How tech is turning your teen into a toddler
Exclusive: Internet addiction is hijacking teenage brains and stunting their emotional growth with excess screen time triggering biological changes in young people and potentially causing lifelong issues.
A world-first study has tracked the use of screen devices by Australian high school students and found internet addiction was the cause of young girls and boys struggling to regulate their emotions.
The four-year study of those in Years 8 to 11 found that overuse affects cognitive function - causing teenagers to behave like toddlers.
The good news is the 'brain damage' is reversible but the authors believe old-fashioned parenting, - such as placing restrictions on use - is the most efficient method.
More than 2,800 teens studying in 17 Australian high schools took part in the study which found overuse of the internet could result in a sub set of teens who grow up to be adults unable to properly function.
Equally, young people who can manage their internet use could go on to become high achievers with their maturity setting them apart.
"What we found is if a kid gets hooked by the internet, there's no evidence that it's because they have deficiencies or problems - these are just normal kids who took a wrong turn and fell into internet addiction," study co-author Australian Catholic University's Professor Joseph Ciarrochi said.
"But when kids have trouble getting free from the internet they lose the ability to stay committed to goals and stay focused and not get overwhelmed."
Understanding how to regulate emotion is a key life skill that enables people to cope under pressure such as sit an exam, manage high emotions like anger or sadness or be able to persist at a project long enough to achieve an outcome.
This study is the first to find internet addiction causes emotional issues - not the other way around - and comes as parents are struggling to get their children off devices after distance learning during to COVID-19 lockdowns.
One of the authors is now calling for schools to teach internet addiction, in the same way that drugs and alcohol addiction are rolled into the curriculum.
Alarmingly, the study, published in prestigious medical journal 'Emotion,' found after the first year internet addiction the negative fallout then persisted across all four years of the study.
Professor Ciarrochi said the ability to regulate emotions has proven to be an important factor in indicating future social and academic success and also plays a role in preventing addictions later in life.
"When you can't identify and describe your own feelings it makes it very hard to manage them, if you don't know you're angry how do you know how to manage it?"
Lead author psychologist Dr James Donald said their research was the first to find overuse of the internet was the cause of poor behaviour.
"For example in the classroom if you are learning something that is hard it feels difficult so you are then less likely to see it through. Finishing things is a hard skill to learn and requires being able to regulate your emotions," Dr Donald from the University of Sydney Business School said.
"These are skills that need to be taught but they also naturally develop and internet addiction messes with that. Internet addiction is linked to things like anxiety and feeling worse but the difference in this study is it is the cause of not just feeling worse but functioning worse."
He said the damage was likely reversible but parents implementing restrictions would have the most impact as opposed to teaching adolescents general emotion regulation skills, for example through school programs.
"It is reversible and structural boundaries are going to make a pretty big difference such as when and how long each day," he said.
Dr Donald said schools can play an important role in teaching the dangers of internet addiction - alongside drug and alcohol addiction - to help reduce the downside of digital use for the next generation.
"Really educating them around what the consequences are, what the risks and impacts, healthy decision making.
"But also thinking very carefully about how much time they require students to be online for their school work, and what supervision they have while online," he said.
Despite his field of expertise, Professor Ciarrochi is also a father of two children and has his own screen battles.
In mere moments he can go from writing about tech addiction to being confronted with the reality of his daughter Grace being caught up in a vortex of social media.
Even Grace admits parenting a 14 year old girl can be a hard job.
"I spend a bit of time on social media and once you get on it, it is hard to get off," she said.
"I think I would be happier without it, but everybody I know has it. I would feel really left out if I wasn't using social media."
Prof Ciarrochi said while his children are not addicted, he can clearly see the effect the online world has.
"When they have to get offline, say to eat dinner, we see that they are still thinking about the online world sometimes, and see dinner as interfering with their online activity," he said.
"The thing is, online is where they live - it's their hangout. We used to hang out in the neighbourhood and they hang out online, so you can't really take it away from them. But we make sure that we set limitations. We also make sure they are aware that internet addiction is a potential issue, and help them to recognise the signs of the addiction."
Professor Ciarrochi said the problem isn't about the time teens spent online but rather their relationship to it and whether it controls them.
"Things like gaming and social media are designed to be addictive. They offer an immediate hit of stimulation," he said.
"If young people keep seeking that stimulation high, they might find themselves losing control of their behaviour, staying up late at night to engage their addiction, hiding their internet usage from others, and failing to keep up with school and other activities."
Originally published as How tech is turning your teen into a toddler