Teen screen time

(© olly - stock.adobe.com)

Internet addiction is the problematic, compulsive use of the Internet that results in significant impairments in an individual’s functioning in various aspects of life, including social, work, and academic arenas.

Internet addiction is becoming a worldwide problem. Individual screen time averages have risen to about three hours daily. Many people declare that their internet use is “compulsive.” In fact, more than 30 million of the United Kingdom’s 50 million internet users acknowledge that their compulsive, habitual use of the Internet is adversely affecting their personal lives by disrupting relationships and drawing attention away from responsibilities.

Teens addicted to their internet-connected devices have significant alterations in their brain function, worsening addictive behaviors and prohibiting normal development. Internet addiction, powered by uncontrollable urges, disrupts their development, psychological well-being, and every aspect of their lives – mental, emotional, social, and physical.

A study by scientists at University College London identified the extensive changes to young brains, especially those of children aged 10 to 19 years. A 10-year study, which concluded in 2023, collected the findings from 237 adolescents who had been officially diagnosed with internet addiction.

Screen time: Teen girl looking at social media on smartphone
Teens addicted to their internet-connected devices have significant alterations in their brain function, worsening addictive behaviors and prohibiting normal development. (© Monkey Business – stock.adobe.com)

Effects on brain function

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists examined different areas of the brain and diverse types of brain function both at rest and while performing tasks. Some parts of the brain showed increased activity, and some parts showed decreased activity. The most significant changes occurred in the connectivity in the part of the brain critical for active thinking and decision-making.

Alterations in brain function show up as addictive behaviors and deterioration in both thought and physical capabilities. The teens’ still immature brains suffered changes that adversely affected intellectual function, physical coordination, mental health, development, and overall well-being.

The brain is in an especially vulnerable stage of development in adolescence. It is more susceptible to internet-associated compulsions. Some of the compulsions were nonstop mouse clicking and consumption of social media. The damage can be profound, with dire consequences. It can manifest as problems in maintaining relationships, lying about online activities, and disturbed eating and sleeping patterns. The sleep disruption interferes with daytime concentration and chronic fatigue.

Brain function is not the only thing altered in teens with internet addiction. Anxiety, depression, and social isolation are all severe consequences of their irresistible compulsions. Additional significant concerns include cyberbullying and exposure to inappropriate material, resulting in emotional distress and a distorted perception of reality.

Physical health deteriorates because the addicted teen is sedentary, leading to weight gain, obesity, and related health conditions. Social skills suffer such that face-to-face engagements are problematic. The teen does not “grow out of it.”

Experts on adolescent behavior admit that the Internet does have significant benefits, but trouble starts when computer use interferes with daily routines and responsibilities. Treatments might target specific brain regions or involve psychotherapy and family therapy to tackle the fundamental symptoms of internet addiction. In addition, educating parents about the signs of digital dependency could serve as a vital preventive measure, helping them manage their children’s screen time and impulsive behaviors more effectively.

The study does more than reveal the underlying brain changes caused by internet addiction. It also emphasizes the necessity for proactive measures to mitigate its impact on teens’ health and development.

About Dr. Faith Coleman

Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

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