Digital media is already known to affect the mind, but a study recently found that the use of smartphones and tablets is affecting how young adults’ develop physically.

The Netflix phenomenon Black Mirror taps into a lot of severely complex problems, using a televised platform as a way to tackle them. Two of the most recent episodes from season five, Smithereens and Striking Vipers, focus on human addiction to digital media. This media accesses the same chemical in the brain that most drugs do: Dopamine. Using an app, using cocaine, gaming, using heroin, and social media all tap into dopamine and can cause a range of addiction problems and while people may not use drugs and digital media for the same reasons, the effect is the same.

Digital media is already known to affect the mind, but a study recently found that the use of smartphones and tablets is affecting how young adults’ develop physically. While it is not true that the use of smartphones and tablets is linked to cancer, there is a more predatory danger that the developers of digital media use to create a worldwide addiction.

Dopamine

Essentially, almost nothing in the brain can function properly without dopamine. Dopamine relies on the anticipation that an action or interaction will cause pleasure. It does not cause addiction, but more of a good thing does not necessarily make a situation better. With certain drugs, the comedown effect can leave users feeling depressed after experiencing such high levels of dopamine. Sex can cause a similar reaction. With the advent of digital media, the ‘come down’ effect never occurs. 

Digital Media and Addiction

The ‘addiction’ to digital media is not usually a phenomenon that makes people unable to perform their usual daily activities. While many people can feel good while using digital media, the links to depression and anxiety cannot be ignored. It is not hard to find a place where people are constantly on their phones, tablets, etc.

Within a span of about thirty years, the world went from radio, television, and corded phones to wireless digital media. The rapid pace that technology moves at is incredible, yet the problem with digital media is that the real world is no longer enough. However, the drug comparison, while not far off base, is a bit problematic as it implies that digital media has the same effect, which is not entirely true.

What digital media does is tap into the anticipation that dopamine relies upon and while drugs also rely on that in a sense, they create much more intense and problematic levels of dopamine. Social media relies on a constant stream of dopamine that never has to ‘come down.’

There is a withdrawal effect. That loss of constant anticipation and action leaves many bored and, inevitably, restless. The more severe effects can cause dinner tables where everyone is on their phones, the association with social media and self-worth, and the constant desire for more. The concern is the lack of physical communication within families, between friends, and between strangers. The costs of interpersonal communication and childhood development are serious and result in anxiety and depression. Lead experts now take the phenomena of addiction associated with digital media such as gaming and social media seriously. 

Though the threat of digital media addiction is not just personal. In the United States, a nationwide law against texting and driving is in effect. New York City is considering a law that would prevent people from texting and walking with the exception of emergencies. What qualifies as an emergency is still something that needs to be worked out, but at least the dangers of walking and texting without acknowledging the surrounding environment is acknowledged as a serious concern.

Solution

The addiction associated with social media, while not what addiction typically looks like, is still something that has the ability to harm the self and others. There are settings on most computers that restrict use and apps that restrict phone time, though not many people apply those computer settings or are downloading those apps.

For older generations, being hours on end without a phone is not a new sensation and can be a relief. However, for generations that will grow up with cell phones and tablets, the addiction will only get worse. Games like Pokémon Go or some games on the Wii and Xbox require physical movement, which helps but does not improve the situation. Any other activity that does not require a phone, computer or tablet and requires full attention helps to remove society from the screen and recalibrate people for real-world interaction.

However, the dangers of lifelong digital media use are still unknown for now. Research is still required if the true effects of a lifetime of digital media are to be determined and special attention will need to be paid to the youngest generations, those growing up in the world of tablets, phones, streaming, and HD TV. Perhaps, a truly comprehensive solution can be found but until then the sheer force of will have to be ingrained into those who grow up in the hyper-digital age.

Margaret Valenti

Margaret Valenti is the Editor of Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today.