Protecting youth from addiction requires a comprehensive developmental and family-based approach. Teaching students the dangers and realities of drug use is highly valuable and impactful for many students, but it is insufficient as a stand-alone approach. Preventing and mitigating risk factors for drug use and addiction in the maturing lives of students are at the heart of the problem. The prevention program at LSIS focuses largely on the educator and the parents. The focus begins with the child’s development, knowledge, and behaviors as they mature and grow. Are the family and the child equipped with knowledge of the child’s behavioral risk factors? Is the family aware of which behaviors they should look out for, and more importantly, do they know how to help students build awareness and good coping methods?

It is of paramount importance to educate parents and students about factors related to decision-making, addictive behaviors, and protective factors in the lives of their children. What discussions need to be had to frame the information that will flood their world as they age through the school system? What behaviors exhibited by the child are signs and symptoms of addictive behaviors? Emphasis is placed upon the parent modeling an appropriate relationship with risk, rather than assuming it would never be their child, and then wondering where the child adopted a naive and reckless attitude in their own life. Through our podcasts, presentations, and masterclasses, we have engaged in powerful dialogues with parents and their children about many of these factors.

The purpose of this blog is to address behavior that may be contributing to various factors predicting addictive behaviors, mental health difficulties, and prolonged exposure to misinformation. We specifically look at youth use of media and technology. Any behavior detrimental to the development of our youth usually warrants our focus and strategy. However, it seems that constant technology use has become so ubiquitous that its effects feel inevitable. Research shows just how far youth technology use has gone. The scope of elementary-aged media use is staggering. As early as 8 years old, average rates of smartphone and social media exposure hover around 5 hours per day.

General worry about the trend of youth technology use is very common. Studies have indicated that 2/3rds of parents are highly concerned about their children spending too much time in front of screens. We look across the restaurant and feel that something about the babies sitting with iPad in their faces and headphones in their ears just isn’t right. We remember our childhoods, and the degree of imagination and wonder that entertaining ourselves and each other required, and then watch our students spend hours a day mindlessly scrolling, glued to a constant stream of uninformative and senseless information. It is concerning. Why is the concern not followed up by constructive action?

It may be that adults are ill-equipped to guide children toward a healthy relationship with technology because we have the exact same relationship with it. When I drive the car with younger family members, they often prefer to spend the bulk of the car ride playing phone games. They enter the store with headphones on. I am shocked at this behavior and highly concerned about their inability to just be. I stand right with those 2/3rds of parents who are growing in their concern about this behavior. However, as concerning as this may be, I must acknowledge that I do the same thing. When I am the passenger in my friend’s car or in an Uber what am I doing? How often do I have headphones in? Isn’t it adults like myself that have normalized this behavior and modeled it to our kids?  How many times do day do we check the blank lock screen? How often do short videos suck you into a loop of watching uninspired content that you would rather not watch but just can’t stop until after the next one? What is the daily screen time average on your phone? If you are anything like me, that is a statistic you would rather ignore. Sometimes the number reads 7 hours.

The issue extends beyond adult modeling and normalization; it is about convenience. When the kids are on their phones in the back, the car ride is so easy. Those parents who plopped the iPad in front of their children’s faces are undoubtedly exhausted and overworked. If their child is to be entertained without the technology, they would need to engage them throughout the whole dinner. Separating the children from the technology they expect to use and have been using is not an easy task if done without a plan to manage their immediate discontentment.  For parents with fewer resources, options, and activities available for their children, television and phone games are sometimes reasonably perceived as the only option.

This is not a call for a hopeless attitude full of pessimism. I do not believe that children have lost their ability to play imaginatively or go outside. I have spent years working with children, and they are every bit as playful, imaginative, friendly, and silly as ever. Once engaged with the world and each other, once separated from the distraction of social media, their ability to engage magically and imaginatively with themselves and others is remarkable. With a reasonable boundary between them and the nearest screen, they settle into a groove. However, can this relationship be established for the child by the parent who is even more addicted to their phone than their child? Can the parent who has spent a full week in the office working their butt off, only to come home to their real full-time job of changing diapers and putting out fires, find a way to occupy their children without inducing an addictive relationship with screens?

We’d like to provide the reader with an actual reason to establish a healthy relationship with technology for themselves and their kids. The hunch that there is something concerning about the ‘iPad toddler’ generation has some good backing in the real world. Technology is playing a large role in many of the maladaptive factors in student development. When looking at a growing percentage of students experiencing anxiety, addictive behaviors, and decreased concern for the danger of drugs, there is little doubt that social media use plays a significant role.

The first factor to consider is that the process of addiction is being habituated for these children. Addiction can be perfectly described by the short-term, immediate reward produced by video games and social media content followed by the feeling of a vacuum when the phone is put down. The inclination to mindlessly scroll and consume trivial, unsatisfying content, avoiding the discomfort of emptiness and discontentment that arises when we put down our phones, mirrors the very process that addictive behaviors and substances exploit. If this comparison sounds a bit too intense, I suggest you try deleting the three apps you use the most and pay attention to how it feels when you’re looking for a quick distraction during a quiet moment, only to find your phone offering no immediate solace.

When I explain addiction to a group of elementary students with no conception of drug use, I tell them to think about Tik Tok. They are addicted enough to immediately comprehend what dependence and tolerance look like. Those first few videos bring a comfortable feeling of distraction and seem to scratch an itch. By the 20th video, you’d rather put the phone down and do something else. It is no longer fun or novel, and yet you can’t put it down. When I ask who understands the feeling of wanting to stop using their phone or it no longer being pleasurable but never the less continuing to use it, the majority of those 5th-grade students raise their hands.

What these students are experiencing is the chemical process of tolerance, dependence, and addiction. Addiction is based on dopamine dependence. Dopamine is the brain’s chemical signal for pleasure, excitement, and motivation. The addiction process begins through the hacking of the dopamine system by an outside source. The dopamine becomes spiked, dysregulated, and the brain is flooded with this chemical. This may sound like a pleasurable process; and for a brief moment, it is. The issues begin the moment the outside source is removed, and the dopamine dips below normal levels. A phase of discomfort and discontentment ensues, leaving the individual clamoring for the most immediate source of dopamine. Only through a sustained period of abstinence from this outside source does the brain return to normal levels, and the individual is returned to their original equilibrium.

Are children afforded any period of abstinence from the source of technology? When looking honestly into the addictive nature of their relationship with their phones, there is an absolute need for establishing boundaries around this behavior. When studying the development of addiction, researchers routinely find that the initiation of addictive behavior neurochemically alters our relationships with reward and motivation. For example, in last month’s blog, we observed how smoking weed not only frequently leads to cannabis addiction, but also drives the individual toward short-term highs and dopamine spikes. Addiction breeds further addiction by substantially altering our relationship with reward. Through technology, we can instill a relationship with immediate-reward behavior in our children. What will that relationship look like?

Dopamine spiking behaviors are associated with false safety behaviors, or behaviors that mitigate anxiety and discomfort in the short term, but reinforce it in the long term. With rising concern around increased levels of anxiety in today’s youth, we encourage parents to take a good look at their children’s phone use. It may encourage negative coping methods long before they are aware of their anxiety. Healthy coping is largely contingent upon the delaying of gratification and the ability to sit with discomfort. Can we handle moments of low dopamine, or have we trained ourselves to avoid such moments at all costs? What behavior will we pass on and teach to our children?

The second major factor impacting children is exposure to misinformation and inflammatory content. In our conversations with parents and their children, we find that parents are routinely stunned by just how much their children have seen. I have run the anecdotal experiment of scrolling through tik tok and youtube from an anonymous account to observe the generic suggestions that arise. Within an hour the feed is filled with content regarding drug use, explicit adult content, and glamorization of rebellious and inappropriate behavior. With modern algorithms, fully blocking this content on a child’s phone would require complete abstinence from internet use. I have younger cousins who are not allowed to use social media, whose phones are filled with parental restrictions, and who have nonetheless seen everything.

At LSIS we don’t look at this as an entirely negative and unavoidable process. We are well aware of the implausibility of shielding children from information. It is much more effective and reasonable to honestly gauge their exposure and to engage in frequent, honest, and well-informed discussions about what they are seeing. Do they know that addiction is frequently wrapped in an outward appearance of popularity and comfort? Are they aware of what is going on behind the scenes of the influencers who encourage and normalize extremely unhealthy behaviors? These are the discussions we need to be having.

So how do we establish healthy relationships with technology for ourselves and our children? With research continuing to establish associations between increased levels of anxiety, addictive tendencies, attention issues, violent thoughts, and higher levels of media use, what can parents do? While there is no immediate and one-size-fits-all answer to the question, we hope this blog encourages you to begin to explore our relationships with technology. Is your student or your child’s dysregulated and obnoxious behavior closely linked to their use of technology? Is your kid genuinely addicted? Are you in a position to model health behavior around technology? In really exploring the issue, simple solutions may arise. A daily limit on screen time. A household set-aside hour or two with no technology. While it may seem overwhelming at first, the behavioral impact on the child, to finally be separated from the next dopamine spike, may lead to drastically improved behavior.

It is obviously easier said than done, but hopefully, we can make a start. We have learned the lesson many times in the past that social normalization and ubiquity do not make a behavior any less detrimental. I hope through this blog and through our own observations, we can begin to try and establish healthy behaviors in both ourselves and our kids and learn to manage the dopamine dip that will occur when you stop reading this blog, watch the next video, and turn the screen off.

By: Danny Z

Danny is a in house LSIS Prevention Speaker.