Is a generation of kids growing up addicted to the newest drug on the block?
Technology continually wriggles its way ever more intimately into our lives as we are surrounded by smartphones, tablets, computers, and home assistant devices. Most people who currently have access to this technology didn’t grow up with it, but are, rather, enchanted by the novelty of newfound convenience, instant gratification, and the ability to broadcast the details of their lives to the world. But what effect will this 24/7 access to technology, video games, and social media have on millions of developing brains?
…a premature thinning of the cerebral cortex…
Generations of kids have watched cartoons after school and played video games on the weekend, but never before have children been exposed to the almost-constant levels of today. It could be affecting them physically, as well as mentally. Children who rack up more than five hours of screen time per day may experience major changes in brain development, suggest preliminary results of an ongoing study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The $300 million Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study has enrolled 11,874 children, aged nine and ten, to participate on a long-term basis, in tracking various lifestyle factors and the impact they may have on developing brains. The children will be followed throughout their adolescence, and although the study has only recently begun, it is already showing intriguing results. The first round of results won’t be complete until 2019, but a preliminary analysis already shows that the amount of time kids spend in front of a screen may have dramatic effects on their physical and mental development. The study will also investigate how different usages of technology can affect growing brains, for example, video games versus social media.
Brain scans of 4,500 participants have shown that kids who reported a habit of more than seven hours of daily screen time showed a premature thinning of the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of the brain that deals with sensory perception and interaction with the physical world. Seven hours may seem excessive even to the most addicted of smartphone users, but kids who were exposed to a mere two hours of screen time per day were found to score lower on thinking and language tests.
Anderson Cooper of CBS’s 60 Minutes program spoke to a number of scientists involved in the ambitious project. Dr. Gaya Dowling was reluctant to draw conclusions at such an early stage in the research process, saying, “We don’t know if it’s [thinning of the cortex, usually associated with later maturation] being caused by the screen time. We don’t know yet if it’s a bad thing. It won’t be until we follow them over time that we will see if there are outcomes that are associated with the differences that we’re seeing in this single snapshot.”
Caution is an important part of the scientific method, but the findings regarding the cortex are especially concerning when taken in conjunction with information given to 60 Minutes by Dr. Dimitri Christakis, pediatrician and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, who said:
“What we do know about babies playing with iPads is that they don’t transfer what they learn from the iPad to the real world, which is to say that if you give a child an app where they play with virtual Legos, virtual blocks, and stack them, and then put real blocks in front of them, they start all over .… It’s not a transferable skill. They don’t transfer the knowledge from two dimensions to three.”
Are the new generations who grow up with an abundance of interactive technology going to be able to process and interact with the physical world in the same way that humans can now? Or will society eventually descend more and more into virtual reality?
Is Screen Time Addictive?
“The focus when we first started talking about doing this study was tobacco, marijuana, all drugs. The screen time component really came into play because we were wondering, what is the impact? I mean, clearly kids spend so much time on screens,” Dowling told 60 Minutes, adding that she hopes the study will enable scientists to figure out whether the screen time truly is addictive or not. According to Christakis, toddlers and young children are far more susceptible to the mental hook of technology than teenagers are, because the instant gratification of new discoveries and achievements is much more rewarding.
But shifting age categories, a recent experiment at the University of Buffalo has shown for the first time that smartphone use is a reinforcing behavior; behavior that is both rewarding and reinforcing is associated with addiction. College students between 18 and 22 years of age were more likely to be motivated to work for smartphone access than for food, despite mild hunger, and would also sacrifice hypothetical money in exchange for access to their phones.
“Research is just beginning to investigate the possibility that smartphone addiction exists,” said Sara O’Donnell, lead author of the study:
“While reinforcing value does not equate to addiction, it seems likely that if smartphone addiction becomes a valid diagnosis, those individuals would have high smartphone reinforcement, just as individuals with alcohol use disorders have high alcohol reinforcement.”
If screen time, particularly on devices with interactive technologies that are designed to give constant feedback, is found to be addictive, then we willingly are supplying entire generations a destructive drug. Not only is it possible they will be hooked for life and vulnerable to digital manipulation for purposes ranging from political propaganda to corporate marketing, but also there are grave questions regarding the link between excessive screen time and increased rates of depression, teen suicide, anxiety, and reduced empathy.
Good Enough for the Masses
But Silicon Valley wouldn’t knowingly produce and market a harmful substance to the public, would it? Much less to children? Well, it appears that while techies are perfectly happy to push so-called smart technology onto everybody else’s kids, they are not willing for their own children to experience the same style of upbringing. In October, The New York Times ran a piece titled, “Silicon Valley Nannies Are Phone Police for Kids,” alleging that a host of Silicon Valley families are “increasingly obsessed with keeping their children away from screens. Even a little screen time can be so deeply addictive, some parents believe, that it’s best if a child neither touches nor sees any of these glittering rectangles.”
Lynn Perkins, the CEO of babysitting company UrbanSitter, told the newspaper, “The people who are closest to tech are the most strict about it at home … We see that trend with our nannies very clearly.”
“Almost every parent I work for is very strong about the child not having any technical experience at all,” added Jordin Altmann, a nanny in San Jose, CA. “In the last two years, it’s become a very big deal.”
Silicon Valley investor and former Google employee Vijay Koduri spoke to Business Insider about minimizing his kids’ exposure to technology. “We know at some point they will need to get their own phones,” he said. “But we are prolonging it as long as possible.” Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder and perhaps the most iconic techie of our age, also revealed shortly before his death, “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”
The trend also extends to education, with private schools offering low-tech curricula and charging tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege. One such institution is the Waldorf School, which says that technology stifles creativity and where kids use chalkboard instead of iPads; at the branch in Los Altos, CA, nearly 75% of students are the children of tech workers.
According to non-profit group Common Sense Media, 50% of teens reported that they feel addicted to their mobile devices. Whether science will bear this out and find that technology can hold a genuinely drug-like influence over the mental and physical development of the brain is a matter for the future. But with kids’ average screen time rising from three hours per day in 2000, to around five hours per day in 2015, children are only becoming more dependent.