Research shows that children’s brains on screen time look a lot like children’s brains on cocaine, and as Jo Hollingsworth finds, scientists are just starting to discover what that means.
On the school run last week I drove past a bus stop before 8am in the morning, where 12 children, aged from around 10 to 16, were standing around waiting for the bus. There is nothing unusual in that. Every one of them was staring intently at their phone screens. Again, there is nothing unusual in that -and that is the issue! In truth, had I not been writing this article I probably wouldn’t even have noticed, because as we all know being on screens is the new normal.
There is no doubt that the rate of technology advancement and its market saturation is becoming faster and faster. To put it in perspective, it took 75 years for the phone to reach 50 million users, the radio 38 years, the internet took 4 years, Facebook 2 years …..and the Angry Birds app just 13 days!
We are all aware of the controversy around the internet and social media, particularly in relation to children and teens. Of course it can be a fantastic educational tool and a platform for users to engage with others and win hearts and minds on a global scale – think Greta Thunberg and #MeToo. Conversely, parents are increasingly aware of the negative effects on self-esteem and mental health, exposure to harmful content and online bullying, but what if the biggest threat is more insidious and has nothing to do with strangers, bullying or ostensibly harmful content? This threat is addiction. If like me your first reaction to this is that it is overblown, consider this…
In 2014 The New York Times ran a story about how Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, had been asked at the time that the iPad was being launched “so your kids must love the iPad?” Job’s response was surprising, “they haven’t used it… we limit how much technology our kids use at home”. As a Silicon Valley parent, he is not alone. Many like Bill Gates have admitted to imposing strict limits on their children’s screen time, and the inverse relationship between a tech company parent and their children’s screen time has been well documented. Some schools in Silicon Valley are accommodating the low tech parent by limiting the use of technology. So, what is going on and what do ‘tech giant’ but ‘low tech’ parents know about the dangers of online technology that we as parents don’t know?
We live in an age where software is free, the currency is our attention because it is in the interests of digital companies to keep us online as long as possible for advertisers. The secret weapon in their armoury is dopamine, a feel-good hormone produced in the brain which is highly addictive – it has been described as the digital equivalent of heroin- and it’s ubiquitous! As adults every time we receive a like on Facebook, swipe right on Tinder or auto play next episode on Netflix, we get a dopamine hit- but the risk to teens and children is even more intense partly because of the type of apps they use. Silicon Valley tech firms openly talk about making apps addictive – and employ neuroscientists to maximise the addictive level. Dopamine Labs (yes its real name) is the company behind a phenomenon that any parent with a young teenager will be familiar with-‘streaks’ on Snapchat. A streak is a counter which tracks how many consecutive days you and a friend have sent a snap to each other, if you don’t send one within a 24 hour period the streak dies.
A friend described how a family holiday came close to breaking point when her daughter became distressed to the point of hysteria because she couldn’t access Wi-Fi to maintain a streak – but there is no reward for doing this other than competitive bragging rights about the length of time that a streak has gone on for-in some cases years, it is so highly addictive. But Snapchat is not the only addictive app targeting our children…
As apps go , Instagram has to be one of the most addictive. Instagram Stories, like Snapchat contains face filters, fun animations and stickers but also allows children to build an online following- whilst this may in itself be enough to entice older children and teens, watch your child on Instagram for a while and you’ll see other tactics at work to keep them hooked – Stories pop up whilst they are scrolling and automatically feed them into the next persons story endlessly and without pause, and push notifications send messages about a myriad of things – when a friend has sent a direct message or posted a story, or is filming a live video on the platform- and it works- some research estimates that weekly push notifications can increase the retention rate of users by up to six times by enticing users back to the app time and time again!
Apps use psychological tools to keep children hooked – one of the most powerful is variable rewards, which means that the user is rewarded at various times but doesn’t know when they will be rewarded – the same concept used in casinos and slot machines i.e when you pull the lever you may get no reward, a small reward or you might hit the jackpot. Researchers into drug addiction have found that for drug addicts the expectation of a drug caused a greater release of dopamine than the drug itself – in this context the effects of many games and apps aimed at children start to look and feel a lot like addiction.
Many games popular with children are highly addictive- Fortnite ( despite the debatable morality of turning children into online shooters) is classified as a 12, it is live action so unlike a book which you can put down or a movie you can pause, if you put it down for a few seconds someone can ‘shoot’ you making it hugely compelling to stay on the app or game. Candy Crush is equally addictive. In 2013 TIME reported that in a survey of 1000 players, 32 percent reported that they ignored family and friends to play the game and a staggering 30 percent admitted that they were addicted to it. Common sense media reported that 50% of teens felt that they were addicted to their phones. Meanwhile, last year the World Health Organisation officially recognised gaming disorder and the UK opened its first internet addiction clinic, whilst in China where it is estimated that over 20 million children and teens are addicted, military style tech boot camps exist to deal with teen gaming addicts, some of whom wear nappies in order to avoid breaking off from gaming!
Closer to home, excessive screen time (as little as 4 hours a day) has been linked to poorer educational attainment, more behavioural problems and acting out sexual behaviour as well as increased anxiety and depression. Many parents recognise that blue light from screens before bedtime can disturb sleep by producing a spike in melatonin, but alarmingly there is also correlation between the time spent on screens earlier during the day and sleep quality and attention span.
So, what are the warning signs of addiction?
It can be difficult to distinguish between what is normal daily use and what should be a red flag, but as parents it may help to ask ourselves these questions:
Does my child or teen:
- become angry, bad tempered, anxious, or even violent when the device is taken away or not accessible ?
- avoid social events or extracurricular activities to use the device instead?
- neglect personal care and hygiene, friendships, family relationships to use the device instead?
- has school work or academic performance dipped because of their device use?
- does the device interfere with their normal sleep routine, do they wake up in the night to check the phone/ tablet/ game consol etc?
- Are there any big changes in their eating habits that can’t be explained by other factors?
Given that gaming, apps and social media are here to stay what can we as parents do to safeguard our children?
Overwhelmingly the problem needs to be reframed as not just a digital problem, but a life problem – so if you wouldn’t allow you child to do it in real life, for example to spend hours unsupervised on slot machines (or to speak to strangers or hand out photos of themselves) that’s a good barometer for what should be acceptable online.
Experts have a wealth of advice on this subject and to get you and your family off to the right start, TLB recommends actioning these top 10:
- Put restrictions on screen time. Oxford university research found that mental health starts to deteriorate at 4 hours of screen time including TV a day – but some time is better for mental health than no time so don’t ban phones and online activity completely.
- Establish phone and device free zones- at the table, in the bathroom and definitely in bedrooms which is where most online problems occur late at night.
- Remove the temptation. Even having a phone face down on a desk in the same room has been shown to reduce concentration. Encourage children to switch the phone off and crucially put it in a different room.
- Stop charging phones by the bed and have a designated place out of reach that all family phones charge overnight. Buy a good old fashioned alarm clock!
- Turn off push notifications in settings
- Have a regular digital detox – go outside into nature or spend digital free time as a family.
- Encourage the use of good apps – for example Forest is a homework app that grows a digital tree when the phone is not being used and supports planting trees in real life to support the planet.
- Understand age limits. Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook are all 13. Experts recommend that no child under the age of 13 should have smartphone, and that for children up to the age of 17 parents should make it clear that that parents own the device and should have access to all passwords. The prefrontal cortex which regulates decision making and risk taking does not fully develop until the mid-twenties so teens need a parent to regulate their online behaviour as well as making them aware of digital footprints and how to stay safe online.
- Be aware and alert. Research shows a huge disconnect between what parents believe children have seen online and what children have actually seen. Have conversations early and often about staying safe online, 40% of 14-16 year olds have sexted or know someone who has, but sexting by children as young as 11 is on the rise.
- And finally, be a good role model – a global tech protection company survey found that the average respondent checked their phone every 12 minutes or up to 80 times a day- switch off and spend time bonding with your child- good eye contact and conversation is crucial to young children’s social development- a study which removed phones from young children found that their ability to read body language and show empathy improved significantly when they did not have access to their phones.
So back to the bus stop … let’s start noticing , really noticing how much time our children are spending cumulatively on their screens and keep them safe!