What does the ping or buzz of a cell phone have in common with drinking alcohol, smoking a cigarette, and gambling? All of them result in the brain releasing dopamine, and that makes us feel good! Dopamine is a chemical in your brain that affects your emotions, movements and your sensations of pleasure and pain. It functions as a neurotransmitter that sends signals to other nerve cells and is a major component in reward-motivated behavior. Dopamine motivates one to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them. It is important to note that while this chemical is released by the above mentioned acts, along with endorphins and serotonin, dopamine is also released when exercising. In reality, your body craves physical movement and even though a person may not like to exercise, when they do, the chemicals are released and the person feels good.
So why this little mini-lesson on dopamine and the “pleasure release?” Because we often become addicted to things that give us pleasure. As mentioned above, our bodies crave the release of this chemical, and to get that we often develop both a physical and mental addiction to it. In the case of cigarettes, manufacturers have added other chemicals, like nicotine, to reinforce addiction. And even with exercise, there are people that one could argue go too far, causing their bodies to break down. And now, we have people, particularly young ones, who get that rush of pleasure when they hear that phone ping or feel it buzz. The natural consequence of this is that they cannot put their phone away or get away from it. In our classrooms we see this all the time, and when it becomes a disruption and I take a phone away from a student, it often looks like an addict giving up their drugs. It is very difficult for them, and when they return to the classroom they are highly distracted because they are wondering what they are missing out on because they do not have that phone in hand. They even become a bit agitated because they do not get that dopamine release without hearing the ping. I am not making this up! We see it happen with some of our students!
Here’s something else we know about young people and their devices. According to a recent study published in January 2019 edition of the Journal of Applied Biobehavioural Research, spending too much time on “social media” sites like Facebook is not only making people miserable, it is also making them depressed. In a study that involved 504 millennials that are active users of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and/or Snapchat, who met the criteria for a major depressive disorder also scored higher on the “Social Media Addiction” scale and exhibited other behaviors that are associated with major depression.
In another study conducted by psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania, they concluded that for those subjects who drastically cut back their use of sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, they often saw marked improvement in their mood and how they felt about their lives. One of the researchers, Melissa Hunt, stated “It was striking. What we found over the course of three weeks was that rates of depression and loneliness went down significantly for people who limited their (social media) use.”
Simon Sinek, a British-American author, motivational speaker, and organizational consultant, who once worked in advertising, makes it very clear about the addictive nature of cell phones, and most important, how relationships are impacted. When people go to meetings or out to dinner, and they pull out their phone and lay it on the table, they have sent the message that the people around them are not important to them. They have told everyone else at the table that the phone is more important than the people in the room. They are much more interested in what is going to happen on their phone than what is being said across the table. Think of what people do when they are waiting for an appointment, whether it is at the dentist’s office or for a meeting with the principal. They pull out their phones. There may very well be other people in the room and instead of talking to other people, they are running through their phones. When this is done at conferences or meetings, relationships suffer. People get to know one another in the in-between times, and they cannot do that when they are checking out their phones. This is not just an issue with teens; it is an issue with all of us! However, teenagers have grown up with these devices and have not learned how to talk to each other, face-to-face, and socialize with each other.
Sinek also talks about the fact that young people are not learning to talk to people and have no idea how to develop meaningful relationships. They have grown up in a world of immediate satisfaction, in large part supported by their smart phone. They have the world at their fingertips! They have developed what Sinek calls “systemic impatience,” and if they do not experience success right away, they consider that failure. Relationships take hard work to develop, and young people do not have experience talking with people and working through difficulties. In many instances, they are afraid to talk to people because they haven’t had to in order to communicate.
Addiction. Depression. Damaged relationships. Is it time to step in legally to prohibit use by our youngest and most vulnerable? In the summer of 2019 there was a bill in Congress to raise the age to use vapes, e-cigarettes, and tobacco products to 21. Yes, serious health conditions result from their use over time, but I believe we can same about the emotional, mental, and physical health of those addicted to their electronic devises and what they can access. For a very long time I have made the comment that we are putting incredibly powerful devices — smart phones — in the hands of kids that are not developmental mature enough to handle them. It’s like putting a six-year old behind the wheel of a race car. Kids do not need them. They were fine before these things came about, and they will most likely be better if they could not use them until they are mature enough to handle them. Yes, there is no doubt that there are positive uses for this technology. But there needs to be balance, and for many of our young people, that does not exist.