Can our minds be hi-jacked?
”The more you engage in any type of emotion or behaviour, the greater your desire for it will become”.
Can one become addicted to the internet? Are my kids addicted to it? What is a safe age to introduce my young children to it? If my child does not learn to use it while they are young, will they lack behind other children who did? Do you like to stay inside to play video games or surf the Internet?
A big YES says, researchers! According to them, ”connection addiction” is rewiring your brain. ”A computer is like electronic cocaine, fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches,” says Peter Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.
Internet technology is a new, super-fast development in the history of the human race. Little research has been done so far on its impact on the human brain and its development during childhood. “It is widespread for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have an unintended, negative consequence,” says Justin Rosenstein, the 34-year-old Facebook engineer who created the “like” button. What could be the psychological effects on people who, research shows, on average, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day? There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology contributes toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus and possibly lowering IQ. Technology, regular cell phone usage, and constant access have rewired the brains of most.
“Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”
Nearly everyone is constantly checking their phone for the latest Facebook update, text message, app update, or even just browsing the web for news. Most people have inadvertently become dependent upon cell phones to navigate the world. Out of the world’s estimated 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to mobile phones. Problematic technology includes cell phones, Xbox, PlayStation games, tablets, PCs and the internet.
An internal Facebook report leaked this year, for example, revealed that the company could identify when teens feel “insecure”, “worthless”, and “need a confidence boost”. Tristan Harris, a 33-year-old former Google employee, turned vocal critic of the tech industry. “All of us are jacked into this system,” he says. “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.” He is lifting the curtain on the vast powers accumulated by technology companies and the ways they are using that influence. “A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today,”
Justin Rosenstein says, “One reason I think it is essential for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before.” Most of the tech insiders questioning today’s attention economy are in their 30’s, members of the last generation that can remember a world in which telephones were plugged into walls. It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned.
The Bureau of Market Research at UNISA¹ has just released alarming statistics of the technology use among secondary school learners in South Africa.
- 80% of leaners always keep a cell phone close to them
- 70% use a cell phone while watching TV (Multi-tasking)
- 60% indicated they could not live without it
- 85% do not keep track of the time they spend texting
- 80% feel nervous without their cell phone
- 75% spend more than 3 hours per day on social media/texting/internet
- 62% said they stayed online longer than intended
- 56% shows problematic texting behaviour.
Waldorf schools: This is where the chief technology officer of eBay sends his children. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard. Three-quarters of the students here have parents with a strong high-tech connection. Why?
Did you know that Steve Jobs never allowed his children to use the devices he invented?
The Waldorf school’s chief teaching tools pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. No computers or cellphones are allowed in school. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home. While schools worldwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers and hi-tech equipment, a contrarian point of view can be found at the tech economy’s epicentre, where some parents and educators have a clear message: computers and schools don’t mix.
Waldorf schools subscribe to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.
Paul Thomas, a former teacher and an associate professor of education at Furman University, who has written 12 books about public educational methods, disagreed, saying that “a spare approach to technology in the classroom will always benefit learning.” “Teaching is a human experience,” he said. “Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.” And Waldorf parents argue that real engagement comes from great teachers with interesting lesson plans.
Many people feel their children will be left behind if they don’t learn to use technology early in life. Waldorf parents disagree and counter that argument with how easy it is to pick technology skills. Technology developers make their products ”brain-dead” easy to use. It is in their financial interest that every person on earth should be able to use it.
Problematic internet use covers a range of severity, namely:
Mild problems we perceive among typical well-functioning individuals who text multiple times per hour or ignore family and friends to get together in favour of texting.
Moderate problems we perceive among individuals whose screen time activities result in moderate family discord and inefficient work but who are still able to, for example, get good grades and take part in sport (if its a kid).
Severe problems are detected among individuals who have an inability to control their online behaviour despite significant resultant problems such as isolation, falling grades, family turmoil and withdrawal from friends, family and activities. These can be caused by addiction to social media, pornography, gambling and or online gaming.
How do we differentiate between a bad habit or addiction?
One noticeable difference between habit and addiction is the amount of effort and time required to change it. Altering habits requires minimal effort, time, and attention. On the other hand, addiction often demands an integrative, long-term plan to treat negative physical symptoms like withdrawal and the emotional disconnect between body and behaviour.
Symptoms of Internet Addiction Disorder
- Severe anger (Anger Quiz)
- Problems with decision making
- Lack of self-control
- Problems with concentration (Multi-tasking)
- Sleep disturbances
- Lack of personal hygiene
- Eating patterns changing
- Sexual dysfunction (Porn addiction) (Pornography Quiz)
- Poor social skills
The addictive behaviour gave rise to new terms like:
Nomophobia: is the fear of being out of mobile phone contact.
“Phantom vibration syndrome”: the syndrome is known as “phantom vibration” is characterized by an individual falsely perceiving that their cell phone is either vibrating or ringing at a time when it clearly isn’t. Those who experience phantom vibration syndrome may be engaging in an activity away from their cell phones yet believe that it’s ringing.
Ringanxiety: is another term for phantom vibration syndrome – watch people when someone’s phone rings – they’ll check theirs too, just in case.
Anhedonia: the inability to feel pleasure.
FOMO: fear of missing out.
Catfish: People who deliberately create fake personal profiles online intending to trick an unsuspecting person into falling in love with them.
iPredator: A person, group or nation who, directly or indirectly, engages in exploitation, victimization, coercion, stalking, theft or disparagement of others using Information and Communications Technology [ICT].
How does someone get addicted?
It begins with either seeking enjoyment ( this is fun!) or seeking escape (this game/activity takes the mind off my problems). Screen time leads to a pleasurable experience, and the neurotransmitter dopamine mediates it in the brain. Dopamine is known as the pleasure chemical in the brain.
Because we quickly build up tolerance against pleasure, we seek more of it to get the same amount of pleasure. It is a psychological process that creates a need for ever stronger stimuli to produce the same effect, much like a drug chases the next high. So it drives the person to watch more, spend more and more time online.
Another driver of addiction is withdrawal – the moment we cease the activity, the pleasure chemical dopamine stops being released. We experience the symptoms as uncomfortable – a discomfort stemming from abstinence. This constant seeking of stimuli leads to more problems in life. The person loses control over the activity – it controls him/her now. Many people with ADHD are already prone to rapid and immediate stimuli, which helps explain their proneness to all sorts of addictions.
The pleasure principle
Addictive drugs trigger feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of nerve cells lying underneath the cerebral cortex, also known as the brain’s pleasure centre.
Internet Addiction changes the brain, similar to cocaine. A Facebook addict and a cocaine addict has the same brain changes that indicate addiction to SPECT brain scans.
But wait – what is dopamine?
In your brain, certain chemicals are released for your brain to function normally. They are called neuro-transmitters. NEUROTRANSMITTERS are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body. They relay signals between nerve cells, called “neurons.” The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. Dopamine is the brain’s pleasure chemical.
Pleasure is just the tip of the dopamine iceberg. Dopamine’s impact on the body is felt in many different areas, including motivation, memory, behaviour and cognition, attention, sleep, mood, learning, and oh yeah, pleasurable reward.
The mesolimbic pathway, which originates in the middle of the brain and branches to various places like the cerebral cortex, is the brain’s most important reward pathway. One of the mesolimbic’s stops is the nucleus accumbens. Increased dopamine in the nucleus accumbens signals feedback for predicting rewards. Your brain recognizes that something important — good or bad — is about to happen, thus triggering motivation to do something. In this instance, it motivates you to text on your cell phone, or surf the internet, watch a porn movie on your PC or play a PlayStation game.
The learning process and development of tolerance
Dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to take over the brain’s system of reward-related learning. This system has an important role in sustaining life because it links activities needed for human survival, such as eating and sex, with pleasure and reward. So, dopamine is good for you until it gets too much. Repeated exposure to an addictive substance causes nerve cells to communicate so that couples ‘liking’ something with ‘wanting’ it. This, in turn, drives us to go after it.
Over time, dopamine has less impact on the brain’s reward centre, and more of the substance is needed to obtain the same dopamine “high”.
Compulsion takes over
Your brain is very clever. It quickly stores information about environmental cues associated with the desired substance. These memories help create a conditioned response – intense craving – whenever the person encounters such environmental cues. Cravings contribute not only to addiction but also to relapse during periods of abstinence.
Example: The possibility of receiving a message on your cell phone when the screen lights up – triggers a dopamine release. The same with your ringtone, red numbers indicate new messages, a vibration of a cell phone…
At first, a person will experience no symptoms of increased dopamine secretion. As it progresses, however, the reward centre starts to block off the access dopamine, till eventually, it blocks it off completely. By this time, the person will be unable to experience feelings of pleasure. The term used to describe this state is ”Anhedonia” – the inability to feel pleasure.
How do addicts cope with anhedonia?
There has been a sharp increase in people who self-harm in the past few years. It seems to have become a trend, a coping mechanism of the youth today. During a recent survey, secondary schools pupils were asked if they know of someone who self-harms, and 70 -80% have indicated that they know of someone who does. It also seems to be a predominantly teen thing. Most of the time, reasons for self-harm are a chaotic home environment, sexual abuse, and overuse of internet technology.
You may ask why internet technology?
When kids have cut off all dopamine from their ”pleasure centre” in their brains, they don’t feel anymore. To start feeling again, they turn to cut. When they cut, another neurotransmitter is released – endorphin. The pain from cutting makes the brain sense injury and floods their system with endorphin’s, which acts as a natural pain reliever. It is not as powerful as dopamine and the high they get quickly dissipates. Then they have to cut again, and again, and again. Cutting eventually becomes more extreme, deeper, and they draw blood. Some cut all the way to the bone after a while to get the endorphin release. The top three reasons for digital anhedonia is watching pornography, playing social video games and internet surfing—Self-Harm Quiz.
”A digital home lends itself to isolation.” Imagine a house where every family member is occupied on their own device / TV / PC / PlayStation. They are all together yet disconnected. That is not God’s plan for any family. Isolation leads to loneliness.
Multitasking is killing your brain
Do you study while listening to music and texting your friends? Do you watch TV and Facebook or What’s App at the same time? Do you watch a series on your PC while studying?
“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuro-scientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.” Miller, a Pi-cower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. “Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” Miller said. “You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously but switching between them very rapidly.”
Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again, October 2, 2008. I heard on Morning Edition. Jon Hamilton, 2010.
Our brains are designed to focus on one thing at a time, and bombarding them with information only slows them down. MIT Neuroscientist Earl Miller notes that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.”
This constant task-switching encourages bad brain habits. When we complete a tiny task (sending an email, answering a text message, posting a tweet), we are hit with a dollop of dopamine, our reward hormone. Our brains love that dopamine, so we’re encouraged to keep switching between small mini-tasks that give us instant gratification. This creates a dangerous feedback loop that makes us feel like we’re accomplishing a ton when we’re really not doing much at all (or at least nothing requiring much critical thinking).
Effects of multitasking:
- Multitasking lowers your work quality and efficiency.
- Multitasking makes it more difficult to organize thoughts and filter out irrelevant information.
- You make more mistakes.
- You remember less and have greater difficulty in understanding.
- You have problems with concentration, anger and frustration.
- It is linked to depression.
Multitasking can lower your IQ by between 10-15%. For men, multitasking can drop IQ by as much as 15 points, essentially turning you into the cognitive equivalent of an 8-year-old.
How to treat Internet Addiction?
Prevention is the best remedy.
Before you give your child their first digital screen technology – for example, a PC/ Cell phone / iPad / Notebooks – explain the dangers and what they need to know about internet safety, set passwords for their safety and have them sign a contract with you about their use of technology.
Here is a printable version of a contract.
Recognize that total abstinence from internet technology is neither possible nor desirable.
Just as a sex addict cannot abstain from sex for life or a food addict cannot stop eating altogether, so can an internet addict not abstain from the internet permanently. Computer use is a virtual necessity for modern life. The goal is, therefore, to moderate use. For example: ”I will only use the computer for work, email and online banking.” Set bottom-line behaviours, for example ” I will never visit gambling or porn sites,” or ”I will never stay online when I am not working, or when my partner has gone to bed.”
Please note professional help is likely to be required for true addiction. Commonly suggested therapies include motivational interviewing, Cognitive behavioural therapy, Dialectic therapy and family therapy.
Parents dilemma in setting limits:
Parents watch their child spend hours on digital media and are torn between the emotions of pride over their prodigy’s technical prowess, happiness that they are preparing their child for the future, and fear about the as yet incompletely known possible effects of all this technology use on their child’s brain and future.
More – According to one survey (Porter 2013):
- 90% of teachers felt technology had created a distracted generation with short attention spans.
- Almost 50% felt it hurt critical thinking and homework ability
- 76% felt students were conditioned to find quick answers.
- 60% felt it hindered writing and face-to-face communication.
How to reverse the damage and heal from Internet Addiction
- Teens need 9 hours of sleep per night. This generation often survives on 4-6 hours of sleep.
- Remove all technology from your bedroom when you go to bed—no flickering lights from a Hi-fi, TV or PC. The bedroom must be dark.
- Use a traditional alarm clock to wake up, not a cell phone.
- Use real books instead of Kindle, preferably.
- When you play games – choose board games instead of online games.
- No music while you are studying and no cell phone in your room while you are studying. The faintest vibration or flickering light from your cell phone will trigger dopamine release and distract you.
- No music while you are sleeping – it triggers dopamine which will affect you.
- Turn off all technology 2 hours before you go to sleep. The dopamine levels must return to low levels for you to get a decent nights sleep. Dopamine release causes a flight or fight response which you don’t need when you sleep.
- Set house rules for the use of all technology – for example, no phones when having meals.
- Keep track of time spent on social media.
- Check monthly phone and internet bills.
- Check the online visit history on the PC of your children.
- Teach children etiquette on cell phone use AND LEAD BY EXAMPLE.
- Create support groups for parents with children who are problematic users of internet technology.
Recovery from Addiction Program
We have developed an online learning campus that offers easy step-by-step online learning.
You can chat with an online counsellor on our helpline: LIVE CHAT.
It is a text-based chat, and you may remain anonymous.
You can do a self-test quiz to learn more about Internet Addiction: