According to author and speaker Brad Huddleston, our children are becoming digital addicts. He says video games, social media and other online activities are highly addictive, and are having a huge impact on our kids’ brain development and attention span. Teachers are desperate for help, and parents are in denial.
At the end of a tour of schools across Queensland, Huddleston visited our studios for a wide-ranging conversation with Neil Johnson, which we’re highlighting this week in a two-part feature. In the first half, he tells us about the signs and symptoms of digital addiction, and how parents can protect their children..
The good news is that people are starting to recognise the problem. The bad news is that the problem is getting worse. ‘The openness and the receptivity was incredible,’ Huddleston said, ‘but what we found in our research, of course, is getting more and more disturbing.’
Huddleston is the author of several books and DVDs about the internet and its dangerous temptations. He has an ongoing collaboration with the Bureau of Market Research and Neuroscience division at the University of South Africa, investigating the impact of modern technology on the brain. He’s a regular guest on Vision, bringing us vital advice for navigating the digital age.
He brought some of his findings to schools and meetings recently through his iBallance tour across Queensland. He told Neil Johnson that people are increasingly eager to hear his message. His schedule for the trip filled up quickly, and when it became clear he couldn’t come to them, the Catholic school system sent four busloads of students to his event.
A lot of the enthusiasm is coming from teachers who struggle daily to keep their students engaged. ‘They can’t control their attention until period two or three,’ he explained, ‘and then they want to sleep at school. So the teachers are loving us, absolutely loving us, and they’re the ones driving this.’
But he says the principals and administrators are noticeably absent from most of his events. He suspects they may be hiring him more to tick a box than out of genuine interest. ‘They’re nice to us,’ he said, ‘and they’re opening the door, so I don’t want to put them down. But I honestly think they’re out of the loop.’
Huddleston’s warnings are particularly disturbing, because rather than a fear of the unknown, they’re based on real scientific evidence. He says that scans clearly show the effects of frequent technology use on a child’s brain.
‘And when you take a child off of the devices for just three weeks, all of a sudden, the brain changes, through neuroplasticity, the colour comes back, and their personality reverts back to the way they used to be when they were sweet.’
His words are welcome, because they help to explain why children are showing such unusual behavioural issues. ‘In 2016, the emotional problems in the children bubbled to the top, to the point where people know intuitively, something is off. And they’re looking for answers.’
‘Addiction happens in the same area of the brain no matter what you are addicted to,’ Huddleston explains. That area, the nucleus accumbens, is the pleasure centre of the brain, which produces dopamine in response to a rewarding activity.
‘The reason we get addicted is because we’re deriving joy out of that activity, and the body builds up resistance to that activity, and then we end up having to do a lot of the activity to overcome the resistance.’
People become addicted to the internet through the same mechanism that causes dependence on drugs or alcohol. And like any dependence, digital addiction eventually produces harmful and increasingly debilitating symptoms. ‘So with a smoker you have breathing problems. With an alcoholic, you’d have liver problems. With someone who ingests cocaine, you’d start to have paranoia.’
‘With digital addicts, the top three things you look for are anger when it comes time to take it away, anxiety disorders, which would include attention deficits, and thirdly, boredom.’
This explains why students are increasingly unreceptive and hyperactive in the classroom. The process of learning does generate small amounts of rewarding dopamine, but that’s no longer nearly enough. ‘Because you need dopamine,’ Huddleston explained. ‘It’s not your enemy until you get too much.’
‘The problem is, they’ve been Netflix binging. They’ve been looking at pornography. They’ve been doing all these things. So they’ve built up this resistance.’
‘So if they’re not doing an activity that’s generating large quantities of dopamine, they have non-stimulation, and non-stimulation is boredom. SO children are saying I’m bored, I’m bored.’
Huddleston’s tour doubled as a fact-finding mission, where he and his team conducted extensive polling of teachers, parents and children. ‘The openness and the receptivity was incredible,’ he told Neil Johnson, ‘but what we found in our research, of course, is getting more and more disturbing.’
One question they asked was whether children had internet enabled devices, including smartphones, gaming consoles and televisions, in their bedrooms. In Grade 3, about 65 per cent of children raised their hands. By Grade 6, every hand was up. But when parents were asked the same question, they all said their children didn’t have these devices.
‘I don’t know why they said no,’ Huddleston admitted. ‘I didn’t sit down and run focus groups, and so I don’t want to falsely accuse or misjudge anybody. I don’t know if they’re naïve, I don’t know if they’re embarrassed to tell. I have no idea.’
It’s clear that parents are concerned about their children’s’ internet access. But they also seem to find it difficult to restrict and monitor that access. There are many reasons for this, including the variety and portability of devices. But one reason may be that some parents themselves are internet addicts.
‘Addiction breeds denial and justification,’ Huddleston explained. ‘So they’re going to be in denial for their child as well. And the justifications are easy to come up with. Everybody does it. The school requires it. Certainly if it were bad they wouldn’t push it.’
‘They’ll even site research about hand-eye coordination. Of course my job is to come in and site the entire study, not just half of it.’
The average age of video gamers, Huddleston points out, is between 32 and 37. This suggests that internet addiction is likely a problem which millennials are suffering with their children. Meanwhile, the fastest growing demographic of digital addiction is in senior citizens. So this is a problem which our whole society is struggling with.
But it’s our children that are most at risk from the symptoms of digital addiction. Parents and teachers recognise that children are behaving differently, and brain scans show a visible impact on children’s’ brains, in a period where those brains are still developing.
‘The truth of the matter is we have no idea what the long-term effects are,’ Huddleston said. ‘This whole thing is so new. But we do know that right now it’s not good, so it can only get worse.’
As a parent, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of fighting such a powerful trend. But until governments start to get the message, Huddleston believes it’s our responsibility to protect our children. ‘Parents have to be empowered, not condemned, but empowered, to do what you have to do.’
‘God gave that child to you, not the school. God gave that child to you, not the government. So take matters into your own hands, monitor their emotions, and you’ll find out pretty quickly where the lines are for your child.’
It’s also important to remember theological truths as we approach these difficult issues. ‘I don’t care how pretty the little package is,’ Huddleston said. ‘We’re all born with the nature of Adam, and every last one of us on this planet is in need of redemption by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we cannot trust ourselves.’
As adults, we recognise that we need accountability, so we’ve built societies designed to protect us from harming ourselves and others. Children need that protection even more. ‘But when it comes to these digital devices, suddenly we think these children are redeemed! There’s nothing needed! They’re precious! They wouldn’t do an evil thing in the world!’
Parents tell Huddleston they want their children to feel trusted. But he says parents shouldn’t be so trusting. ‘It’s not that you hate them. Somehow you want to be a friend to them, but you need to be a parent to them. You shouldn’t trust them. They have the nature of Adam in them. They need you to guard them.’
In the second part of our feature, Huddleston gives more advice about how to guard our children, and tips on bringing his message to other parents. He also explains why digital addiction isn’t a recognised disorder, and tells us why South Korea is among the first countries in the world to limit technology use in schools and introduce internet detox centres.