By Dr. Tim Millea
“We become what we behold.” The English poet, William Blake, wrote those prophetic words more than 200 years ago. His warning has become more relevant over the past 20 years. The internet has permeated nearly every aspect of our daily lives and the exchange of information is instantaneous, leading to rapid advances in countless areas. The efficiency and convenience are indisputable. However, the timeworn adage, “too much of a good thing,” applies to time spent online and the content being viewed.
We see growing attention to “Internet Addiction Disorders” (IAD), which may afflict up to 30% of Americans. IAD includes video gaming, social media, online shopping, gambling and pornography. Increasing evidence shows that this behavioral disorder has negative effects on the brain’s structure and function. As seen in chemical dependency disorders, IAD produces changes in a part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, commonly designated the “pleasure center.” This area reacts to dopamine, a chemical messenger that plays a role in the feeling of pleasure. However, with addictive behavior, this can progress to a desire and craving for more and more stimulation. Over time, excessive online activity is required to produce acceptable stimulation. This can lead to all-night video gaming, a craving for “likes” on social media or financial losses due to excessive online shopping. In essence, too much pleasure becomes painful.
Some research indicates that IAD may harm the brain’s structure, especially in the prefrontal area, which is responsible for detailed memory, concentration, planning and prioritization. As a result, IAD victims develop a life focused on preferred online activities while neglecting necessary obligations. The emotional impact can lead to many symptoms and signs, including depression, anxiety, isolation, defensiveness, mood swings and agitation. Physical problems may also develop, such as headaches, insomnia, nutritional deficiencies and neglected hygiene.
The prevalence of IAD and its worsening effects on society have been magnified by the COVID-19 lockdowns. A review of data published in “Frontiers in Human Dynamics” from the United States, Canada, Australia, India and China showed a dramatic increase in daily use of digital devices in 2020. In the heaviest users, usage increased up to 17 hours per day. In a large survey in India, even persons over 65 increased their screen time, to an average of more than five hours daily. A more widespread problem with IAD is expected as we emerge from the pandemic.
Unfortunately, the detrimental effects on children are significant and potentially lifelong. Excessive screen time results in high risk of structural and functional injury for a child’s developing brain. What is identified as “screen dependency disorder” is increasingly blamed for impaired brain development.
Beginning in 2016, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has tracked nearly 12,000 children around the country to study their behavioral development and mental health. Factors including online scrolling, texting and game playing are recorded. Some reports have already raised concerns. In 2018, the NIH reported that children under 11 years old who averaged more than two hours of screen time per day scored lower on thinking and language tests. Researchers found that with more than seven hours of daily screen time, thinning of the frontal cortex of the brain occurred, very similar to findings in scans of people with chemical addictions. This part of the brain performs the functions of reasoning and critical thinking.
Concerns about the ubiquity of social media has been a topic of much debate in recent months. A Harvard University study found that areas of the brain activated with addictive drugs are likewise activated when an individual discloses personal information on a social media platform. This is the “dopamine rush,” which leads to an increasing need for more frequent and longer use of social media. As this use increases, even simply opening the social media app can trigger dopamine release, before any message is received or sent.
Have we descended so far into the “internet abyss” that we must surrender and accept these detriments as a necessary cost of a digital society? Absolutely not. The potential toll this is taking on children calls for greater parental awareness and prevention. If ignored, the effects on children’s brains and behavior will be lifelong and negatively impact future generations. In adults, the damage of IAD to families and relationships is likely much more pervasive than we are aware.
From a Christian perspective, respect for one’s God-given health and dignity is a reliable preventive measure. Sister Marysia Weber, R.S.M., D.O., a psychiatrist and author of “Screen Addiction: Why You Can’t Put That Phone Down,” emphasizes the importance of genuine social interactions, with face-to-face conversations rather than impersonal online interactions. She also recommends “internet fasts” and time spent in silence and prayer to rediscover one’s true meaning in life. Her observation that “… healthy human development requires human interaction …” is the most effective antidote for the physical, emotional and spiritual harm of excessive online usage. To be sure, the internet and our digital devices are here to stay. Yet proper attention to moderate usage and intentional relationships with others, offline, accompanied by a committed spiritual effort, will be necessary. As Blake may suggest, “behold one another, not your phone.”
(Dr. Tim Millea is president of the St. Thomas Aquinas Medical Guild and a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport.)