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Teens and Tech: Preventing Technology Addiction


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Technology is everywhere. Teenagers can often be found staring down at their iPhones, or with their eyes glued to a laptop, instead of observing the world around them. It's not unusual to see two adolescents seated together on a bus, typing furiously on their mobiles rather than talking. The fact that teenagers are so dependent on technology may be worrisome and can lead to negative consequences.

What is technology addiction?      

Technology addiction is defined as frequent and obsessive behavior despite negative consequences from dependency on technology. It can significantly impact students' lives. Depending on its severity, technology addiction can be socially devastating; people who are addicted to technology might suffer withdrawal symptoms, ranging from feelings of annoyance to feelings of extreme anxiety and depression.

What makes technology addictive?

Technology often fulfills our natural human needs for stimulation, interaction, and changes in environment with great efficiency. When teenagers experience difficult phases in their lives, from social rejection to the stress of exams, technology can become a quick and easy way to fulfill basic needs, and as such, can become addictive. Technology impacts the pleasure systems of the brain in ways similar to substances and provides some of the same rewards that alcohol and other drugs might: it can be a boredom buster, a social lubricant, and an escape from reality.


Video and computer games, smart phones and tablets, social media and the Internet provide a variety of access points that can promote different sources of dependence and negative consequences for youth:


The Internet. The Web can be addictive because it is a multifunctional tool that brings us exceptionally close to an enormous about of information at unprecedented speeds. "FOMO," or "Fear of Missing Out," is a commonly described phenomenon in which persons increasingly feel the need to stay connected to the Internet so they are not the last to know of a news story or social happening. Anxiety is the most common reason teens cannot depart from their computers.1


Video and computer games. One hallmark of human psychology is that we want to feel competent, autonomous, and related to other people. Video games are challenging and allow players to feel that they are good at something. Games offer a great variety of choice to players, promoting a sense of autonomy for teens who might feel otherwise out of control. Further, the same goals that drive people to pursue success in the real world are often present in video games. As one amasses virtual wealth or prestige by spending time on games and advancing through levels, virtual wealth can translate into some version of actual recognition - through monetary purchasing power within an online game or a positive reputation within an online community. The escape from reality into a digital universe can also allow players to assume new identities more appealing or more novel than those they hold in the real world.


Smart phones and tablets. These highly-mobile machines have the power to constantly connect. Smart phones and tablets promote addiction by removing the time lapse from tasks and activities that previously required logging into a deskbound, or at least a backpack-bound, computer source.

Social media. Social media presents individually-relevant information in the easiest ways - centralized, personalized portals, like a Facebook newsfeed. Whether it's a Skype conversation with our grandmother in Alaska or a Google Chat with the President, social media feeds our need for human connection by allowing us to share feedback with those who are far from us in time, geography, or social status. As social animals, we need human contact for emotional and psychological health. The appeal of social media is that it helps us to fill social needs without the efforts or restraints of in-person contact.

What are the risks of teen technology addiction?

Technology addiction can give students a false sense of relational security as they communicate with unseen individuals around the world. The speed with which technology moves makes everything available within seconds, encouraging an unhealthy desire for instant gratification that can promote irritability and anxiety throughout daily life. Sleep disorders can develop as addicts stay up all night to play with technology, and as a result, academic, athletic, and social performance can suffer. Weight gain and other complications of a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle, such as cardiovascular disease, may result. In-person social skills may deteriorate. Even as healthy teens are challenged by increasing life responsibilities, hormonal changes, and the stress of new social and academic worlds like dating and applying to colleges, these life transitions become even harder for those absorbed in technology. Within a technology-addicted individual, the mind becomes increasingly unable to distinguish between the lived and the alternate realities that produce instant stimulation, pleasure, and reward. As such, the extreme use of technology can disrupt normal patterns of mood and socialization in teens. Dependency upon social media, gaming, or other platforms to function can become the new and unhealthy "normal."


Technology Addiction and Substance Abuse. Researchers have found evidence that people who abuse technology may develop similar brain chemistry and neural patterning to those who abuse substances.2 Another concern is that those who are addicted to technology are actually more likely to also abuse substances than their peers with healthy relationships to tech, providing the insight that technology addiction may be a risk factor for substance abuse. Teens who "hyper-text," or send more than 120 messages per school day, are 40% more likely to have tried cigarettes, two times more likely to have tried alcohol, 43% more likely to be binge drinkers, 41% more likely to have used illegal drugs, and 55% more likely to have been in a physical fight. On top of that, the same research noted that young adults who spent more than three hours per school day on social networking sites were at higher risk for depression, suicide, and substance abuse.3 Thus, if we prevent technology addiction, we may prevent many other risks as well.  


Technology and the Brain. Studies have shown that the brain scans of young people with internet addiction disorder are similar to those of people with substance addictions to alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis.4 Damage to brain systems connecting emotional processing, attention, and decision-making are affected in both populations. This discovery shows that being hooked on a behavior can in some ways be as physically damaging as a substance addiction.


A Healthy Student's Relationship with Technology    

As a high school student, I can relate to the allure of technology. It's so convenient and entertaining.  Getting on the internet right after school feeds my curiosity and kills my boredom. I remember when I first signed up for Facebook, I was immediately engrossed. There was something attractive about the way the little red update boxes would pop up...I never knew what exciting news lay behind them. After awhile, whenever I did my homework, my attention span got shorter. I wanted to check my friends' Facebook updates and to socialize with them. I took a break from Facebook for a month or so, which was quite helpful. Sometimes, I want to go back to the time I knew as a younger child , when it was all about going outside and using imagination to keep us from being bored. 

When is technology a protective factor?  

Of course, the advent of smarter, faster, more mobile technologies can be employed positively with teens too. The following list reflects the many ways in which technology, used in a healthy way, can encourage teens to explore their world and express themselves:


Learning. In Ramsey Musallam's AP Chemistry class at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco, California, cell phones are a natural extension of the way he communicates with his students. As soon as kids walk in, Musallam sends out a text blast through Remind101, asking them a challenge question related to the day's lesson.5 Some teachers use Facebook as a communication hub, creating a public page or smaller closed group for classes. Doing this, teachers can keep keep parents informed, distribute homework or permission slips, or share photos and videos from classroom activities and field trips. Others have found that by piquing students' interest in social justice or commentary videos posted on YouTube, student engagement with world issues can be enhanced. 


Creativity and expression. Technology can promote student creativity by prompting expression through user-friendly tools. Some studies have shown that blogging, or web journaling, enhances students' creative thinking.6 Metacognition - or the ability to be aware of, attend to, and use information about one's own cognitive processes - allows students to strengthen critical thinking across academic disciplines. Utilizing Internet-based technologies that ask students to reflect on and reiterate their learning processes provide a framework for this development to take place. Also, simply put, tablets and eBook readers are often much less bulky than notebooks and textbooks. Students can learn to flex their imaginations, reading fiction, writing poetry, doodling, or taking pictures, through the ease of software applications found on highly-mobile devices.   

Socialization. When monitored properly by a parent or guardian, the use of social media can create safe and healthy friendship networks for teens with like interests online, through already established mutual friendships or within shared interest hubs, like a blogging community or Facebook group.

Preventing Other Teen Risks.
Since the expansion of the Internet and mobile technologies, call-in hotlines have expanded to include internet help sites and texting lines for teens run by knowledgeable and mature adults. These options provide a place teens can go for accurate information and timely support when they are not comfortable discussing their personal problems with an adult at home or school. At her social advocacy organization, Nancy Lublin started receiving so many texts from students with questions about bullying that she set up a text-only crisis line.7 While online harassment is a concern, online support movements like the It Gets Better Project have sprung up to powerfully support teens, too.

Preventing technology addiction in teens    

Technology isn't going away. Preventing teen addiction to technology means finding a balance within students' lives so that teenagers do not abuse their technology as an escape from real world challenges, emotions, socialization, or identity. Adults can help students have healthy relationships to technology when they: 


Provide plenty of healthy highs, some of them offline. How teenagers use technology really matters. Are teens playing video games among other recreational activities, and are they as excited about a dinner with friends as they are about "leveling up"? Or, are they turning on the Xbox so they don't have to face a life that they're not enjoying? 


Balance activity and productivity, with healthy stress management. Everything in life requires energy, and often teens feel like they have too much or too little energy to spend. If teens are not guided by adults to discover healthy outlets for their energy, they may default by overusing easy fixes for entertainment or stress relief that promote technology addiction.


Nurture pro-social identity development in the real world. Adults must be proactive, creative, and excited as they help kids to discover who they really are! Once teenagers find something they are good at and want to do, they will naturally gravitate toward it. It is easier to create an Internet fa´┐Żade, but far more rewarding for teens to cultivate true purposes and genuine identities within their families, schools, and communities. 


Consider treatment when there's a problem. The most effective treatment for internet addiction is to remove the internet from the teenager's life.8 Inpatient treatment removes the teenager from both the internet and the surroundings that allowed the addiction. It is a form of intensive therapy. Other treatments can include ways to help technology addicts see the offline world as more pleasurable without removing the online element from their lives.

Creating a healthy balance    

It is true that technology can fulfill many human needs, but its overuse comes with risk. Being addicted to technology is in some ways akin to substance addiction, with many of the same effects on the developing brain. We must do all we can to prevent any sort of addiction from occurring in our students' lives. Technology can be a protective factor if used properly, and educators can play a role in student technology addiction prevention by showing students the benefits to be gained from a healthy, balanced approach to technology use.

1. Conrad, Brent. "Why Is Facebook Addictive? Twenty Reasons For Facebook Addiction - TechAddiction." Video Game Addiction Treatment & Computer Addiction Help - TechAddiction. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. http://www.techaddiction.ca/why-is-facebook-addictive.html.

2. Goldstein, Rita Z., and Nora D. Volkow. "Dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex in addiction: neuroimaging findings and clinical implications : Abstract : Nature Reviews Neuroscience." Nature Publishing Group : science journals, jobs, and information. Nature Publishing Group, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v12/n11/abs/nrn3119.html.


3. Muska, Scott. "New research: texting, social networking can lead to risky behavior by teens - The Graduate by Scott Muska - AltoonaMirror.com - Altoona, PA | News, Sports, Jobs, Community Information - The Altoona Mirror." AltoonaMirror.com - Altoona, PA | News, Sports, Jobs, Community Information - The Altoona Mirror. N.p., 4 Jan. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. http://www.altoonamirror.com/page/blogs.detail/display/4932/New-research--texting--social-networking-can-lead-to-risky-behavior-by-teens.html.


4. NHS. "Extreme levels of texting 'unhealthy'." NHS Choices. 10 November 2010. N.p. Web. 2 May 2, 2013. http://www.nhs.uk/news/2010/11November/Pages/Texting-and-teen-behaviour.aspx.    


5. Barseghian, Tina. "How Teachers Make Cell Phones Work in the Classroom | MindShift." KQED Public Media for Northern CA. KQED, 10 May 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2012/05/how-teachers-make-cell-phones-work-in-the-classroom/.    

6. Hargrove, R.. "The Role of Technology in Developing Students Creative Thinking Abilities - IATED Digital Library." IATED Digital Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. <http://library.iated.org/view/HARGROVE2009THE>.

7. Lublin, Nancy. "Nancy Lublin: Texting that saves lives | Video on TED.com." TED: Ideas worth spreading. TED Conferences, LLC, n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. http://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_lublin_texting_that_saves_lives.html.   


8. Simmons, Linda L. "The New Complication in Addictions - Addiction and Recovery." Netplaces. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. http://www.netplaces.com/addiction-recovery/technology-and-addiction/the-new-complication-in-addictions.htm.   


Adrita Arefin is currently an FCD intern and a student at Newton North High School in Newton, Mass. Her internship is part of her school's Capstone project for seniors, and requires her to build her communication and professionalism skills while learning about FCD's organizational processes. Born in Bangladesh, raised in Japan, and settled in the United States, Adrita has acquired an admiration for various cultures around the world. Starting in the fall of 2013, she will be attending Rochester Institute of Technology to study computer engineering.

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