Written by Dr. Anwen Whitham and Lisa Jones of Positive Focus Training.
The potential negative impact that technology can have on brain health and well-being has received considerable media attention over recent weeks, so much so that it is difficult for any parent or education professional to ignore. The headlines report cases of addiction in children and young people caused by their excessive use of computer games, and has led to the classification of online gaming disorder being featured for the first time as a diagnosis in ICD 11 published by the World Health Organisation on 18th June. Other organisations are also starting to take a strong stance including the NSPCC listing online companies who are subjecting children to inappropriate content and the daily Telegraph starting the Duty of Care Campaign in this area, backed by some MPs including Matt Hancock the Culture Secretary who is calling for a ban of mobile phones in schools.
As training providers and clinicians who promote resilience and well-being in young people and school teams, we became increasingly aware of questions surrounding the impact of technology on overall health and well-being. Because of this, last month we delivered a key note presentation at the ISA conference with the title The Digital Age: Are we losing the human connection and a presentation to IAPS Education Committee on the Impact of Technology on Cognition. Over the next two articles we will take readers through what we have found in the academic literature to help you navigate your way through the headlines and enable you to input into school policy and address parental questions with confidence. At this point, lets add a note of caution; technology has moved faster than the research into its impact, (tech companies have better funding!), so although there is research out there, much more is ongoing and required to explore the impact that technology is having robustly.
So first, let’s be pragmatic, technology is everywhere and is a hugely successful industry that has “hooked” most of us at a personal and professional level. We are therefore all contributing to the digital tsunami though our own digital consumption and we need to take some responsibility for this – I dare say most readers own a smartphone, your classrooms are kitted out with interactive white boards and you use social media within the marketing strategy of your school. We have all contributed to the normalising of digital consumption over the past decade that enables us to remotely connect with people and access information at all times. So surely this continual access to information and other people can only promote our human connection, right?
Well, not exactly. First, let us look at what human connection actually is. Human connection is an innate need to create a social rapport with others. There is evidence of this need dating back to 30,000 BC in cave paintings, a form of communicating warnings and celebrating success. Having moved on a bit from cave paintings, connection today can be actual, in the presence of others, or virtual which creates a barrier between communication partners (how many of us have had a video conference in our slippers…). Human connection is important to our overall wellbeing. With the amazing development in FMRI technology, neuroscience shows how positive social support can be a protective factor in age related decline (Khondoker et al, 2017). In contrast, lack of social support is associated with increased mental illness including depression (Gariepy, et al, 2016). If we know that human connection is important for long term health and wellbeing, where does technology come into it? Well, firstly social connection can go wrong. Rejection, exclusion and loss can cause pain because some of the brain circuitry underlying physical and social pain are shared (Kross et al, 2011). Both actual and virtual rejection can have a significant effect on our wellbeing thus impacting our resilience and perception of self in the moment, in addition to influencing patterns of coping moving forward into adulthood. Because of our dependence on technology from an early age (apps have even been created for 2-year-olds), the exposure that young people have to actual and virtual rejection is increasing. Added to which there are other darker sides to the barrier created by virtual connection, in the form of cyber bulling, trolls and grooming.
So, what are some of the ways in which people can feel rejected by virtual connection?
So why do we, as social animals, feel the need to prioritise or place such importance on our virtual relationships? Well, this is where the addiction element comes in that the media has picked up on. Putting it bluntly, tech developers have been very clever in their design, by employing psychological techniques to tap into the stimulus / response mechanisms of learning AND the reward circuitry. In doing so they have designed a wonderfully elegant product that we just can’t do without.
Let us explain further. Back in the late 1800s Ivan Pavlov did experiments into learning in which he taught dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. This later became known as classical conditioning where there is a pairing of stimulus (bell) to a reward (food) whilst the stimulus triggers an involuntary response (salivation). This wonderfully simple principal was applied in the development of the ping used in technology. We hear a ‘ping’ (or other sound we choose) and a reinforcer is provided, an email or text – a form of human connection. The response that we elicit is to check our device and then possibly send a message back and so the cycle continues. So why do we do this action, and why is this action rewarding? Well that is down to basic neuroscience. Essentially everything we do, think, believe, remember is governed by our brains through our neurochemical reactions. When we are happy we release particular neurochemicals including oxytocin and serotonin, as well as dopamine which is released in anticipation of a reward. In short, when we hear a “ping,” dopamine is released, making us anticipate a reward. This flood of dopamine provides the physical drive to check the phone which then provides the reward which is reinforced by the release of oxytocin and serotonin. This release of chemicals in the brain explains why it is so difficult to inhibit our response to check our phones at the sound of a ping, or even when we see other people checking theirs or receiving a message. Putting it bluntly, we want the buzz we get from the action.
It is really easy to understand this connection between a digital device and our actions, and we are aware of the potential that we all have to some level of digital addiction, so, in practice what do we do about it given that technology is everywhere?
Times are changing, we are in the middle of a digital tsunami which has unfortunately led to a new clinical diagnosis. We are all masters of our actions and with the knowledge we have, we can protect ourselves and others from potential harm by taking a sensible and controlled approach to our use of technology. Get in touch for a free consultation on how to sensibly integrate these concepts into your values system – [email protected]
References: Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA). Federal Trade Commission General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). European Union Gariepy, G. et al. (2016). Social support and protection from depression: A systematic review of current findings in Western countries. British Journal of Psychiatry, 209(4). 284-293. Doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.115.169094 Khondoker. M. et al. (2017). Positive and negative experiences of social support and risk of dementia in later life: An investigation using the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. J Alzheimer’s Disease, 58(1): 99-108. Doi: 10.3233/JAD-161160 Kross, E. et al. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. PNAS, 108 (15) 6270-6275. Doi: 10.1073/pnas/1102693108 Spies Shapiro, L.A., & Margolin, G. (2014). Growing up wired: Social networking sites and adolescent psychosocial development. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 17(1), 1-18. Doi: 10.1007/s10567-0130135-1 Yang, C., & Brown, B.B. (2013). Motives for using Face-book, patterns of facebook activities, and late adolescents’ social adjustment to college. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(3), 403-416. Doi:10.1007/s10964-012-9836-x