In her book “Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence,” Dr. Anna Lembke makes the case for how technology, with its promise of nonstop engagement and flashing lights, can be addictive. And while addiction may make one think of drugs or alcohol, activities like video games, social media apps, and sites like YouTube can also become unhealthy addictions. Lembke, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, says child tech addiction can have consequences such as low mood, irregular sleep, attention problems, increased anxiety and poor academic performance.
Many parents feel they are deep in the trenches of navigating screen time. With social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and remote learning during the pandemic, many caregivers allowed more screen time than usual. Non-school screen time for teenagers has reportedly doubled since the start of the pandemic, and now many caregivers and parents are afraid their kid’s screen time has gone overboard.
To determine what actually constitutes addiction to a substance or a behavior, Dr. Lembke and other clinicians rely on the four C’s:
- Control is when a person uses something more or longer than they planned.
- Compulsion is when a person uses without being consciously aware or despite a strong desire not to use. “There’s a level of automaticity to the use,” said Lembke.
- Consequences are continued use despite harm, which can include harm done to health, relationships, and work, as well as interference with goals and values.
- Craving is an intrusive urge to use, which can be mental, physical, or both.
Today’s caregivers are also raising kids in a world that offers more and more ways to get hooked on screens. According to a recent study, teenagers spend nearly eight hours a day on recreational screen time. However, if parents and caregivers understand what is happening in a child’s mind when they are overusing screens , caregivers can support children in cultivating healthier practices and better relationships to devices.
At the crux of behaviors – like an inability to tear oneself away from YouTube or stop scrolling through a phone – is brain chemistry, specifically a spike in a chemical called dopamine. “It is released in response to things that are pleasurable, things that are rewarding and things that are novel or different,” Lembke said. Substances and behaviors that are more addictive release higher than usual amounts of dopamine in the part of our brains called the reward pathway. Social media platforms in particular tap into a human need to connect with other people, said Lembke.
These devices and the apps on them are deeply and inherently reinforcing. “The way that they’ve been created immediately taps into our dopamine reward pathway and we are engaged,” she said. While dopamine and the enjoyable experiences that cause it are not inherently bad, pleasure and pain are co-located in the brain, meaning you can’t have one without the other. Much like a sugar crash after eating a bunch of Halloween candy, however, a big surge of dopamine is followed by a dip in dopamine levels that go below their initial baseline.
“When we release a large amount of dopamine in response to a highly reinforcing drug or behavior, our brain has to compensate. [Youtube videos self-generating] in and of itself releases dopamine, followed by a dopamine deficit state which has us pressing that lever, which is what we all do when we’re looking for that next video,” said Lembke. “Ultimately, we can end up in this chronic dopamine deficit state where we’re not making much of our own dopamine. Now we’re using just to get out of withdrawal to temporarily restore a baseline level.”
In severe cases of child tech addiction – such as those that qualify within the 4Cs – Lembke suggests encouraging children to take a break from using the device altogether. “Even just putting away screens for one day can provide useful information,” said Lembke. “Twenty-four hours is certainly enough to be able to observe our own attachments to our devices, and the anxiety that we feel while abstaining.”
It takes approximately 30 days for dopamine levels to go back to normal from a dopamine deficit state, however. “It’s worth doing the full 30 days because if you do too little, all you’re going to get is the withdrawal part,” she said. “And it’s key to go long enough so that people can notice the benefits and then are motivated themselves to change their relationship with their device.” If a child still seems depressed or anxious at the end of the 30-day period, Lembke recommends consulting a mental health professional to see what additional support the child might need.
Most kids, especially ones who are in the throes of addiction, aren’t likely to give up their device willingly. Developmentally, kids don’t usually think in the long term, so it’s hard for them to realize that behaviors can be harmful further down the line. One set of strategies for abstaining or putting limits on addictive behavior is self-binding. “It’s the way we intentionally create barriers between ourselves and our drug of choice,” said Lembke. Self-binding falls into three categories: space, time and meaning.
1. Space. Focusing on space for self-binding means limiting the access you have to an object with physical barriers. For example, a parent or child might put their phone or gaming console in a container with a lock or in a different room. Space self-binding techniques acknowledge that sometimes willpower doesn’t cut it if the temptation is too great. Some self-binding examples from Lembke’s patients include unplugging the TV and putting it in the closet and keeping their gaming console stowed away in the garage.
2. Time. Time self-binding uses time limits and finish lines or milestones to control misuse. “We narrow our window of consumption and thereby limit our use,” wrote Lembke in her book. For example a child might decide to delete an app on their phone until after they finish finals or choose to only play video games on the weekend. Even just tracking how much time is spent being on a device can be really helpful for children because they often don’t realize how much it is. Time self-binding is also helpful for building up kids capacity to delay gratification, which is linked to better social adjustment.
3. Meaning. Using meaning to self-bind involves creating categories to identify what a person will allow themself to consume and what they’ll avoid. For example, Lembke worked with a young man who wanted to stop gaming. He decided to stop using screens altogether because he felt he might start watching people play video games and then he would want to play video games. “This method helps us to avoid not only our drug of choice but also the triggers that lead to craving for our drug,” she said.
The majority of young people will be able to self-correct if they are misusing substances or doing harmful behaviors, said Lembke. “But for those who cannot, we need to help them.” She urges parents to trust their instincts. “If you see your kid is circling the drain, I just really encourage you to gently, but firmly, intervene.”
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