Rates of anxiety and depression are at never-before-seen levels among teenagers. To some, screens are the culprit, but is it really that simple?
No new technology in the history of humanity has been adopted as rapidly as the smartphone. The first iPhone was sold on 29 June 2007. By 2019 there were are an estimated 2.5 billion people with a smartphone. That's essentially one-third of the world’s population. In countries like Australia, the penetration is close to universal.
A Deloitte study in 2018 put Australians' rate of smartphone ownership at close to 90 per cent. That makes us the most enthusiastic adopters in the world. Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne revealed some staggering statistics. At that time, 94 per cent of teenagers, two-thirds of primary school children and one-third of pre-schoolers owned their own smartphone or tablet.
Most parents don't need to be told that screens are an increasingly omnipresent part of domestic life. The Royal Children’s Hospital survey suggested that teenagers (the biggest users) were engaging with screens for an average of six hours daily. Yet this drastic and unprecedented shift in the shape and texture of adolescence has occurred with almost no forethought or planning. Only now is research being done into the effects that extended exposure to these devices might be having on the teenage brain.
Screens and the teen brain
Author and public health advocate David Gillespie has looked at the early results, and what he’s found has terrified him. “We know a lot about how the human brain works now,” he says. “We know what addiction looks like in a brain, we know how it progresses to anxiety and depression. And we know that device usage, particularly certain software, will fire normal addiction triggers. We know why teenagers are particularly susceptible to addiction. And right now we’re addicting every member of a generation and we have no idea what the consequences might be.”
Gillespie has spent time working in start-ups, so he understands technology’s addiction triggers better than most. “In the industry, they actually talk about ‘dopamine hacking’,” he says. “Basically, designing software specifically so that it hooks into the human reward system and creates an addictive response.” In a hyper-competitive marketplace, where the value of any given product is almost zero, the only apps that survive are those that keep hooking us in for more.
This might not sound like a profound realisation to many. Most of us have been complaining about our addiction to social media for years. Yet Gillespie argues that from a purely biological perspective, teenagers are uniquely vulnerable to the predations of these devices. And there could be long-term, irrevocable consequences.
Teens and addiction
“We have a reward system that makes sure we do things that’ll ensure there is another generation of humans,” Gillespie says. “So, it makes sure that we eat and have sex. And it makes sure that we socialise with other humans and seek their approval.” Addiction occurs when our reward systems become oversaturated, dulling their response and demanding more and more stimulation for the same high.
Fortunately, our reward systems have also been equipped with a natural inhibitor: gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Gillespie explains: “As soon as we get whatever it is that we’ve been chasing—food, sex, the company of others—we get a hit of GABA. That hit shuts down our dopamine-seeking behaviour. Which is truly excellent, because it means we can like things without becoming addicted to them.”
The problem is that during puberty the GABA mechanism is turned off. “Basically,” Gillespie says, “during puberty you’re building your frontal cortex. That's the bit of the brain that deals with risk management, consequence assessment, impulse control, socialisation with others and higher level thinking. But for this to happen, it requires that you stop producing GABA.”
Once an addict, almost always an addict
The results are that teenagers are much more susceptible to becoming addicted to substances and experiences than either kids or adults. And, this addictive effect is built into a teen's neural architecture. If you first become an alcoholic as a teenager, you are twice as likely to be an alcoholic as an adult. “Once you’ve wired the brain for addiction in adolescence you are wired that way for life,” says Gillespie. “There is no doing over.”
For Gillespie, this explains one of the more puzzling shifts in teenage behaviour over the last decade. The massive decrease in rates of alcoholism, drug use and risky sex among teenagers. And the massive increase in reported rates of anxiety and depression. “We know that addiction is linked to anxiety and depression. Yet, we’re actively giving teenagers devices whose primary purpose is to create addiction.”
There is certainly evidence that would seem to validate his concerns. A study of 40,000 children in the US found that teenagers who spent seven hours or more a day on screens were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression than those who used them for an hour or less. Excessive screen-time was also associated with being more easily distracted, being emotionally unstable, and having problems finishing tasks and making friends. (The same researcher, Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, also identified a sudden and precipitous drop-off in self-reported levels of happiness among teenagers after 2012. Incidentally, those spending the least amount of time on screens were found to be the happiest.)
Big claims and big picture thinking
Yet Gillespie is also a provocateur by trade. Big claims get more attention and make for more marketable books. In his book, Teen Brain, he even admits to making “outrageous claims” but also says they’re fully backed by evidence.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of academics and scientists who think the danger of screens are overstated. They believe research on the topic is so new that different studies can come to seemingly incompatible conclusions. For instance, a 2019 study from Oxford University analysed the screen use of 17,000 teenagers. They found almost no correlation between screen-time and psychological wellbeing. So small was the reported effect that, according to the study’s authors, teenagers “would need to report 63 hours and 31 minutes more of technology use a day … to decrease their wellbeing”. This lack of effect was maintained even if screens were being used directly before bedtime.
For people on this side of the argument, the simplistic reduction to questions of whether screen-time is bad or good ignores its place in the broader context of a teenager’s life. England’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) recently issued guidance that screen usage itself was essentially neutral. The real question was whether it was stopping children from getting enough sleep, exercise, study and face-to-face family or social interaction. (“It is important that we recognise that screens are a modern way of being,” wrote Professor Russell Viner, the president of the RCPCH. “Five hundred years ago we thought it was bad for women’s brains to teach them to read. Yet we somehow worry about screens being different.”)
Reducing screen time
But therein lies the rub, says Gillespie. The addictive nature of these devices means it’s exceedingly difficult to manage the time that teenagers spend in front of a screen. According to one poll, 62 per cent of Australian parents describe managing screen-time as a source of ongoing conflict. As a father of six, including four teenagers, Gillespie knows the dilemma well. “Take an iPad away from a kid and see how they react to it,” he says. “It’s insane. You get the same reaction as if you took a drug away from a drug addict.”
One of the biggest impediments to imposing strong limits on a teenager’s screen usage is the fact that an iPad or laptop has become a compulsory component of so many school programs. “If I could, I’d just throw every iPad and iPhone in the bin,” Gillespie tells me. “But I can’t because they need a computer to do their homework and access their textbooks. Yet there’s zero evidence to suggest that using devices like these improves educational outcomes in the slightest.”
Gillespie recommends a return to the model of computer usage most of us grew up with. That is, a device anchored to a common living space, where both length and type of usage can be monitored. “It’s really just about trying to give them ten to twelve hours at a stretch where they’re not exposed to these addictive apps and can give their brains a chance to reset.”
Are screens entirely to blame?
Talking to Gillespie, it’s hard not to get swept up by the feeling that we’re in the midst of some fast-unfolding catastrophe. And, that only immediate action to curtail screen-time will save the brains of this next generation. Yet it’s far from clear that screens are the only or even primary cause of our current epidemic of adolescent anxiety and depression. Nor that their removal will necessarily solve the issue.
Questions of psychological wellbeing are rarely so easily reduced, and screens are, as the RCPCH suggests, probably concerning inasmuch as they pull teenagers away from the things they should be doing developmentally. Like socialising, exercising, learning, exploring, performing, dreaming, fighting, flirting, sleeping.
While Gillespie offers a valuable perspective on our current moment, screens are at risk of becoming a proxy for the more complex question of why our kids are unhappy. And we surely owe it to them not to settle for the simplest solution.