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Digital Addiction – Its Impact on Social Development

By: Richard Boyd Copyright © 2021 February 19, 2020 no comments

Digital Addiction – Its Impact on Social Development

The Origins of Digital Addiction

If you scan online you will notice the recent development of a whole new movement of people promoting the concept of a digital detox. There is now broad acknowledgement that digital devices are conduits to the potential addictive consumption of content online.

This digital detox idea exists because digital addiction is a largely unacknowledged fact of life for more and more digital natives whom got hooked at young ages when their brains were susceptible to the influence of pleasurable formative experiences.

One function of the pleasure centre of the brain is to tag and then seek out pleasurable experiences. We all possess a pleasure chemical called Dopamine which gets released as a reward when we engage in what the brain experiences as pleasure, so we are motivated to seek it out again. The problem is that this can become addictive and then we actively start to seek out such experiences in order to get a Dopamine hit.

In this way we become the dealer and the junkie to our self, and the drug is the digital stimulus activating a Dopamine reward within us. Smart Phone companies, app developers and big Social media companies like Facebook, use Design Experience psychologists and engineers to create their hardware and software offerings to stimulate the human brain towards a Dopamine reward stimulus.

When we adopt phone and digital device usage, we are walking into a digital drug dealer’s den where he is bombarding us with offers every minute of the day and night. If you are already an addictive personality then chances are you will respond quickly and enthusiastically.

If you are not that addictive normally then the drip, drip, drip of habitual usage of digital devices to communicate, express yourself as a “brand”, or to access information, products, services, experiences and persons, can still wire your brain to a compulsive, obsessive relationship to the digital world.

The research shows that the younger you are exposed to digital experiences, or the longer you are allowed to access digital experiences, then you are more likely to end up with a problematic relationship to the digital world via your chosen device, over time.

This is now being seen in teenagers and adults who complain about the result, which is the lack of time, rather than the cause, which for many is their underlying unhealthy or addictive relationship to their digital devices. Just try preventing a person accessing their phones or hiding them for several hours, and then tell me their response is not unlike a junkie being made to start cold turkey from a physical drug they are addicted to.

The Link to Sleep Disorders

The problem is compounded by the fact that the blue-white light emitted from digital devices can cause eye fatigue, and hyper-stimulation, which then can trigger or heighten anxiety, and affect sleep patterns and day-night circadian rhythms of the brain and body.

Too many people stay up too late at night online, or when they cannot sleep, get up and go online, which amplifies the sleep problem due to the hyper-stimulation effect digital has on the brain. Sleep disorders are on the rise in societies both for children, teenagers and adults.

Cyber Migration Effect

The 2020 international global educational rankings for Australia showed 15 year old students are falling against their international peers in STEM (Science, Technology, English, Mathematics) compared to 10 years ago, despite Federal Government increases in education funding through the same 10 year period. Research by the Gonski Institute found that 80% of interviewed teachers attributed digital devices were a growing distraction to students, with many students attending school in a tired state due to excessive night usage of social media.

As the time spent online increases then so does the influencing effect that digital content has on one’s own self-identity, self- image, body image, values, and beliefs. In effect your digital life can change you over time.  There is an old buddhist saying that “you are what you experience”.

Neuroscientists agree that our neuro-plasticity state of our brains create the ability for us to change and adapt over time. The brain is neutral. If you show it negative content then the brain starts to normalise that, just the same as positive content will, and then a cyber-migration effect can be created.

A cyber-migration effect is basically where what you consume online then starts to influence and inform you offline in your real-life dynamics, relationships and behaviours. Notice how gun massacre perpetrators often have a background of violent online gaming histories, or consuming extremist or racist online videos and content that informs and reshapes their beliefs.

It is worse for our young as these digital influences may be laying down their initial formative base concepts of self, others and dynamics such as relationships. The curse of teenager consumption of pornography is that it clearly then migrates into teenagers adopting distorted beliefs that normal sex involves such acts as anal sex, choking, hard sex, and the objectification or abuse of partners for self pleasure. They then attempt to act these ideas out on real life partners.

Lack of Social Engagement

Worse still if some abandon real life relationships and human contact, and instead spend more time online with fantasy or digital friends, and feel happy with this digital substitution. What happens then is the social engagement part of the brain weakens and the learnt and reinforced practices of mirror neuron body reading and facial and body gesture communication recognition starts to weaken, or is under-developed, and so social awkwardness, or what some call the digital autism effect results in long term digital content consumers.

What is observed here is a loss of recognition of, or the ability to transmit, social cues and to interact with an alive social expression driven by an emotional presence. It is thought that the withdrawal by children and teenagers from the practice of social interaction, physical play and interaction within a family system, replaced by hours staring at a digital device and its inhuman literal transmission of content, causes a loss of social engagement capabilities in children and teenagers.

This loss of social inclusion capability can drive the person further into withdrawal from humans and further into the embrace of digital fantasy and replaced reality. Some psychologists report that clients are actively choosing to abandon their human relationships and live more or less in their digital experiences, supplemented by contact with their digital communities.

Another aspect of this is again the loss of time that occurs as digital takes priority over other considerations, obligations, and relationships. This is often what traditional addicts do as they preoccupy their thoughts and their priorities towards getting their next hit, at the expense of those around them, and at the expense of personal obligations they have towards others.

What is becoming a concern is that this behaviour is starting to supplant and replace the easily available opportunity to communicate face-to-face. Here a person in proximity sends a digital message rather than talk to the other person, even when they are in speaking range or they are proximate to do a social ritual like grab a coffee or catchup together.

Too many digitally addicted persons try and justify their checking in on their phones when they ping, by arguing that they did not initiate it, and its rude to refuse to respond. This is a classic bargaining behaviour by a person with an addictive relationship to their device.

Slow Erosion of Self Esteem

Another aspect of this problem is the slow erosion of slow self-esteem that occurs in children teenagers and adults alike as they compare themselves to online curated images of proffered reality, but normally photoshopped or manipulated contrivance. So much of social media and Facebook messaging is contained in “you’re not OK or happy unless you buy this or do our system etc”.

This tends to have a perverse effect of compelling the person to investigate further, and often with Dr Google as their assistant, spend hours online searching for validation, the truth, or the answer for what they now believe about themselves. Additionally, they may start to compare themselves to the Jones online, and obsessively watch peers, enemies and friends in their digital habits, storytelling, and personal influencer or brand creation online.

This anxiety inducing behaviour will often spawn an obsessive stalking presence online where time is lost comparing oneself to others, or following others they secretly have jealous or negative emotions about, but whom they track and even like or comment about their posts, possibly looking to make them wrong or shame them if they slip up and make an error.

Stalking uses up a lot of time in the day of a person affected this way and teenagers are most vulnerable to behave this way. Again, they may then suffer at school with concentration or study, or at home by isolating or neglecting chores or social interactions with family members.

The insidious nature of digital is it requires a hard boundary for use versus non-use that must be created and enforced. Those who say I will leave the phone on, and have it with me, but I will not engage with it, are lying to you and to themselves.

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