The double-edged sword of digital technology
There are people out there – young and old and in-between – who tap, touch and swipe their mobile phones 2617 times a day.
Many of these same people spend hours engaged in other screen-based activities: plonked at a desk in front of a computer, doing schoolwork on a tablet, watching movies on a laptop.
It should therefore be no surprise that internet use amongst teenagers is off the charts, with a whopping 45 per cent saying they’re online “almost constantly”.
This monumental shift towards continuous connectivity began about a dozen years ago, when smartphones gave users instant access to the internet.
“Almost all of us have smartphones now, so we literally have technology in our pockets 24 hours a day,” says researcher and author Joseph Ciarrochi, who has been studying the effects of compulsive internet use on teenagers.
“You don’t have turn on a router, you don’t even need to log on, you just pick up your phone and the internet is right there in front of you.”
Researchers have been warning about the risks of compulsive internet use for years, with some even claiming it’s “as harmful as alcohol and drugs to millennials”.
While Professor Ciarrochi says it’s important to consider those risks, he stresses that spending hours a day online is not necessarily a negative thing.
“The internet is fantastic – it’s a brilliant creation and is mostly beneficial to young people, even when it’s used regularly,” he says.
“You can use it to stay in contact with friends, to research ideas and to learn about the world, and if you’re making good use of it, it can definitely enhance your wellbeing.”
However, it also has a dark side, because many things online are designed to be addictive.
“Games are designed to keep you playing, social media is designed to keep you scrolling, and sites are designed to grab your attention and keep you engaged for as long as possible,” says Ciarrochi, of ACU’s Institute of Positive Psychology and Education (IPPE).
“That’s why the internet is this double-edged sword, because while some people in this generation are using it to learn, develop skills and build supportive social networks, there are others who are getting trapped by it, and for those people, it is like a drug.”
A lot like addiction
The use of the word “addiction” in this context remains controversial, with some arguing it’s not the right term to describe the relationship between humans and technology.
That debate aside, it is clear that young people can develop a psychological dependence on online activities, as is noted in the groundbreaking longitudinal study, Compulsive internet use and the development of self‐esteem and hope.
Professor Ciarrochi and his co-researchers from IPPE and the University of Sydney followed 2,809 Australian teenagers over four years from Grade 8 to Grade 11, and found 15 per cent of them were struggling to tear them themselves away from their devices.
“When a young person is no longer in control of their behaviour, and they feel like they can’t get off the device due to this feeling of compulsion, that’s when it starts to look a lot like addiction,” says Ciarrochi, whose previous research examined the effects of technology on the mental health of teenagers.
“They can’t get off to do their homework or get some sleep, they can’t get off to interact with people or play with the other kids in the neighbourhood… they’ve got to the point where they’re always thinking about the internet and they’re essentially hooked.”
The study, led by former IPPE researcher James Donald, examines how this compulsive behaviour affects the core psychological skills of self-esteem and hope, crucial to the ability of young people to define and achieve goals.
“We know from previous research that compulsive internet usage is harming their mental health, disrupting their sleep and leading them to feel frustrated and irritated whenever they’re away from the internet,” Professor Ciarrochi says.
“Those symptoms alone are concerning, but the biggest thing to come out of this study is that it’s causing these kids to lose hope.”
The path to hopelessness
Hope is essentially a person’s belief that they can get stuff done in life.
Someone who is hopeful therefore has confidence in their ability to make good things happen. In contrast, the hopeless have no expectation that they can achieve their goals
With that in mind, Professor Ciarrochi and his colleagues set out to test two theories: one, that hopeless kids turn to the internet as an escape mechanism and become hooked in the process; and two, that compulsive internet use leads to hopelessness, because when teens lose control, they lose the belief in their ability to reach goals.
Somewhat surprisingly, the results of the study supported the second theory. Once deep in the grip of compulsive internet use, even previously well-balanced teenagers experience a downward spiral into hopelessness.
“It’s one of those rare situations where no one is immune, because it doesn’t matter if the kid starts out depressed or hopeful, or whether they’re rich or poor, they all have a chance to develop compulsive device usage,” Professor Ciarrochi says.
Exactly why this behaviour leads to hopelessness is not yet clear. One theory is that young people who fall victim to the internet’s iron grip spend less time doing things that aren’t online, like face-to-face communication, sports, music and other creative pursuits. As a result, they have fewer opportunities to practice being skilful in the real world.
“It may be that they’re so compulsively engaged in online activities that they're not getting chances to master things in everyday life,” Professor Ciarrochi says. “This leads to a loss of a hope and starts to have a damaging effect on the kid’s character, affecting their motivation to pursue their goals, which can have long-lasting consequences.”
In recent years, people have become more aware of the pitfalls of obsessive connectivity.
The ABC’s Four Corners recently broadcast Digi Kids, a documentary investigating the potential link between technology and declining literacy rates.
The program features the Federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan, repeating his call for a blanket ban on mobile phones in schools – a move that’s been criticised in certain quarters, but has support amongst some of those concerned about smartphone addiction.
Meanwhile, some researchers are suggesting the dangers of tech addiction have been overplayed.
In November, Scientific American’s explosive article The Kids Are All Right contradicted the warnings of many academics with a bold claim that “the angst over technology is misplaced”.
The article cites research showing the use of social media and digital devices is “no more associated with decreased wellbeing for teenagers than eating potatoes”. But it also concedes that heavy internet use “is associated with potentially harmful effects on wellbeing”.
Professor Ciarrochi says those who downplay the risks tend to gloss over the decline in wellbeing experienced by teenagers who fall into the internet’s clutches.
“Those researchers focus on the amount of time teens are on the internet, and that’s not the issue here, because they might spend hours online learning things, forming genuine connections, having real relationships and generally making good use of the internet,” he says.
“But there’s also a subset of kids who get totally distracted by the internet. They lose sleep over it, it affects their life and hurts their schoolwork and their relationships, and I think it’s a bit shallow to conclude that the angst over technology is misplaced based on usage numbers and general averages. It’s whitewashing the problem and pretending it’s not there.”
To use an example from another domain, most people can enjoy a weekend of gambling in Las Vegas without getting addicted.
“That does not mean Vegas doesn’t have a dark side we should ignore,” Professor Ciarrochi adds. “It does not mean that the angst over gambling is misplaced.”
Promoting healthy behaviour
Legislators and administrators across the world are talking tough on addressing the issue of “internet addiction”.
In Australia, calls for a nationwide crackdown on phones in schools have followed moves to ban the devices from classrooms in NSW and Victoria.
“We all understand these tools are designed by people who want to keep our heads in front of the screen,” says NSW Education Department secretary Mark Scott. “And one of the skills we need to teach young people is how to turn off their devices … and say ‘no’ to the technology.”
Professor Ciarrochi and his co-authors agree, calling for interventions that foster healthy internet use amongst teenagers – both in school and in the home.
This includes helping children to recognise patterns of compulsive behaviour in themselves, encouraging screen-free activities and face-to-face interaction, and limiting the availability of certain games and apps.
“That might mean setting a time limits over the course of the day, turning off the internet at home at certain times, or making the phone unavailable when they’re going to sleep,” says Professor Ciarrochi, who stresses the importance of giving teenagers the tools to make the shift themselves.
“While it’s important to set clear limits, we also need to give kids some control over their own use, so they can have some autonomy and practice self-regulation.”
In an educational setting, interventions might include limiting – but not necessarily banning – the use of smartphones.
“Limiting the use of phones in classrooms seems sensible to me,” he adds, “but I think technology is how these kids meet and interact, so it’s just too big a part of their lives to take it away from them all the time.”
This flexible approach requires an acknowledgement of the positive aspects of technology.
“We have to be aware that there are two sides to this, which comes back to the idea of a double-edged sword, because when you can tap into the strength of the internet, it’s quite impressive and amazing what you can do with it,” Professor Ciarrochi says.
“On the other hand, if things get out of control, the effects it can have on a kid’s wellbeing, and on their level of hope, can be devastating.”
Professor Joseph Ciarrochi is an acclaimed researcher who has published many books, including The Thriving Adolescent with Louise Hayes. His upcoming book Your Life, Your Way is designed to help youth take control of their own lives in many domains, including the internet. His research interests include identifying character strengths that promote social, emotional, physical wellbeing and peak performance.