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Why teenagers need protecting from screen-induced dopamine hits

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The author of Teen Brain says the neurochemistry of teenagers makes them vulnerable to software programs designed to be habit-forming.

More than a decade ago, Australian David Gillespie was one of the pioneers of the anti-sugar movement, with a book called Sweet Poison. Now, his view that sugar is addictive and destructive has gone mainstream, and few of us believe a sugary diet is anything but harmful.

More recently, Brisbane-based Gillespie has turned his attention to a new evil, screen-based technology, investigating research into how it is affecting a young, digitally savvy generation who can’t imagine life without constant internet access.

Gillespie has written a new book, Teen Brain, which is worrying reading. Essentially, he is saying the neurochemistry of teenagers makes them vulnerable to software programs designed to be habit-forming – from social media to games such as Fortnite – and not only is this behind the rise in rates of anxiety and depression, but also there is the potential for it to act as a gateway to addiction.

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No, Gillespie isn’t a psychologist. But he has worked in the software industry and has six children, so knows a bit about teenagers. Much to the disgust of those kids, he allows them to have only basic cellphones until they are old enough to be out of the high-risk zone.

“They rail against it all the time,” he says. “One of them frequently loses or immerses the phone in water. They need a phone for safety, because as a society we stopped investing in a public telephone infrastructure, but we’re not providing them with access to anything beyond the ability to make and receive phone calls.”

An overreaction? Gillespie is convinced the science is on his side. It is hardly news that screen-based activities such as social media are targeted at the reward pathways of our brains. Whenever someone likes or comments on a post, for instance, we get a hit of the so-called feel-good hormone dopamine, as we would with any other habit-forming drug.

The braking system for dopamine is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on the brain. For some reason, GABA levels drop in early puberty and slowly climb back up to the original level by our early twenties. Gillespie’s analogy is that teenagers are operating brains with powerful motors, but with brakes that only half work. This has implications for impulse control, decision-making and more.

It is sort of a perfect storm. If we constantly expose ourselves to something that produces dopamine at high levels, we can become addicted. Without enough calming GABA to damp down the dopamine, teenagers won’t stop chasing more hits. And the present generation, dubbed Gen Z, has been handed a dopamine generator – in the form of a personal computer device – that they can use pretty much whenever they like.

Gillespie first started researching the book because he was looking for explanations for the increasingly high levels of depression and anxiety in teens of the past decade. The evidence is mounting that those who spend more time on the internet, gaming or on social media are less happy and have lower self-esteem than those who spend more time on non-screen and face-to-face activities.

Gillespie’s other concern is that once addicted to one thing, we are more likely to become addicted to something else that produces a similar or more powerful version of the same effect. This has been shown in relation to smoking and drugs. However, so far, Gen Z seems a lot less interested in using alcohol, cigarettes and any drugs other than marijuana.

“Most of the traditional addictions that require you to be physically present are dropping like a stone,” says Gillespie. And that is partly the problem. Parents are lulled into a false sense of security. They would rather a teen was safely in their bedroom than at a party or on the street. And besides, haven’t schools deemed electronic devices necessary in the classroom and for homework?

The pay-off for strict screen control – and the constant battles that involves – has been a household free of the things that have happened elsewhere. None of the teenagers he has raised are affected by anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder or similar afflictions. He is aware many people will reject what he is saying, but believes in 10 years’ time, as was the case with sugar, they will have changed their minds.

It is telling that tech titans Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Cuban all limited their kids’ technology use. Cuban, an online broadcasting pioneer, paid his son to stay off video game Minecraft for two months.

Says Gillespie: “As any dealer will tell you, don’t get high on your own supply.”

This article was first published in the March 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.