The Risks of Excessive Use of Technology
In the filled space of Healthy City Poreč, a hundred people listened carefully as, on Wednesday, February 21st, dr. Ivan Burcar, general surgeon specialist and subspecialist of cardinal surgery at KBC Zagreb, held a compelling lecture on the topic of physical and psychological effects of technology addiction among children and adults. As a parent himself, he was particularly dedicated to studying this issue.
This topic was a part of the program of the 11th Psychology Week in Poreč. The talk encouraged thought and many a discussion from both parents and teachers, other educators and experts, about raising awareness of the need to control the massive development of addiction to technology. Dr. Burcar based his talk on an American psychiatrist dr. Nicholas Kardaras’s book “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids – and How to Break the Trance”. The book, much like the lecture, deals with the ever-growing trend of technology addiction, especially with smartphones, computers and other screens we are more and more exposed to daily.
A Glowing Screen as Electronic Cocaine
Although today technology provides us with various benefits and possibilities, research shows that excessive use of devices with screens and their effects on the brain, especially that of a child, has significant connections to frequent psychiatric disorders like ADHD, addiction, depression, anxiety, heightened aggression. In still developing individuals, like children or teenagers, excessive exposure to screens can cause neurological brain damage and have same effects as drug (e.g. cocaine) use. From this, the term “electronic cocaine” emerged as a synonym for glaring electronic screens. According to this, as dr. Burcar claims, if we let a child excessively use technology, knowing no limits, we risk them developing an addiction to technology similar in intensity to a drug addiction. Parents, meaning no harm, and wanting only the best for their child, do exactly that, dr. Burcar says.
The doctor went on to explain that internet and screen addiction has a neurobiological basis, as is the case with other addictions. He described the dopamine path, how during, for example, playing video games, the body stimulates the centre for pleasure. That subconsciously leads to repeating the same actions over and over again, which causes addiction. When one is addicted to something, natural dopamine production drops over time due to receptor cells in the brain tiring, which leads to an increase of addictive behaviour. Children who develop an addiction to technology are led to use it for longer and longer periods of time, and in the end, some are capable of sitting in front of a screen for hours without pause.
As children and teens are still developing, their brains are still developing, they make for a particularly vulnerable group in regards to technology addiction and even disrupting normal brain development, which can lead to serious emotional and personality disorders.
Video Games and Social Media Sites as a Risk for Addictive Behaviour
Playing games has another very specific effect on our organism. Namely, it activates our fight or flight response. When we are in stressful situations, our organism releases adrenalin and cortisol, prepares us for action. During playing of video games, that reaction is constantly present, and this kind of long term tension can lead to aggression, higher attention, hyperactivity of the brain and symptoms of addiction not unlike the clinical symptoms of mania. Parents often give video games to their kids to award them or calm them down, unknowingly turning them into “electrococaine” addicts, which is in reality the goal of video game industry and gaming industry as a whole. The gaming industry employs neuroscientists and neurobiologists who help in making a game addictive and the user addicted to it. The end goal is to, of course, sell as many copies of the game, the health of their users a secondary concern.
“Imagine a withdrawn kid who struggles with social interaction, maybe they’re in puberty and have a bad image of themselves, maybe they think they’re ugly…. They find it easy to dive into the imaginary world of video games where they identify with the hero, they like it there.” Those kids, as dr. Bursar describes, have a much easier time falling into the dangers of technology addiction due to the gap between the imaginary and real worlds, and so, for them, fitting in becomes that much harder. That is why today we talk more and more about the phenomenon of “Glow Kids” – children and young adults that spend day and night staring into electronic screens, not paying attention to their surroundings at all, showing signs of aggression and anger whenever they are taken away from them. They have difficulties controlling their emotions, can have lost touch with reality or, in the worst case scenario, can develop psychotic disorders.
We know that some people are more prone to becoming addicted than others, 10% of the world population in fact. We also know that they, as children, have an even higher chance of getting addicted to technology, and then later in life to other vices. The risk of developing a technology addiction is, given our exposure to it, significantly higher. Data shows that 81% of children in Croatia plays some type of video game. Taking that into consideration, it looks like the risk of technology addiction among our children is our reality.
Dr. Burcar goes on to mention the quickly growing obsession with social networks and texting in great amounts. Both children and adults not able to complete any action without checking their phones constantly, checking Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp… they are online all the time. Their brains are in the constant state of excitement, always expecting an answer, virtual communication of some type. It has been proven that excessive communication over social networking sites gives rise to depression and affects school achievements negatively. Social media encourages comparison and competition between individuals, gives the impression of having many “friends”, many of which its users don’t personally know, it tracks where someone travels, what they buy, how they dress… and people compare themselves to unrealistic ideals, getting depressed when their life doesn’t measure up. Paradoxically, despite the overwhelming amount of social networks and communication devices in the modern age, people feel lonelier than ever, which raises the question of how exactly do social networks influence our social and face to face communication skills.
How to Recognise the Problem and What to Do Then?
Dr. Burcar lists a few questions that can reveal if a child has a technology addiction problem:
- Do they stay awake and on their computer longer than normal?
- Do they become aggressive or anxious when left without a phone, computer, or gaming console?
- Does technology impact their success in school?
- Do they have difficulties with getting rid of digital images form their heads?
- Do they daydream of/imagine virtual pictures?
- Do they hide their devices or hide when they use them?
- Do they have difficulties in controlling emotions?
- Are they easily bored or seemingly apathetic?
- Do they seem excited but overly tired at the same time?
- Do teachers complain of them sleeping during class?
If you notice any of these problems in your child a healthy relationship with technology need to be reinstated as you cannot remove it from their lives completely, given that it is unavoidable in day-to-day life and should be used in some cases. In general, detoxification from the digital should be gradual, every day an hour less for example. To completely remove addictive behaviour a minimum of 4 weeks of complete abstinence from electronic screens is necessary, provided they are substituted with healthy activities.
Do Smartphones Belong in Schools?
It has been proven that phone use during class is in direct negative correlation with school performance, especially in kids who find it difficult to study. More and more western schools forbid phones inside the school. Moreover, they don’t have, or have done away with, smart boards and tablets, believing them to hinder the normal development of a child’s brain and their graphomotoric skills, not to mention causes them to spend even more time staring at a screen. Children surrounded by technology don’t read any more, and reading has a special role in brain development, just as much as social contact and student-teacher interaction do.
Dr. Burcar urged to forbid phones in our schools and asked the parents and teachers to consider the consequences of mass technology consumerism, and then decide if they want to digitalise their schools and make children even more dependent on technology or if they want to keep social interaction and encourage communication between children and important adults in their surroundings.
He ended his talk on an important note: “Children should be limited in time they are allowed to spend on the internet and encouraged to use that time looking for useful and educational information. Children should also be left to be bored sometimes, to encourage their own creativity in hopes of having fun. You have to interact with your children, go out into nature, let them play and explore. For example, instead of a video game, I bought my daughter a dog!”