Constantly Craving A Net Fix: When Our Kids Can’t Stop Swiping

‘I’ll have a dopamine chaser, please. With ice and a slice. Oh, actually, make that a double’. If you’re aware of the brain’s bio-chemical brilliance, you’ll know that dopamine is the ‘reward’ hormone. A kind of chemical ‘well done you fabulous human’ boost; triggered by our ever ready ‘let’s do it, because we’re worth it’, limbic system, located deep within our brain’s centre.

This limbic lovely, lights up even more, when it’s anticipating pleasure. So whether that’s a slot machine win, a luscious chocolate cake slice or a new pair of shoes; an internal glitter ball explodes within. It then shimmers and shines in our heads while we have our fun. And when the light show’s over, we want the fireworks all over again. It’s a chemical reward loop that can have us constantly craving for more.

The same thing happens with online activity. These questions from psychologist, Susan Weinschenk will probably prompt a ‘yes’, except from the most disciplined amongst us: ‘Do you find it impossible to ignore your email if you see that there are messages in your inbox? Do you think that if you could ignore your incoming email or messages you might actually be able to get something done at work? You are right!’

Who hasn’t attempted to switch off the digital din just to get ‘stuff’ done? As you know, that light show can become relentless and almost impossible to ignore. Thankfully, most adults have a ‘responsible grown up in our heads’, namely, the prefrontal cortex control panel. Let’s say it’s a cellular sat nav system, which is a whizz at planning and scheduling. It also regulates the limbic’s compulsive texting, gaming, eating, gambling and shopping impulses, amongst others. It’s this prefrontal cortex control panel that helps us to say ‘no’ and switch off that light show. Even when the pleasure centre says ‘purrrlEASE, more glitter, more shimmer….yes, Yes, YES!’

As you may know, from friends’, family and perhaps your own experience, full on addiction is complex and multi faceted. It’s not ‘just’ the brain chemicals that prompt addictive behaviour. But what concerns me, and a growing number of other regulators and campaigners, is the impact of the online world on younger, more maleable brain chemistries.

One 12 year old girl sums up the net’s impact upon her in disturbing terms: ‘the internet nearly always controls my actions, I have been told that I am addicted to the internet, and prefer its company rather than being with other people. I feel lost without the internet.’

This reported anecdote, published in the Independent, was based on a ‘Family Kids & Youth’ study. Its findings revealed that as many as four in ten young people (11 to 17’s) said, ‘They did not feel able to function, if they couldn’t get hold of their friends, and look things up on the internet’. Just last week, a new report revealed that increasing numbers of children are being treated for mobile phone addiction (#nomophobia as it’s known).

The UK’s House of Lords has now begun investigating campaigners’ concerns including long overdue focus on this ‘reward loop’ and its impact on young minds. We also want tougher laws, that will protect children from increasingly sophisticated and manipulative web influences. (Disclaimer: I provided evidence to the Lords about the legal framework so am not completely independent.)

As the Lords’ report acknowledges, the net’s positive impact is a given. It unlocks the world for both young and old and is a brilliant resource for curious minds. But there are those with a more malignant streak who lurk in its shadows. We can red flag our kids of course and I am sure most of us do. But sometimes, we need to get tough to protect them from what may change their minds, chemically and biologically.

The usual suspects; the porn pedlars and the on line groomers, are already on the blacklist. However, ‘captology’, where computers and psychology intersect, is now ’embedded into the invisible operating system of our everyday lives’; and some app creators, it’s claimed, are deliberately targeting young, chemically immature and uncritical minds.

Captology’s founding father is Stanford’s B.J. Fogg; a legitimate and respected behavioural scientist. As he observes; ‘The emails that induce you to buy straight away, the apps and games that rivet your attention….are all designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws’. In 2006, it was two of his students who realised that ‘phones can send emotions’, before one of them went on to found Instagram.

Many of the childhood experts who gave evidence for the Lords’ digital world investigation are worried. They have real concerns about how net use that instantly gratifies young brains may make them vulnerable to say, pathological gambling in later life. In science speak; the ‘late maturation of the frontal lobes’; or, in other words, the grown sat nav doesn’t kick in when it should; chemically altered by dopamine overload.

The need for special treatment for the young is established in other areas. Gambling legislation protects children and the vulnerable from being harmed or exploited by say, slot machine owners/manufacturers. Then there’s what they call a CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice) code which writes the marketing rules, some of which protect our kids, outlining how slots and gambling can be ‘sold’ and to whom. This is enforced by the ASA (Adverstising Standards Authority). Overstep the mark, and you’re fined or forced out of business.

A number of us are already lobbying for legal limits on what social media can syphon from our kids, who will never read the 17 plus pages of terms and conditions when they sign up on a site. Our children (as we do too, frankly) simply swipe their right to privacy away. But now, it seems, they’re part of a grand scientific experiment; a form of back door brain surgery. And no-one knows whether or not they’ll end up like the caged rats in a neuroscientist’s lab: not eating, not sleeping and not living. These sad, ignorant and unprotected animals’ insatiable desire for dopamine meant that, in the end, they died of exhaustion and starvation.

When it comes to online, we are living in a world of the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. Let’s not allow any online players to treat our children as if they are part of social experiment. We need regulation and proper discussion. And soon.

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