Cigarettes for your kids anyone?

Is giving your child their first smartphone like giving them their first packet of cigarettes?

We all talk and laugh about our addiction to our smartphones, how we jump like one of palov’s dogs to a dinner bell when we hear that ping, the couples we see out for dinner happily oblivious of each other as they surf between (or even sometimes during) courses and how we fill any lull in our day with a stroke of our screens.

But this so called “addiction” is just a jokey label we use with our friends to describe the hours we spend on and the attachment we feel to our loved devices, it is nothing like smoking… or is it?

Worryingly it is, the mechanisms in the brain that create and drive smoking and smartphone addiction are remarkably similar. Both are driven by dopamine, which is a chemical released by the brain in response to stimuli, causing us to want, desire and seek. Both give us a chemical reward in the form of an opioid, making us feel pleasure. It is the nicotine in cigarettes and the finding of something we like on our smartphones that gives us the feeling of pleasure, the opioids and it is dopamine that motivates us to repeat it.

The seeking (dopamine) mechanism is stronger than the pleasure (opioid) mechanism, so we seek more than we are satisfied. This is routed in our evolution, as seeking is more likely to keep you alive than loafing around in a satisfied haze. The more we smoke, the more we want to smoke and similarly the more we search

for likable information, the more we want to search. Dopamine stimulates seeking, you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It gradually becomes harder and harder to stop.

And there is additional effect for smartphones, as dopamine is also stimulated by unpredictability, which is inherent in email, messaging, texting, tweets or searching on the internet. Unlike cigarettes, which are entirely predictable, we don’t know when the pleasure from finding something we like will happen and this unpredictability is exactly what stimulates the dopamine mechanism. This is why it is so hard for us to stop checking at our phones, stop searching the internet or to ignore incoming alerts, dopamine is pushing us to look in the anticipation that we will find something we like and get rewarded.

As adults, we can understand the risks and avoid the addictive behaviours that these powerful physiological mechanisms can induce by taking action; turning off all the alerts and consciously limiting the checking of our phones to a few times a day, but our children are much less likely to grasp the need for self-control and are likely to be drawn deeply into their shiny new toy. We all know what the harmful physical effects of cigarettes are, but what we don’t know is what the effect smartphones are having on mental health, particularly with the next generation where phones have become part of growing up. Giving children smartphones
as they transition into teenagers with access to the internet, email, messaging and social media is a huge social experiment and we don’t know how it will turn out for them.

The emerging evidence is not good, with shortening attention spans, poorer sleep quality and a steep increase in the occurrence mental health problems in this connected generation.

But Smartphones are part of modern life and denying them to our children is not a practical or desirable option. We should follow the lead of some of their creators in Silicon Valley who limit their children’s use by;

  • Not giving their children smartphones until as late as possible past 10 years old and even as late as 12 to 14 (if they can hold out that long!).
  • Limiting their children’s use of all tech and the internet to no more than 1 to 2 hours a day.
  • Teaching them to use all their devices in moderation and to control their own behaviour.

We don’t know if smartphones are cigarettes for the brain yet, but they have similar addictive hooks and we don’t know what the long-term effects of overuse could be, so act now to protect your kids just in case they are.

Chris Brown is Managing Partner of kohola
April 2018