Youth Internet Addiction, Really?
By Michael Boyle, LMFT - Director, TCCS Family Center for Integrative Behavioral Health
As someone who works closely with adults struggling with drug addiction, I am immersed in research about the brain and substance abuse patterns, symptoms, and similarities among addicted and recovering clients across cultures, ages and genders.
In my work with youth and adolescents, I have found youth who use excessive amounts of technology (smart phones, tablets, internet, YouTube, social media, etc) have very similar patterns and symptoms as the adults I work with who struggle with alcohol, cocaine, crystal meth, cannabis and other illicit drug addictions.
Symptoms like raging anger at parental attempts to curb internet use; insomnia; extreme mood disturbances; “shakes”; obsessive thoughts; failing at school; social isolation; quitting activities that used to bring pleasure and joy; dropping out; suicidal thoughts; self-harm behaviors, withdrawal, etc.
When I look at this from a brain research perspective, it makes perfect sense: It all boils down to dopamine.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of desire and hope. It motivates us to seek satisfaction and rewards that the brain associates with survival of the species. A spike in dopamine provides a feeling of pleasure that is meant to motivate us to move in the direction of food, shelter, sex, accomplishment, etc. It’s a hit of feeling good before we get or achieve the thing or experience that the brain wants us to go after. It is the hope that what we are about to go after will satiate us and so in that way it is the "motivation" impulse.
However, when dopamine surges are triggered by stimuli that do not lead to intrinsically satisfying and beneficial rewards, we may get stuck in a loop of seeking. In this loop, desire only begets desire and since there is no fulfillment, we are tricked into wanting more and more. We evolved such that wanting would be pleasurable for good reason, but we can get hooked on the pleasure that dopamine provides so much that we never move towards true satisfaction and instead stay stuck on stimulating dopamine.
This looping search for dopamine is particularly bad for young people and their developing brains. And the evidence of everyday life seems to point to the fact that children are getting hooked earlier and earlier. It is no secret that smart phones, apps, video games and social media platforms are designed with all this in mind. They are purposefully created to get people stuck in this dopamine loop. The attachment to our devices can go deep, as can the pockets of the manufacturers and sellers of these products.
Consider this: In parenting and psychology terms “attachment” is the bond between child and caregiver. It can be positive and secure, or detrimental and chaotic. Attachment is a huge subject, but I’d like focus on the slice about self-soothing and emotional nourishment.
Human children are not born with the ability to soothe and nourish themselves. We have the hardware in place as a capacity, but it needs to be activated. This latent capacity is activated in the context of relating to caregivers, especially the primary caregiver(s).
Every time a baby scrunches their face and whimpers in discomfort and a caregiver responds appropriately with tender love and attention, the baby GROWS the neurological and biological structures needed to be able to, in the future, soothe and nourish themselves.
More and more kids are being handed phones and tablets in times of distress and boredom.
As this pattern continues over and over again into youth and adolescence, young people are becoming “attached” to their devices. And, since the manner in which devices “sooth” children is by shutting down and numbing out parts of the brain that are disturbed instead of growing and building up parts of the brain that can self-soothe (leading to states of resilience and feelings of self-empowerment and confidence) I am positing that kids are getting to the point where they really “need” (addiction) their devices.
The implications and ripple effect on the kids, their futures, our communities and our society as a whole are outstanding.
Instead of learning how to deal with distressing feelings by accepting them, feeling them, tolerating them, appreciating them as an important part of life and soothing them, lots of people are learning how to deal with these feelings by not dealing with them. This is made even more troublesome because when we numb our negative feelings we also numb our positive feelings and it can get to a point where we simply can’t feel good, or motivated, without our external hits of dopamine.
Some good news: The brain’s capacity to heal, change, thrive and grow new capacities and replenish its natural and internal dopamine production is even more outstanding than our inclinations towards addiction! Recovery is very possible but it’s hard work!
My hope with writing this article, however, is to focus some energy on the best kind of medicine: prevention.
As both a psychotherapist and a father of three, I want to parent within a community of adults, parents and caregivers who model appropriate, non-addictive, uses of technology so we may join together to teach our kids how to use technology as a tool for learning, spreading great ideas and making the world a better place!