Is your child addicted to smartphones?
A couple of days ago, an incident happened in the Southern state of Karnataka that shook people’s consciousness. A 60-year retired police officer was brutally murdered by his 25-year-old son. Devan* the father was upset with his son Kumar*, for not clearing his college exams. Off late, the son was addicted to playing the game PUBG on his smartphone. He was also under the influence of drugs. One day, when Devan scolded his son Kumar and snatched his phone away from him, an enraged Kumar beheaded his father with a sickle. When the police came to their house, the son did not let them into the house as he was not done cutting the body yet!
Why did something like this happen? When people talk about addiction, people often think about alcohol and drugs. And to a lesser extent gambling, etc. But there are more addictions in the world, apart from the obvious alcohol and drug addiction; people can also be addicted to gaming, gambling, food, sex, praying, shopping, social networking, etc. The latest research shows that there are more people addicted to their smartphones than they are addicted to alcohol. When talking about smartphone addiction, people aren’t necessarily addicted to their phones but certain apps or applications in them. These could be social media apps, shopping site apps, gaming apps or even watching pornographic content regularly on the internet.
What is Addiction?
Addiction is an incredibly complex behaviour and always results from interaction and interplay between a person’s genetic predisposition, their personality, attitudes, expectations, beliefs, their social environment and the nature of the activity itself. Some key risk factors are highly associated with developing almost any (chemical or behavioural) addiction such as having a family history of addiction, having co-morbid psychological problems, and having a lack of family involvement and supervision. Psychosocial factors such as low self-esteem, loneliness, depression, high anxiety, and stress are all common among those with behavioural addictions.
To know more about addiction, we must understand how addiction works and how it gradually develops.
The first step is known as Salience – This is when the activity becomes the single most important activity in that person’s life and dominates their thinking, feelings and behaviour. For example, even when the person is not using the phone, they will be constantly thinking about the next time they get to use the phone.
Next is Mood modification – This is a subjective experience but many reports that as a consequence of using the phone, they experience an arousing buzz or a high or a feel of escape or numbing.
Then Tolerance happens – In this stage, an increasing amount of the same activity are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. For a smartphone user, they will gradually increase the amount of time they spend using the phone every day.
Withdrawal symptoms – These unpleasant feeling and physical effects (shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.) occur when the person is unable to use the phone.
Next is Conflict – This refers to the conflicts that happen between the person and those around them (friends and family members), conflicts with other activities (school, college, work) or from within the individual (loss of control of thought and behaviour).
Even when people consciously keep away from the activity, Relapse can occur – When a person reverts to the previous levels of usage of smartphones because they are unable to control themselves.
How Does Our Brain work?
Our brain rewards healthy behaviours – like exercising, eating, and spending time with loved ones. It does this by switching on certain brain circuits that make you feel wonderful, which then motivates you to repeat those behaviours to experience these wonderful feelings again. In contrast, when you’re in danger, a healthy brain pushes your body to react quickly with fear or alarm, so you’ll quickly get out of harm’s way. And when you’re tempted by something – like eating ice cream when you are dieting or buying things you can’t afford – the prefrontal regions of your brain help you decide if the consequences are worth the actions.
But when you’ve become addicted to a substance, that normal hardwiring of brain processes begin to work against you. Addictions hijack the pleasure/reward circuits in your brain and hook you into wanting more and more. Addiction can also send your emotional danger-sensing circuits into overdrive, making you feel anxious and stressed all the time. At this point people give in to their addictions, not to feel good but not to feel bad!
Brain imaging studies of addicted people show decreased activity in the frontal cortex. When the frontal cortex isn’t working properly, people can’t decide to stop using a drug or stop their behaviour.
Scientists haven’t yet understood why some people become addicted while others don’t. Addiction tends to run in families, and certain types of genes have been linked to different forms of addiction. But not all members of an affected family are necessarily prone to addiction. As with heart disease or diabetes, no one gene makes you vulnerable.
Drugs & Alcohol change brain structure
Autopsies conducted on patients who have been long-term drinkers have shown that their brains are often lighter and smaller than non-drinkers of the same age and gender. Through tests like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and computed tomography (CT) scans, scientists have been able to notice this shrinking effect even on living patients.
Drug addiction especially harms and kills brain cells. For example, methamphetamine damages cells that produce dopamine, a chemical in the brain that helps to create feelings of euphoria. Methamphetamine use even triggers a process called apoptosis, where cells in the brain self-destruct.
Human beings are wired with nerve cells (neurons) that extend from the brain and spinal cord throughout the body. However, the strands are not continuous. Between neurons is a small space called a synapse. Neurons pass signals to each other by sending chemical impulses across synapses. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. The constant exchange of neurotransmitters makes it possible for the brain to send messages through the vast chains of neurons and direct our thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
Addictive chemicals and behaviour can wreak havoc with this normal exchange of neurotransmitters in countless ways. For example: flood the brain with excess neurotransmitters, stop the brain from making neurotransmitters, block neurotransmitters from entering or leaving neurons, and countless other harmful ways.
Dopamine is one of the primary neurotransmitters involved in addiction issues. All the major addictions increase dopamine levels. Temporarily, the excess dopamine creates powerful feelings of pleasure. But then the excess levels take a long-term toll on brain chemistry and promote further addiction.
Our brain always seeks to maintain a constant level of cell activity. That stable level is critical to regulating our behaviour. When supplies of dopamine remain constant, we can experience the ordinary pleasures of life, such as eating and having sex, without the compulsion to seek those pleasures in self-destructive ways.
But when our brains are subjected to artificially high levels of dopamine, the brain stops depending on its internal supply of this neurotransmitter. The brain comes to depend on artificial dopamine levels to maintain homeostasis and function normally.
And if the extra dopamine supplied by addictive behaviour is missing, the addict feels less pleasure. These people can experience symptoms such as depression, fatigue and withdrawal. To the addict, it seems that the only relief from these symptoms is to consume more and more of their addiction. It creates a constant feeling of craving towards the thing the person is addicted to.
Teens and Addictions
Childhood and adolescence are times when parents can get involved and teach their kids about a healthy lifestyle and social activities. Physical activity is important, as well as getting engaged in schoolwork, science projects, art, and sports.
Teens are especially vulnerable to possible addiction because their brains are not yet fully developed, particularly the frontal regions that help with impulse control and assessing risk. Pleasure circuits in adolescent brains also operate in overdrive, making smartphones, drug and alcohol use even more rewarding and enticing.
How to Treat Addiction
There are several medications and behavioural therapies, which when used in combination can help people suffering from addictions. There are many forms of evidence-based behavioural treatments for substance abuse. Some of these are:
Cognitive-behavioural therapy. – CBT can help patients overcome their addictions by teaching them to recognize and avoid destructive thoughts and behaviours.
Motivational interviewing. – This form of therapy involves structured conversations that help patients increase their motivation to overcome their addictions.
Mindfulness Therapy and Repetitive Magnetic Stimulation of the brain are other forms of therapy designed to strengthen the brain circuits that have been harmed by addiction.
Help is Near
Although addictions induce a sense of hopelessness and feelings of failure, as well as shame and guilt, research in this field shows that recovery is very much possible. Therapy and psychological interventions can lead to individuals improving their physical, psychological, and social functioning.
The road to recovery is often difficult. Relapse or recurrence of addiction is common but it is not the end of the road.
If you or someone you know is suffering from a form of addiction, get help through the services of credentialed professional immediately.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the victims.