‘rewards,’ can overrelease dopamine, overexcite and kill neurons, leading to addiction,” he said [3].

The overuse of technology puts more stress on the brain, causing it to release higher amounts of cortisol, which kills neurons in the memory center of the brain. It can also cause the prefrontal cortex, or the “executive” part of the brain, to deactivate. This part of the brain normally limits dopamine and our sense of pleasure or reward. When it is inactive, our brains get used to the higher amount of dopamine and want us to continue to seek out the substance or habit.

He notes that adolescents are particularly susceptible because their prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop. 

“Any force in our lives, whether it is substance or behavior that is ubiquitous, toxic, abused and has negative impacts on society requires some form of societal intervention,” he said. “Technology addiction clearly meets the bar.” [3]

Jenny Radesky, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician who wrote the screen time guidelines for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that they don’t use the term “addiction” for early childhood, but instead “functional impairment”.

Research shows that screen time interferes with fundamental aspects of healthy childhood development, including sleep, healthy eating, and what are called “serve and return” moments. These are moments when parents respond to babies seeking assurance and connection with eye contact, smiles, and words, which helps the baby’s brain develop.

The Parent-Ten Dynamic

In addition to their report, Common Sense Media also released the result of a poll entitled Dealing with Devices: The Parent-Teen Dynamic. The results of the poll stated that 72 percent of teenagers feel the need to immediately respond to texts and other social media messages, 78 percent check their devices at least every hour, and half of them feel they are addicted to their mobile device [4].

These numbers may, however, be slightly exaggerated. According to AAP pediatrician Dr. David Hill, a true addiction is determined by compulsive behavior. 

 “Is the kid getting enough sleep? Exercise? Actual face time with friends and family? Is homework getting done? These are the questions you need to ask. Any kind of compulsive activity, whether it be gambling or internet use, really boils down to the displacement of other things,” he says [5].

He argues that it is difficult to say that a child or teen is addicted to something if everything else is getting done.

He does admit, however, that true phone addiction does exist, and it is known as problematic internet use (PIU). Alongside it, there is Internet Gaming Disorder. The percentage of children affected by either of these issues, however, is less than ten percent [5].

How is Technology Affecting Our Kids?

So perhaps your child doesn’t have a full-blown technology addiction, but that doesn’t mean that they are not being affected by technology use. Studies have shown that moderate to high screen time for children, that is four or more hours per day, lowers their overall psychological well being.

Too much screen time may also be making your kids moody and lazy. Studies have shown that spending too much time staring at a screen affects your child’s body clock, which can lead to a number of health issues including hormone imbalance and brain inflammation [6].

Using phones late at night has also been associated with an increased risk of mental illness among adolescents, and depletes their mental reserves [6,7]

High technology usage may also be reducing the amount of physical activity your child is getting since they are spending more time sitting inside on their devices instead of running around outside with their friends. This could lead to obesity and other related health problems [8].

How to Help Your Kids

As the Common Sense Media Report suggested, the best thing you can do as a parent is to model appropriate technology usage. You should talk to your kids about technology use, and why moderating it is important. 

The report notes that a balanced approach prioritizes focusing on a single task when using technology, instead of multitasking in educational, work, or social contexts.

Make sure you carve out time and places to disconnect so that you can nurture your relationship with your child and have face-to-face interaction. It is important for children to understand that online communication should be used in conjunction with in-person interaction to support healthy, rich social relationships.

As a parent, you should be having an ongoing conversation with your children about their media usage, and encouraging them to engage in other activities that don’t involve screen time as much as possible. Pay close attention to their behavior, and if you notice any changes, talk with them about how they are using technology, and whether or not it is being used in a healthy way. If you suspect too much screen time is becoming problematic, you could even consider doing a family technology ‘detox’.