[I]t’s more likely that the epidemic is simply a myth. The more interesting question is why it has been so widely accepted as fact.
One reason, I believe, is that parents have bought into the idea that digital technology — smartphones, video games and the like — are neurobiologically and psychologically toxic. If you believe this, it seems intuitive that the generations growing up with these ubiquitous technologies are destined to suffer from psychological problems. But this dubious notion comes from a handful of studies with serious limitations.
Some studies report an association between increased time spent on electronic communication and screens and lower levels of psychological well-being. The problem is that they show only correlation. It is entirely possible that teenagers who are more anxious and unhappy to start with are more drawn to smartphones to deflect their negative emotions than their better-adjusted peers.
Another group of studies use M.R.I. to examine the brains of young people who are “addicted” to internet video games, and report various structural and functional differences. For example, one study reported that a group of 17 teenagers with online gaming “addiction” had microstructural changes in various brain regions compared with a control group.
But, once again, these studies cannot tell us whether the brain abnormalities are the result of excessive internet use, or a pre-existing risk factor for it.
What about the claim that smartphones can be literally addicting, like illicit drugs? This appears to be based on a few M.R.I. studies that show that kids with online gaming “addiction” have enhanced activation in their brain’s reward pathway when shown gaming images.
No surprise there. If I scan your brain while showing you whatever it is that turns you on — sex, chocolate or money, say — your reward pathway will light up like a Christmas tree. But that hardly means you are addicted to these things.
The real question is whether digital technology can produce the enduring changes in the brain that addictive drugs do. There is little evidence that this is the case. And while an alcoholic deprived of his drink can go into life-threatening withdrawal, I have yet to see an adolescent in the emergency room with smartphone withdrawal — just a sullen teenager who wants his device back.
Considering all this, why do so many parents still insist that their teenager has a problem with anxiety? I fear that it reflects a cultural shift toward pathologizing everyday levels of distress.
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