Digital Addiction and the Risks to Children

Long gone are the days of writing letters and playing outside. Today, we see most children facing lit-up screens, typing away on social media platforms, or connecting through online gaming apps. While the new age of technology brings opportunities never imagined before, there are risks of digital addiction, and, like substance addiction, it may be difficult to identify, and overcome.

How Do Social Media, Gaming, and Technology Affect Our Mental Health?

Social media has been described as being more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes, and with over 91% of 16- to 24-year-olds in the United Kingdom using the internet for social networking, there is a concern about mental health. Anxiety and depression among young people have risen by 70% in the last 25 years, while social media is also linked to poor sleep. At the same time, 7 in 10 young people experience cyberbullying.

Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety, which can be a mild or severe feeling of unease such as worry or fear, can greatly impact or even dominate a person’s life. As a very difficult mental health issue, overwhelming worry or panic can make it hard for someone to attend school, perform at work, or even leave the house. Young people who are spending more than two hours per day on social media report psychological distress such as anxiety and depression.

Comparing themselves to the images of others, young people may feel that they are missing out on things while others are enjoying life. While photoshopped individuals and edited photographs on social media make people feel that their lives are mundane, it also increases feelings of inadequacy and feeds anxiety. Often, unrealistic expectations that are set by social media lead to feelings of low self-esteem, self-consciousness, and pursuit of perfectionism. These elements manifest as anxiety disorders.

Studies have shown that an increase in social media use is associated with increased odds of depression. The intensity of the online world may be too much to handle. Constantly being contactable, facing pressures from unrealistic versions of reality, as well as online peer pressure can trigger depressive symptoms.

Sleep

Poor mental health is often linked to poor sleep. While especially important for teens and young adults in the key time of development, sleep allows us to function properly. Young people need even more sleep than adults, and without good sleep, can suffer a range of health issues.

Using phones, laptops, and tablets at night before sleep is linked with a poor quality of sleep. It may cause someone to take longer to fall asleep, which means that they will sleep less. One in five young people also wake up during the night to check messages on social media.

Cyberbullying

Bullying affects our mental health, relationships, and education. It can have especially long-lasting effects on children that could carry through to adulthood. Unfortunately, bullying in the digital world is rising. Cyberbullies do continue to abuse while not being near a person, which means that a child could be bullied at any point. With instant messaging, bullying messages or images spread fast and accountability is often ignored. As with any bullying, cyberbullying can lead to anxiety, depression, feelings of loneliness, low academic performance, and changes in sleep patterns. This makes it a factor that not only affects mental health but also personal and social development, as well as physical health.

A Dopamine Epidemic

Dopamine is a very important chemical produced by our brains. After you exercise, eat something delicious, or have successful social interactions, this chemical is released. This is what motivates us or ‘rewards’ us, and makes us repeat behaviours.

Three of the pathways for dopamine in the brain are considered ‘reward pathways’, and in most cases of addiction, these are the ones that are affected and may be dysfunctional. All three of these pathways are active when you anticipate a rewarding event or when you experience it. The pathways also promote the association between something that gives a stimulus and the feel-good reward that comes after. Whenever you experience a reward from a stimulus, the association becomes stronger, and this increases the intensity of how you will respond to it over time.

Positive social stimuli, such as recognition by our peers, laughing faces, or ‘likes’ on social media will activate dopaminergic reward pathways. The trouble is, smartphones are giving us an unlimited supply of this stimulus, whether it is positive or negative. That is why every notification, text message, or ‘like’ on Instagram or Facebook can cause a dopamine influx. With children in the United Kingdom spending an average of 3.4 hours online per day, we may be heading into a dopamine epidemic.

Digital Addiction Compared to a Substance Use Disorder

Social media addiction affects around 5% of young people. Children who show addictive use of technology seem to be drawn to the immediate rewards of gaming, social media, or watching videos, despite the negative long-term consequences. This is very similar to a person becoming addicted to a substance. Scientists believe that internet addiction compares to drug or alcohol dependency. This is because it causes similar changes to nerve cells in the brain. Recent studies have shown that internet dependency can affect the white matter fibres of the brain. Our emotional function, attention, and decision-making functions are related to these fibres.

Addiction to a behaviour can be just as dangerous as addiction to a substance. Although very recently recognized, Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is a medical condition that involves spending excessive amounts of time online, to the point that it affects daily life and activities. IAD may also share psychological and neural mechanisms with other types of substance addiction.

Are We Setting up for Dependency?

With more than two-thirds of 5- to 16-year-olds having owned a smartphone by 2019 and the average online times of young ones increasing after the COVID-19 pandemic, children may become dependent on the internet or the applications available through it. Already, many people feel cut off or lost without the internet, and they could even find it stressful. Needing a stimulus to feel calm is a sign of dependency, and it seems that young people already depend on the internet. With social interaction and much of education becoming digital, children are more likely to increasingly depend on smartphones, tablets, or computers. Addiction treatment is available for behavioural addictions, which could help manage dependency and maintain a healthy mental and physical life.

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