Imagine puffing on a cigarette 85 times a day. Or taking 85 swigs of wine. Picture yourself devouring 85 pieces of chocolate, or sipping 85 coffees - as your average daily intake.
If you were that involved with smoking or drinking or sugar or caffeine, there would be no doubt in anybody’s mind. You’d be addicted.
So ... what if you checked your phone 85 times a time?
Because research shows that’s exactly what most of us do. For our teenagers - the number can easily be twice or three times that high.
Aussie teens average 3.3 hours of social media use a day. But does that make them addicts?
New research shows roughly half of parents worry that their child is “addicted” to their smartphone. Among the parents of teens, six out of ten believe their kids are addicted - and half of teens agree with them.
The study, conducted by US-based Common Sense Media, echoes Australian data released this week showing screen-time now rates as a “major battleground” in today’s families.
In a poll of 2000 parents, managing kids’ device use was the number-two concern of mums and dads.
Research also shows that 90% of parents believe it’s up to them to curb their kids’ device use. Yet according to a national survey by the Australian Psychological Society (APA), 60% of mums and dads never monitor their teen’s online activity.
Disconnect? You bet it is.
So what does the evidence tell us about so-called smartphone addiction? And what, if anything, can be done to prevent it?
The scary stats
Worldwide, more than two billion people of all ages own smartphones. The average user checks her phone 85 times a day, and spends around five hours a day on it. Half that time is spent on social media and texting.
Aussie teens are currently averaging 3.3 hours of social media use alone, according to APA. That suggests total average screen-time in excess of 6 hours daily.
By anybody’s definition, five to six or more hours a day is a huge bite out of the available 24. (And that’s before subtracting sleep and work and/or classtime.) But is it addiction?
Is it addiction?
Many researchers argue ‘no’. They point to the World Health Organisation definition that limits the term “addiction” to physical dependence on a substance. A smartphone is not a substance, they point out. Therefore it cannot be addictive.
Other experts scoff, citing the psychology profession’s diagnostic bible, the DSM 5, which in 2013 extended its definition to include behavioural addictions. (Think sex addiction or gambling addiction.) According to this view, addiction is simply the compulsion to repeat actions that produce pleasure - collecting Facebook “likes” or amassing more Insta “followers” or keeping that long-running Snapstreak alive very much included, at least theoretically.
Re-wiring the brain
One thing all observers agree is that true addiction - as opposed to entrenched habit - will eventually lead the brain to re-wire itself. In simplest terms, when the addict gets his “fix” the feel-good brain chemical dopamine is released. This forges a neural pathway that links a given stimulus - whether online porn or nicotine - to a specific chemical reward. But over time, more stimulus will be needed to obtain the same effect.
That one drink - or “like” on your Facebook post - doesn’t get you over the line anymore. You need more. And more and more.
“The device itself is not addictive,” explains leading cyber expert and psychologist Jordan Foster, “but the influence of the platforms, the validation loop that occurs from ‘likes’ and comments, that causes the engagement of dopamine pathways and positive reward responses.”
Addicted to ‘Likes’?
In other words, while your child can’t really be addicted to your phone, he may well be addicted to Instagram.
“Whether it be push notifications or likes and comments, these features all engage the reward pathway in our brain, which is what drives addictive tendencies,” says Jordan. And app developers “are incredibly clever at getting young people to use their platforms more.”
“For example, Snapstories are only available for 24 hours, because it forces young people to check daily. Snapstreaks ensure that young people are sending content and expecting to receive content every single day without fail. Even Messenger's 'Seen' function that appears when you read a message forces young people to feel pressured to respond to messages. All of these functions enable 'addictive' behaviours.”
Or not. Because frequent or even compulsive use is not enough to qualify a user as an addict.
True addiction, cautions Sydney University senior psychology lecturer Andrew Campbell, leads to “severe mental dysfunction” upon withdrawal - not something we normally observe in even the most obsessive teenage Snapchat devotee.
Yet the risk of true internet addiction can be very real among those with poor impulse control - which is more or less the definition of teenagers, whose frontal lobes are still developing.
Social media, gaming and online porn probably pose the biggest threats in this age group.
Addiction v. Problematic Use
But users don’t need to be clinically addicted to experience major issues. The term “problematic internet use” - or PIU - has gained currency in recent years, often as an alternative to the contentious “A” word.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill define PIU as 25+ hours a week of non-school or -work related online activity that causes users to experience difficulty sleeping, restlessness, loss of control and “preoccupation.”
Like alcoholics and other substance abusers, problematic internet users are prone to moodiness and lying when in a state of deprivation. And the condition is associated with a wide range of mental health problems.
Notes Foster, “Whilst getting sucked down the YouTube rabbit hole may not be clinically considered as ‘addictive’, it certainly is problematic. Excessive screen time has clear links with problematic sleep patterns, causes distraction and impacts imagination, and can have negative impacts on physical health. So irrespective of what we name it, we still have to think of excessive screen-time as a problem.”
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