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Is Digital Addictive?

Posted by jturner56 on February 1, 2015

This week I had the chance to go down the rabbit hole on this question.

First a parent morning where a clinical psychologist who, while pointing out that the Internet (which is in many cases referred to synonymously with all things digital) is not classified as an addiction by official medical bodies, is nevertheless a contested area.

Perhaps at one end of this contest we have claims such as in recent UK newspaper that “the addiction of children to their mobile phones could threaten the very fabric of society.” A whole industry in available to provide solutions to this.

A more balanced account can be found in the Journal of Transcultural Psychiatry, in which a 2013 paper deconstructs a neuroscientific view on the effect of digital on the developing brain. Drawing attention to the moral panics that go with society’s view stretching back over a century of the adolescent as both vulnerable and dangerous, it points to the need to consider digital capacity to extended minds and the social, political and economic opportunities and challenges that go with this. The human brain’s capacity to adapt is a powerful mechanism.

A key issue arising is balance. The American Academy of Pediatrics provides very clear guidelines on how much screen use should be allowed for entertainment. As children get older the AAP calls for parent discretion according to the child’s level of maturity and readiness.

There are two important issues arising to this. Firstly all brains can be susceptible to over stimulation. Can for example marathon running become an addiction? But as a recent newsletter from Dr Charles Fay from the Love and Logic institute points out, the root causes of any technological addiction lie with human relationships that lead to attempts to escape from self, deal with negative moods, lack of parental affection (including setting firm, clear workable boundaries), and/or lack of supportive peer relationships. While taking away the technological crutch may form part of a required response, it should only be in concert with dealing with the root human relationship issues.

Secondly, if digital is changing the brain, and their is strong evidence that it is, then it is even more important that school education contributes purposefully to support positive learning progress. One area is in memory development, where a balance is required between building strong conceptual processing schemas, while also intertwining these with the consequences of having information at hand 24/7. What in Mathematics is referred to as relational understanding (knowing both how and why) over instrumental understanding (knowing how). Our standardised assessment systems, and too often what is delivered in classrooms, as yet have not evolved to meet this challenge. There is also much to be done with teachers, particularly if we want to move them into specialist levels of understanding of what digital literacy entails (see Turner 2010).

Education therefore needs to seek to provide in developing times appropriate Balance, Focus, Value and Choice, be it in supporting for younger students who are increasingly exposed to adult digital devices, through to senior students who need to develop an independent, connected worldview.

Is Digital addictive? There is always that risk. But it is much more so an integral connected part of the modern mind.


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