Technology is everywhere, and it is not going away. Teenagers stare down at their iPhones, or keep their eyes glued to a tablet or laptop, instead of observing the world around them. It's not unusual to see two adolescents seated together on a bus, texting furiously on their mobiles rather than talking to one another. The fact that teens are so dependent on technology makes sense in our world, but it may also lead to negative consequences.
What is technology addiction?
Technology addiction can be defined as frequent and obsessive technology-related behavior increasingly practiced despite negative consequences to the user of the technology. An over-dependence on tech can significantly impact students' lives. While we need technology to survive in a modern social world, a severe overreliance on technology—or an addiction to certain facets of its use—can also be socially devastating. Tech dependence can lead to teen consequences that span from mild annoyance when away from technology to feelings of isolation, extreme anxiety, and depression.
What makes technology addictive?
Technology fulfills our natural human need for stimulation, interaction, and changes in environment with great efficiency. When teenagers experience stress, be it romantic rejection or a poor grade on an exam, technology can become a quick and easy way to fill basic needs, and as such, can become addictive.
Technology impacts the pleasure systems of the brain in ways similar to substances. It provides some of the same reward 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 dependence on technology and negative consequences for youth:
The Internet. The Web can be addictive as a multifunctional tool that brings us exceptionally close to an enormous amount of information at unprecedented speeds. User-friendly by design, we now have access to the Internet on our computers, through apps on our tablets, phones and watches. "FOMO," or "Fear of Missing Out," is a commonly described phenomenon for teens and young adults, in which youth increasingly feel the need to stay connected to the Internet, so they aren't the last to know of a news story or social happening.
Related to FOMO, some Facebook users, for instance, report that they use the Internet-based social media platform as a chosen method to alleviate their anxiety or depression.1 With so much accessibility to its use, the Internet is just as hard to stay away from at any given point in a day as it is easy and rewarding to use.
Video and computer games. One hallmark of human psychology is that we want to feel competent, autonomous, and related to other people. Challenging video games 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.
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.
Gamers find themselves linked to others who share their hobby through YouTube channels or subreddits dedicated to discussion of their game of choice with other enthusiasts. Like the Internet itself, games make themselves increasingly accessible to teens via apps on smart phones, never leaving kids' palms or pockets.
While there is room for social connection in the gaming universe, this space also provides a potential escape from reality into a digital world where players get to assume new identities more appealing or more novel than those they hold in the real life.
Smart phones, tablets, and lifestyle technologies. These highly-mobile, flexible machines have the power to constantly connect. Smart phones and tablets, and the emergence of other smart devices from the Apple Watch to the Amazon Echo, 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, YouTube subscription, or Snapchat followership.
Whether it's a Skype conversation with our grandmother in Alaska or a Twitter reply to 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 use?
While technology is certainly not all bad, its overuse can pose certain key risks, especially to teens.
Technology 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 a teen might be looking for available within seconds, which encourages an unhealthy desire for instant gratification. A slow internet connection or “unplugging” can promote irritability and anxiety for a teen otherwise used to constant connection through technology.
Sleep disorders can develop as teens 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 college, these life transitions become even harder for those wholly 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 teen substance use. Researchers have found evidence that people who overuse technology may develop similar brain chemistry and neural patterning to those who are addicted to substances.
Another concern is that those who are addicted to technology are actually more likely to also use substances than their peers with healthier relationships to tech, providing the insight that technology addiction may be a risk factor for alcohol and other drug addiction.
One preliminary study found that a group of teens who "hyper-texted" were 40% more likely to have used cigarettes and twice as likely to have used alcohol than students who were less frequent users of technology. This same research noted that those who spent more hours per school day than peers on social networking sites were at higher risk for depression and suicide.3
It stands to reason then, that if we can prevent technology addiction, we may also be able to prevent other risky behavior and dangerous consequences to teens.
Technology and the brain. Studies have shown that brain scans of young people with internet addiction disorder (IAD) 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 substance addicts and technology addicts. This discovery shows that being hooked on a tech behavior can, in some ways, be as physically damaging as an addiction to alcohol and other drug use.
When is technology a protective factor?
Of course, the advent of smarter, faster, more mobile technologies can be used positively with teens too. The following list reflects the many ways that 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 the teacher otherwise communicates with his students. As soon as kids walk into his classroom, Musallam sends out a text blast through Remind101, asking students a challenge question related to the day's lesson.
Some teachers use Facebook as a communication hub, creating a public page or smaller, closed groups for classes. Using technology like this, teachers can keep parents informed, distribute homework or permission slips, and share photos and videos from classroom activities and field trips.
Others in education and civic development have found that by piquing students' interest in social justice or commentary videos posted on YouTube, student engagement with world issues is 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.
Metacognition—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 and artistic disciplines. Utilizing Internet-based technologies that ask students to reflect on and reiterate their learning processes provides a framework for the development of teen metacognition skills.
Now common technologies like tablets and smart phones are often much less bulky than notebooks and textbooks, allowing students to flex their imaginations, read fiction, write poetry, doodle, or take 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 protect teens too.
Preventing Technology Addiction in Teens
Technology will only grow in its use in teens' worlds. Preventing teen addiction to technology means finding a balance within students' lives, so that teenagers do not misuse their technology as an escape from real world challenges, emotions, socialization, or identity. Adults can help children and teens 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 little energy to spend on too many demands. If they're are not guided by adults to discover healthy ways to replenish their stores of 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 façade, 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. Inpatient treatment for technology addiction starts by removing a teenager from both the Internet and the surroundings that allowed a technology addiction to occur in the first place. It is a form of intensive therapy. Other treatments can include ways to help technology addicts see the offline world as more pleasurable, without fully removing the online element from their lives.
Creating a Healthy Balance
It is true that technology can fulfil many human needs, but its overuse comes with risk. Being addicted to technology is in some ways akin to an addiction to alcohol and other drugs, 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 children's lives. Technology can be a protective factor if used properly, and healthy adults can play a role in student technology addiction prevention by showing young people the benefits to be gained from a healthy, balanced approach to technology use.