In a time in which technology is deeply ingrained into daily life, it can be difficult to remember to set boundaries. For most people with access to modern-day technology, significant portions of each day are spent on phones, tablets or computers, or watching television. There are always emails to check, Snapchats to respond to, tweets and Instagrams posts to like, new series to binge-watch. Children and teenagers growing up today can’t remember a time without technology.
As reliance on technology has grown exponentially, researchers have pushed to further studies on how interactions with technology affect users. A study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is exploring just that, with the intention of focusing on how children are impacted developmentally.
The NIH study is longitudinal, meaning that scientists will follow their 11,000 participants for ten years at 21 research sites across the United States The primary parts of development followed in the children as they grow are not just the physical aspects such as brain structure, but emotional and mental health as well, according to “60 Minutes.”
Costing $300 million, the study utilizing mobile apps and video games to assess how children’s brains react to the stimuli provided by the technology their using. This assessment is done with the help of an MRI machine, which measures chemical responses in the brain. Since phones or tablets cannot be used inside the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, images such as pictures on Instagram are shown to participants to replicate the responses they would have otherwise had.
Many scientists, including Dr. Kara Bagot of the NIH study, believes that screen time can release dopamine, which draws people—especially kids and teenagers—back to their screens again and again. Children are less likely to give technology back and may have tantrums when pulled out of their engagement with mobile apps and one teenage girl interviewed by Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes” said that she checked her phone close to every ten or twenty minutes.
“…You’re more likely to act impulsively and use social media compulsively instead of, like, checking yourself,” said Bagot when interviewed by “60 Minutes” corresponder Anderson Cooper. “…[You want to get] the good feelings.”
While it is well known that children are deeply influenced by what they see on screens, violence being the most common example, there are deeper effects that go often go unseen when children use screens without boundaries. Teens now spend an average of over four hours a day on their phone, according to “60 Minutes,” and Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University thinks that this increased phone time correlates to the increased reports of loneliness, depression and self-harm reported by teens in the years since the iPhone was released in 2007.
“There’s kind of two different schools of thought on this,” said Twenge on “60 Minutes” with Anderson Cooper. “That it’s the specific things that teens are doing on their phones that’s the problem. Or it could be just the sheer amount of time that they’re spending on their phones that is the problem.”
Twenge also speaks about the generational shifts being experienced by today’s youth. While children reportedly feel closer to their friends and more connected to the world around them, limits on screen time have been seen to decrease the levels of negative emotions, as seen when students at the University of Pennsylvania limited themselves to just half an hour a day on social media.
“A lot of times with these technological shifts is these things are adopted because they’re so wonderful and convenient,” said Twnege to Cooper. “And we don’t realize until later the possible consequences. And I think fortunately in the last year or so there’s been more discussion about how can we manage the use of our devices.”
While the NIH study is still ongoing, its findings will be shared with investigators across the world who are looking into the same subject.