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Is digital addiction changing our brains?

By Scott Silva - Guest Columnist | Sep 8, 2019

The last decade it has been the opioid epidemic that has been grabbing headlines and forcing public officials to take action. There is a new disease that has affected all age groups and socio-economic scales. And though the outcome of the disease is not as grave as with opioids, it is changing the way humans are interacting with each other, and some might say for the worst. This disorder, digital addiction, is something that has grown out of the Internet age and the sudden influx of technologies, such as smartphones, social media and the strive to make billions from the attention economy. 

Digital addiction is not something that we should look lightly on. Children are getting involved with smartphones and tablets at younger ages than past generations. Teenagers strive to keep Snapchat streaks going between friends. And, it is not uncommon to see a group of adults out for dinner with all of them engrossed in their phones and not talking to each other. The irony of this technology is that though we call it social media, it is very unsocial when you view it “in the real world.” 

This month’s Science Cafe gathering will talk to experts from both technology and psychology fields to see how they are addressing this important issue of digital addiction. What type of responsibilities do parents and teachers have to guide our children?

This week in Nashua, the Board of Education is looking to solve the problem. The policy committee is looking into making it mandatory to ban all cellphones, smartphones and tablets from instructor-led programs during school hours. Though some on the Board do not think it is a problem, others are getting behind the issue. 

Gavin Smith, director of clinical personnel for the New England Pastoral Institute and a Science Cafe panelist, details the struggles of some of his younger clients with electronic technology.

“This is not just a middle school and high school thing. Clinicians are still seeing video game problems into the adult years. It is important to deal with it in these grades,” Smith said.

He has worked with patients who have had the fallout of a Snapchat streak falling apart and the repercussions of it to the teenager.

“This behavior ruins normalized social behavior that does not match with reality,” Smith said. “‘If you care about me, you will do this every day.’ The thread went for over 1,000 days. When it broke, the friendship became broken. It’s not realistic.”

It is not unusual for teenagers to share passwords to their Snapchat accounts to keep these streaks going when they know they will be away from their device and the Internet. 

A Pew Research Center poll in 2017 found that approximately 77% of Americans own a smartphone. That number more than doubles the amount of Americans who owned smartphones in 2011. That year it was at 35%. With this device attached to your hip (or in your purse), you receive many pings and notifications. From news and weather alerts, to your calendar reminders, text and email messages, updates to all the apps on your phones and the slew of new releases from TV services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. This barrage is overwhelming and can cause you to lose your focus.

Technology companies like Apple realize the problem and are trying to give some power back to the consumer to curb their tech urges. Last year, Apple unveiled Screen Time in their smartphone operating system. Screen Time tracks how much you are using your phone and how long. It also allows you to set downtime to make you step away from social media, entertainment and other applications on your device. This feature also will be in their next MacOS update. There are other third-party applications, like Freedom and Forest, that also do this for Android, Windows and Apple.

Tristan Harris was a former Google employee that left his Silicon Valley career to form the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology. The sole purpose of this organization is to “drive a comprehensive shift toward humane technology by changing the way technologists think about their work and how they build products.” 

In his 2017 TED Talk, Harris addressed the problem of digital addiction.

“I don’t know a more urgent problem than this, because this problem is underneath all other problems,” he said. “It’s not just taking away our agency to spend our attention and live the lives that we want. It’s changing the notion of the way we have our conversations, it’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations in relationships with each other. And it affects everyone because a billion people have cellphones in their pockets.”

This topic has many facets, and we hope to address them at this months Science Cafe. To prepare you for this topic, we will post links to the subject on www.sciencecafenh.org, including the full TED Talk from Harris and other people in this space that you may find interesting.

As always, Science Cafe is free, open to the public and offers a place where the community can engage in civil discourse, talk science, have a beer or tea, learn from each other and enjoy a safe haven for the geeks among us. Come join the conversation.

Science Cafe is hosted at the Riverwalk Cafe and Music Bar in Nashua. You can learn more about Science Cafe New Hampshire at www.ScienceCafeNH.org.


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