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How Does Technology Affect Your Brain?




How Does Technology Affect Your Brain?


By Brad Huddleston


You know that feeling you get during a really good kiss? That exhilarating sensation comes from neurochemicals in your brain, especially dopamine,1 a neurotransmitter that rewards you with those intense emotions of joy when it arrives in the brain’s pleasure center, known as the nucleus accumbens, a part of the reward circuit.2 When we engage in highly stimulating activities, dopamine is released into the Autobahn of the brain, and we are “rewarded” with feelings of pleasure. These rewards are either healthy or harmfully addictive. A small amount of dopamine from an activity, like physical exercise, can be beneficial, but continuous large spikes, like the effects of cocaine, are addictive and destructive. It’s like the difference between a warm fire on a winter’s night and your house burning to the ground.


In terms of brain health, it’s one thing to receive the “happy hormone” resulting from the aforementioned smooch; it’s an entirely different thing to be rewarded with it from illicit or digital drugs. My cautionary message about digital drugs—screens, video games, and tablets—is incredibly challenging because they are legal, even desired by many. There isn’t the stigma attached to social media and Netflix binging as there is with cocaine and heroin.


The use of digital drugs is encouraged by the world’s education systems, youth groups, churches, and culture. The problem is dopamine levels generated by both illicit and digital drugs are incredibly high, enough to cause a literal dependency. Until we have a paradigm shift in thinking about digital activities, the problem will only worsen.


Literal Addiction

The shocking headline from the October 7, 2019, edition of USA Today reads, “Epic Games Sued for Not Warning Parents ‘Fortnite’ is Allegedly as Addictive as Cocaine.”

The court case came as no surprise to me. After all, I’m the author of the book and video Digital Cocaine: A Journey Toward iBalance. I’ve been beating this drum for years. Audiences worldwide watch and listen to my presentations with great intensity. However, I discovered early on that many more people listen to me without truly hearing me.


I have two major hurdles when communicating that digital drugs are as addictive as their non-virtual counterparts—heroin, cocaine, alcohol, tobacco, etc. Digital addiction is not a metaphor; it is a literal addiction. First, most parents I speak to believe they and their children are the exceptions to the science and warnings I present.3 The second obstacle I face is convincing my audiences that addiction to devices affects the brain the same way cocaine does. In an online interview, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, psychotherapist, addiction specialist, and author of Glow Kids, said: “. . . this hypnotic trance, that I call it, is now being backed by research that shows that these screens are affecting [the] frontal cortex of a child’s brain in exactly the same way as cocaine.”4


Does Content Matter?

Many digital activities we don’t consider harmful actually are. Sometimes, I think parents try to give me the impression they only allow their children to use technology for “educational purposes.” It often sounds like they’re merely telling me what I want to hear, but I play along. Please forgive me if I misjudge them. I believe they allow their children to use digital devices in conjunction with their education, but I know that’s not all they use them for.


I tell parents that even if their child only uses educational software, the brain does not make an exception regarding addiction just because their school requires children to use the internet and educational apps. A digital drug is a drug, whether the dealer is on a street corner or in the public school around the corner.


Dr. Victoria Dunckley addresses the issue in Reset Your Child’s Brain. She writes, “. . . it’s essential to realize that any electronic screen interaction, regardless of content, can irritate the nervous system—it’s the medium, not the message.”5 Believing that digital content such as education apps and Christian podcasts are not addictive is a widespread assumption that desperately needs dispelling. And fast.


Happy Then Numb

Highly stimulating activities such as video game playing, social media, listening to music excessively,6 gambling, and ingesting cocaine, heroin, alcohol, or marijuana cause the brain to release high dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, thus producing blissful emotions. As a person continues to overstimulate the brain with traditional or digital drugs, the brain builds up a tolerance (also known as resistance). The brain gets used to that activity, and to continue feeling high, the person must do more and more of that activity continuously,7 which is where the addiction begins. Less stimulating activities, such as a hug, a face-to-face conversation, or even traditional sports, can become boring because activities such as these do not produce enough dopamine to overcome the tolerance that has developed in the brain. A drug abuser becomes emotionally numb to activities of lesser stimulation.

 

This emotional numbness might be a condition known as anhedonia, which reduces the ability to experience pleasure in simple things. This emotional state results from overloading pathways to the brain’s pleasure center.8


Have you ever shaken your head in wonder when your child or grandchild says, “I’m bored!” and you think to yourself, “How in the world can you be bored? You have more toys and things to do than I ever had when growing up!” The child could very well have become emotionally numb because of too much digital stimulation.


What scares me most is the extreme boredom in spiritual matters I see worldwide, even in Christian schools. Yet, just saying “TikTok” causes an explosion of excitement. Clearly, digital entertainment has won the battle for the hearts and minds of Millennials and Gen Z. For some, the Gospel becomes ho-hum.


Withdrawals Can Be Scary

Most parents have had the unpleasant experience of taking a digital device away from a child, even politely, and the child erupted in anger and perhaps aggression. Other disturbing symptoms of digital withdrawal can include anxiety and depression.9 Some children even threaten violence or suicide.


As a person continues these activities, serotonin begins to decrease. Serotonin is a hormone in the brain partially responsible for feelings of satiation or contentment.10 Decreased levels of serotonin are also associated with depression.11


There Is Good News

But the news isn’t all bad. Before and after brain scans are both disturbing and encouraging. In one study, Dr. David Rosenberg from Wayne State University showed severe brain abnormalities in an avid adolescent video gamer. After just a three-week full digital detox at summer camp, the post-scan was astonishing. The young boy’s brain had completely reset.12


Of the hundreds of thousands I have spoken to, very few parents (that I am aware of) follow through with a full digital detox. I really do understand since it takes a great deal of courage. Of the few who have, though, I hear one common refrain: “I have a totally different child.”


I believe God wants to restore the brains of the generations raised in the digital world. May we consistently pray for another Great Awakening. God is ready and willing to help if you’ll allow Him.


“Everything is permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial. Everything is permissible for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything [and brought under its power, allowing it to control me]” (1 Corinthians 6:12 AMP).



Brad Huddleston is an internationally respected speaker, consultant, teacher, and author on technology and culture (bradhuddleston.com). Brad has a degree in Computer Science and a Diploma in Biblical Studies and is the author of three books, including Digital Rehab: Learning to Live Again in the Real World. A frequent guest on radio and television, Brad also hosts the international radio show Brad Huddleston’s Techwise. Brad and his wife, Beth, live in the beautiful state of Virginia.



ENDNOTES


1. Emer Maguire, “What’s in a Kiss? The Science of Smooching,” British Council, accessed August 2, 2021, https://britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/kiss-science-smooching.


2. Marc Dingman, “Know Your Brain: Nucleus Accumbens,” Neuroscientifically Challenged, March 20, 2021, https://neuroscientificallychallenged.com/posts/know-your-brain-nucleus-accumbens.


3. “Too Trusting? Over Half of American Parents Let Their Kids Go Online Without Supervision,” NortonLifeLock Inc., July 19, 2022, https://prnewswire.com/news-releases/too-trusting-over-half-of-american-parents-let-their-kids-go-online-without-supervision-301588724.html.


4. “Glow Kids: Beware of the Screen,” YouTube, October 13, 2016, https://youtu.be/MQMlOjOPsKg.


5. Victoria L. Dunckley, Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time (New World Library: Kindle Edition), 36.


6. Mark Waghorn, “Music Can Be as Addictive as Fast Food, Money, and Alcohol,” Study Finds, April 7, 2021, https://studyfinds.org/music-addictive-fast-food-alcohol.


7. “Tolerance and Withdrawal: Processing the Environment: MCAT: Khan Academy,” YouTube, June 25, 2014, https://youtu.be/3vKLU5_Hgco.


8. Archibald D. Hart, Thrilled to Death: How the Endless Pursuit of Pleasure Is Leaving Us Numb (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).


9. Ibid.


10. “Reward Pathway in the Brain: Processing the Environment: MCAT: Khan Academy,” YouTube, June 25, 2014, https://youtu.be/YzCYuKX6zp8.



12. David Rosenberg, “Dr. David R. Rosenberg Interview with 20/20,” YouTube, June 6, 2017, https://youtu.be/kkJOadg31rw.



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