How concerned should people be about the psychological effects of screen time?
Balancing technology use with other aspects of daily life seems reasonable, but there is a lot of conflicting advice about where that balance should be.
Much of the discussion is framed around fighting “addiction” to technology.
But to me, that resembles a moral panic, giving voice to scary claims based on weak data.
For example, in April, US television journalist Katie Couric’s America Inside Out program focused on the effects of technology on people’s brains.
The episode featured the co-founder of a business treating technology addiction.
That person compared addiction to technology with addictions to cocaine and other drugs.
The show also implied that technology use could lead to Alzheimer’s disease-like memory loss.
Others, such as psychologist Jean Twenge, have linked smartphones with teen suicide.
I am a psychologist who has worked with teens and families and conducted research on technology use, video games and addiction.
I believe most of these fear-mongering claims about technology are rubbish.
There are several common myths of technology addiction that deserve to be debunked by actual research.
Technology is not a drug
Some people have claimed that technology use activates the same pleasure centres of the brain as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine.
That’s vaguely true, but brain responses to pleasurable experiences are not reserved only for unhealthy things.
Anything fun results in an increased dopamine release in the “pleasure circuits” of the brain — whether it’s going for a swim, reading a good book, having a good conversation, eating or having sex.
Technology use causes dopamine release similar to other normal, fun activities: about 50 to 100 per cent above normal levels.
Cocaine, by contrast, increases dopamine 350 per cent, and methamphetamine a whopping 1,200 per cent.
In addition, recent evidence has found significant differences in how dopamine receptors work among people whose computer use has caused problems in their daily lives, compared with substance abusers.
But people who claim brain responses to video games and drugs are similar are trying to liken the drip of a tap to a waterfall.
Comparisons between technology addictions and substance abuse are also often based on brain imaging studies, which are themselves sometimes unreliable at documenting what their authors claim.
Other recent imaging studies have also disproved past claims that violent games desensitised young brains, leading children to show less emotional connection with others’ suffering.
Technology addiction is not common
People who talk about tech addictions often express frustration with their smartphone use why kids game so much.
But these aren’t real addictions, involving significant interference with other life activities such as school, work or social relationships.
My own research has suggested that 3 per cent of gamers — or less — develop problem behaviours.
Most of those difficulties are mild and go away on their own over time.
Technology addiction is not a mental illness
At the moment, there are no official mental health diagnoses related to technology addiction.
This could change: the World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced plans to include “gaming disorder” in the next version of its International Compendium of Diseases.
– Christopher J. Ferguson