Taming the Beast: A therapist’s advice on the most problematic technology (part 2)

Welcome to the second installment in my new series on technology addiction. Last week, we reviewed the warning signs of technology addiction:

  • A preoccupation with the Internet, even when the person is not online
  • A sudden and drastic increase in Internet usage
  • Difficulty cutting back or stopping internet usage
  • Irritability, aggression, or restlessness caused by efforts to cut back on Internet use
  • Unstable moods when not online or Internet use as a way to cope with stress
  • Internet use interfering with job duties or academic work
  • Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships when not online
  • Friends and family expressing concern for the amount of time spent online

This week, we’ll look at the most problematic technology – video games and social media – and why it’s so important to limit even healthy use.

How do these apps get my attention?

The success of social media apps and gaming devices depends on their ability to grab and hold onto your attention; to pull you out of the here-and-now and put you somewhere else that feels better, more stimulating. Social media and video games are not addictive by chance – they are addictive by design. The Internet writ large is a community of content creators whose job it is to grab and hold our attention. From blinking/moving/colorful content, to links one must click to continue reading, to algorithms that curate content for which we have demonstrated a preference, to little tickers that count how many likes/follows we have accumulated, attention-seeking gimmicks are causing our brains to release little hits of dopamine — the reward hormone. Dopamine is what makes us feel good when we win, get praise, or experience something pleasant. It quite literally feels good to engage with content on the Internet. In terms of behavior, what gets rewarded gets repeated. If it feels good you are probably going to do it again and more frequently. You might think, ‘If it makes me happy, it can’t be that bad.’ Well, it’s bad because, whether you realize it or not, these apps are training your brain to need more and more of their product.

Social media and video games are not addictive by chance. They are addictive by design.

What makes technology addiction unique?

Unlike having an addiction to drugs or alcohol, we can’t just quit using our screens cold turkey. We need technology to get our jobs done or participate in classes and do our homework. We are connected to our friends and family over text or social media. We socialize with friends playing video games online. Like food, we need social connection for our health. Humans are pack animals and thrive with social connection. The Internet promotes both connection AND disconnection. It can provide the illusion that you are living a vibrant and deeply engaged life. However, when most of your interaction is online, the reality is that you’re probably living a very disconnected life or at least one that is not authentically connected. When we feel disconnected, whether virtually or in real life, we don’t function as well. More aptly put, we atrophy emotionally when we are isolated from social connection which can lead to anxiety, depression, and worse. We then respond to this need with dopamine-seeking behavior…and the behavior loop continues.

While girls tend to be drawn to text and image-based social media apps, boys are more likely to use video gaming as a way to connect socially. Let’s take a look at why each of these is problematic:

Video Gaming

Imaging studies show that video gaming triggers dopamine at levels comparable to intravenous drugs. Researchers at the University of Washington found that severe burn victims who simultaneously played the virtual reality game called SnowWorld during grueling treatments actually required no morphine to treat their pain. On an MRI or PET scan, video gaming showed the same or greater effect on the brain’s pain management center as drugs and alcohol. It numbed them sufficiently to the reality of their situation enough that they didn’t need pain meds – think about that! Imagine your child being exposed to that high a level of dopamine over a long period of time. What do you think that’s doing to your child’s brain? It’s training them to need more. The more we repeat the dopamine-releasing behavior, the more dopamine our brain gets used to having and this means we have to do more to achieve the same level of happiness.

While this effect alters the brain at every age, the effect this has on sensation-seeking adolescents is even more profound. Teens are experiencing an important period of brain development involving the prefrontal cortex (i.e. brain’s braking system where patience, rational thought, and impulse control are accessed). Without question, excessive video gaming is working against them. MRI imaging of kids who play 10+ hours of video gaming a week showed less activation in certain frontal lobe regions which are responsible for controlling emotion, aggressive behavior, and executive function. So, maybe you didn’t know that the effect of excessive video gaming was THIS extensive. I certainly didn’t before I did my own research. But…now you know. So, if you or your child are unable to limit your video game time without tantrums, anxiety, or other withdrawal symptoms, you may need to consider whether it is has moved into addictive territory.

It’s important to note that SOME advances in virtual reality gaming will prove incredibly useful in the medical community under specific circumstances…but, a kid playing Grand Theft Auto in the basement for hours on end without any supervision or face-to-face human connection is not the same as a patient being monitored by a team of physicians for medical purposes. Your teen needs you to set limits and so they can learn to set limits themselves.

In case you’re reading this and envisioning an all-out battle with your kid when you take away all their video games, just know that all video games are not the same and it is possible to minimize the damage video games can cause while maximizing the benefits of play. If you’re the parent of a tween or teen, try to follow these guidelines instead of tossing all the games:

  • Avoid games that involve first-person shooting or excessive violence
  • Play video games with your child – experience it the way they do so you’re better informed when you set limits. This will make the experience more social thereby activating more regions of their brain
  • Avoid too much time on single-player games – group games are better and hopefully the group is sitting right next to your child as they play rather than online somewhere
  • If your kid is playing with others online, you should know who those people are because you want some accountability if they are experiencing something inappropriate.
  • Encourage gaming that requires physical movement – a sedentary lifestyle presents a host of other health issues
  • Blocks of gaming time can be used as a reward for completion of chores or homework. (Key: Do the hard thing first then get the reward not the other way around!)
  • For teens, the American Pediatric Association recommends no more than 30-60 minutes a day during the week and no more than 2 non-consecutive hours a day on the weekend.
  • Even professional gamers recommend not playing more than about 3-4 days a week. This helps them achieve optimal performance and maintain well-being.

Researchers at the University of Washington found that severe burn victims who played the virtual reality game called Snow World actually required no morphine to treat their pain.

-Nicholas Kardaras, PhD

A Closer Look at Social Media

Social media has a lot of the same addictive properties as video gaming, with its like, follow, comment, and notification features, but it is a slightly slower burn and it also presents broader issues to consider. With social media, we also have to consider privacy/data breaches, its role in proliferating divisiveness and rewarding extreme emotions, safety concerns related to location services and end-to-end encryption, as well as its correlation with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. For many, this collection of issues is reason enough to cut ties with social media altogether. However, because social media has been insidiously woven into our daily lives, those who do attempt to cut ties often realize is that there is a price to be paid for NOT being connected this way.

In some ways, Big Tech has won. The information shared on social media is often the reference point for face-to-face interaction. Real-time news or viral memes have become a cultural touchstone that leaves those who opt out feeling uninformed or out of touch. So, it’s a bit of a two-edged sword. When you’re on social media, you may feel violated, offended, or manipulated, but when you’re off-line, you may feel uninformed or left out. This is why I recommend a healthy balance of highly-curated, time-limited, and intentional connection. The curation of your friend group will help you focus on authentic connections with people and platforms that you find useful, inspirational, and supportive. The limited and intentional time investment will help you avoid the built-in addictive properties.

I recommend:

  1. Highly intentional connections – friend only those you know in real life and follow only what makes you feel happy, informed, or inspired. Unfollow people or pages that leave you feeling anxious or sad or angry.
  2. Do not passively scroll – this behavior has the highest correlation to anxiety and depression and leaves you vulnerable to the addictive properties. If you’re online, know what you’re looking for and don’t take the bait when the app tries to pull you in another direction.
  3. Set time limits and do not extend them. The American Medical Association recommends that total screen time for teens and adults (excluding academic/work use) should not exceed 2 hours a day. This refers to the total time you spend on TV, laptops, phones, gaming devices, and tablets.
  4. Prioritize face-to-face connection over virtual connection whenever possible.
  5. Turn off “Like” counting features and do not check your posts repeatedly. Instead, check on and respond to comments on your posts maybe once a day. The attention on your posts will likely die out within a few hours anyway.
  6. Turn off notifications for your social media apps. This will help you avoid being pulled back into that world during work or school hours.
  7. Only post positive content. Ask yourself whether your post is: Helpful? Kind? Informative? Funny? If yes, great. If not, pause and see if you still feel like posting it tomorrow. You probably won’t and the moment of relevance may have passed as well.
  8. Prioritize sleep – avoid social media and screens of any type 1 hour before bedtime even if you’re using a blue light blocker. This helps activate and train your body’s natural sleep cycle.
  9. Prioritize outdoor time – exposure to nature helps reset the dopaminergic effect in your brain. If you’re looking for ways to detox from screen time, there are few activities as effective as getting outside.

Only you can make a decision for yourself about what level of involvement you want to have online, if any. If you’re a parent, though, I highly recommend you stay online and up-to-date on technology or risk being ill-equipped when it comes to helping your kids navigate the issues they face online.

If you’re a parent, stay online and up-to-date on technology or you risk being ill-equipped when it comes to helping your kids navigate the issues they face online.

Generational Differences

For adults who grew up with connections to people that didn’t depend on technology, we don’t necessarily need to be convinced to pick up the phone and have a direct conversation with someone. At the risk of overgeneralizing, adults are better at prioritizing in-person experiences and we tend to rely on technology to set up those experiences. We are less likely to use technology as an experience in and of itself. We know that meeting someone on Discord to play a video game together is not the same as meeting someone at the ball field for a pick-up game. We know that being friends on Facebook isn’t the same as being invited to a party at a friend’s home.

But for the iGen crowd, who has lived their whole life being shaped by their devices and the Internet, it’s a bit more nuanced. Those kids want BOTH virtual and real-life of connections and the quality of these connections shapes their view of their social lives. For many, these virtual connections fulfill a real social need even if they aren’t what we adults think of as traditional friendships. Looking at it through a positive lens, in many cases, these virtual connections improve social standing, strengthen existing in-person bonds, and help new real-life friendships develop. The dark side is that kids can overly rely on social media feedback for validation, they can get sucked into the riptide of online drama, they can fall victim to comparison culture, and they can be hindered by small missteps online as that drama to seeps into real life. The truth is, for better or worse, social etiquette and connection looks a tad different for this generation.

It’s usually the first sign of being out of touch when you start a sentence with an eye-rolling “When I was a kid…” It’s important for adults to consider that the playing field has changed. If we want to connect with and positively influence the younger generation, it’s a good idea to be sure our guidance holds up within the context in which they’re living or we run the risk of having our opinions disregarded altogether.

KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE PRIZE: When it comes to technology, our goal is to harness the good, mitigate the bad, and learn how to think critically about what we’re seeing and experiencing, so we develop the ability to self-regulate.

Next week

Next week, we’ll look at specific steps we can take to improve the influence of technology on our lives at home, work, and school. Stay tuned!

About the Author

When she is not navigating the perils of parenting adolescents, Erin Castleberry is a mental health therapist and Media Director at Waypoint Wellness Center. She has presented locally and internationally on the effects of social media on mental health and held an adjunct professorship at Johns Hopkins University. She specializes in anxiety management, life stage adjustment, and parent-child relationship building.

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