We all know too much screen time is bad for us. But why? We probably wouldn’t be so apathetic if we knew the real damage digital addiction was doing, especially to kids. 

In South Korea, there are 200 digital addiction rehabilitation centres.  The symptoms of the people in these centers include rage, anxiety, restlessness and loss of memory. They are the same symptoms you would expect people to be suffering in a drug rehabilitation center. The reason, according to South African researcher Brad Huddleston, is that to the brain…addiction is addiction. Why then is drug addiction seen as a major problem in society, yet at the same time we are feeding digital addiction?

Huddleston is interesting in that he approaches analysis of the digital world as both a computer scientist and as a philosopher. He says, The internet was called ‘the grand experiment’ in 1988 by The Washington Post. We should be asking,  ‘How is that experiment going?

A great deal has been written about the social problems of connectivity, but Huddleston also looks at the physical effects on the brain. Interestingly, the brain scan of a cocaine addict is the same as the brain scan of a digital addict. To the brain, the two are the same. On a CAT scan the same neural pathways light up.

People may assume that the danger to the brain comes from radio waves. In fact, that isn’t the problem. It is the constant release of dopamine that is the problem. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure centers. It is released during pleasurable situations and stimulates a person to seek out those situations again.

The drug cocaine stimulates these transmitters to a very high extent and that is where the pleasurable high comes from. It is also why it is addictive. Huddleston argues that digital interaction has the same effect on dopamine release. We get a small ‘hit’ of dopamine every time we receive a ‘like’ or text message or any other digital affirmation. Some people, given extreme exposure, become addicted to that dopamine hit, and thus addicted to digital interaction.

Young brains and digital addiction

The younger the brain, the higher its plasticity and the more damage that can be done. Young brains have limited resilience to cope with the stress that constant digital interaction provides.  So at what age should we be allowing our children access to digital technology? The American Academy of Paediatrics has for many years advocated the age of two as the earliest children should be exposed to screens, however, Huddleston can’t find any research to back up that recommendation. He finds it arbitrary. He also says that the age is being relaxed in the USA due to the prevalence of screen culture. Essentially the recommendations have been overrun. Neuroscience, on the other hand, disagrees.

There is a difference between the way a small child and an adult watch a screen. Huddleston says that “The child is being stimulated chemically, the adult is being stimulated intellectually.” An addicted child will have outbursts of rage when you turn off the tablet, an adult will go to bed. Unfortunately, even if what the addicted child is looking at is an education app, it has the same effect. The brain does not distinguish content. There is still the same pleasure-reward and consequent seeking behaviour.

Children do not effectively self-police when they are on computers, or ever really. The pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed and won’t be until they are in their 20s. They do not fully understand the consequences of their behaviour. They will not put time limits on their digital use and thus need to be managed by adults.

Should We Take Technology Away From Kids?

Nobody is out to harm children. However, as with any change, our use of technology should be reviewed. There is no doubt that with the positive comes some adverse effects. Those adverse effects need to be recognised and addressed.

Huddleston believes that parents and schools need to take the technology back from young children. He also believes we need to apologise to children. “I’m sorry I put you in this situation. I now know better and we are going to change our approach”. Just taking technology away will confuse and upset children. It is a punishment for something they haven’t done. Apologising recognises that we allowed this to happen and now we know we need it to stop.

Huddleston agrees with the approach of Steiner schools. Steiner Schools don’t allow children to use a computer until they are twelve. They believe that at that age the child has developed enough of the creative and communication skills to allow the introduction of technology. The Steiner website states, “An ‘unplugged’ experience is seen as crucial for children to develop an uncluttered self-image and the ability to develop rich communication skills.”

There’s Still Hope For Us

So, back to the 200 South Korean digital addiction rehabilitation centers. Why do they have such a huge problem compared to Australia? South Korean internet is very quick and very accessible. In these terms, they are significantly ahead of us. I do not in any way advocate throwing out or demonising technology. However, we are in a fortunate position. We can learn from those countries that are ahead of us. As parents, as schools and as a nation, we should do that.

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