How concerned should people be about the psychological effects of screen time? Balancing technology use with other aspects of daily life seems reasonable, but there is a lot of conflicting advice about where that balance should be. Much of the discussion is framed around fighting “addiction” to technology. But to me, that resembles a moral panic, giving voice to scary claims based on weak data.
Anything fun results in an increased dopamine release in the “pleasure circuits” of the brain – whether it’s going for a swim, reading a good book, having a good conversation, eating or having sex. Technology use causes dopamine release similar to other normal, fun activities: about 50 to 100 percent above normal levels.
Cocaine, by contrast, increases dopamine 350 percent, and methamphetamine a whopping 1,200 percent. In addition, recent evidence has found significant differences in how dopamine receptors work among people whose computer use has caused problems in their daily lives, compared to substance abusers. But I believe people who claim brain responses to video games and drugs are similar are trying to liken the drip of a faucet to a waterfall.
Most of the discussion of technology addictions suggest that technology itself is mesmerizing, harming normal brains. But my research suggests that technology addictions generally are symptoms of other, underlying disorders like depression, anxiety and attention problems. People don’t think that depressed people who sleep all day have a “bed addiction.”
To be sure, there are real problems related to technology, such as privacy issues. And people should balance technology use with other aspects of their lives. It’s also worth keeping an eye out for the very small percentage of individuals who do overuse. There’s a tiny kernel of truth to our concerns about technology addictions, but the available evidence suggests that claims of a crisis, or comparisons to substance abuse, are entirely unwarranted.