With digital addiction on the rise in our children, experts are very worried about the potential impacts on brain development. Author and speaker Brad Huddleston caught up with Neil Johnson to explain how social media and video games overstimulate the brain, and what we can do to fight this alarming trend.
In the first part of our feature, Huddleston described the signs and symptoms of internet addiction, and urged parents to feel empowered to keep their children safe. Today, he tells us why internet addiction isn’t currently medically recognised, and why South Korea is one of the first countries to acknowledge the problem.
On a recent tour of schools throughout Queensland, Huddleston found that teachers are becoming increasingly receptive to his warnings, because they’re struggling to keep their students focused on their work. He explained that this is because children’s brains are being overstimulated by technology, so that they can no longer receive pleasure from learning.
But one of the reasons Huddleston is here is because Australia logs more time with technology in the classroom than any other nation. Laura, a primary school teacher from Victoria, called into the show to describe her own experience.
‘We are encouraged so much to include more and more technology, iPads and any sort of smart device or interactive whiteboard use to try to hold kids’ attention. I didn’t like incorporating technology that much, but it was to try and fight against what they’re doing at home.’
Huddleston believes technology use in the classroom is contributing to the problem. It may normalise extensive internet use, so parents are less concerned by devices in the bedroom. But he says the education system is being forced to respond this way just to reach students.
‘You do get in the vicious cycle, where the kids come in with a wall in their brain, that is causing them to crave more and more dopamine. So that forces the teaches to have to compete with that by using edutainment and media.’
‘Pastors are telling me too, they have run the gambit of the fog machines and the lights and all the things that stimulate and use dopamine. And we’re running out of options now, because technology in the bedroom and the home has become so stimulating. Now we can’t compete, and the schools won’t be able to compete either.’
Huddleston is also disturbed by some schools teaching children how to write computer code from an early age. In his book The Dark Side of Technology, he describes a study teaching school-age students advanced programming skills. Though the children excelled at their work, they suffered unexpected consequences later in life.
‘When that cluster of studied kids got to be 16 and 17, most of them went into deep deep depressions, and they couldn’t get some of them out. So obviously what they had done is tampered with something in a developmental stage by stimulating too much, such that when that part of the brain was needed in a different developmental stage, it was messed up.’
‘I’m on dangerous ground here, because I’m going to draw this correlation with no evidence, but I’m just going to tell you, looking at that scares me, because the stimulation that we’re putting these underdeveloped adolescent brains under now is far far deeper and more stimulating than what they were putting those kids under back in I think the 70s and 80s.’
Some parents may assume that if these devices were so bad for us, surely the government would be warning us, and being more cautious about using them in the classroom. But Huddleston reminds us that there’s no government agency monitoring the brains of children.
Huddleston explains that internet addiction is currently not listed in a document called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorders (DSM5). Because that manual is relied on so heavily throughout the Western world, its authors update it infrequently and very cautiously. Until the DSM5 lists digital addiction as a disorder, most Doctors won’t make that diagnosis.
New research from Flinders University has recently called for digital addiction to be recognised as a clinical disorder, suggesting that when addicts don’t receive treatment, they can suffer enormous psychological strain and exhibit deviant behaviours which cause personal chaos.
For now though, despite the fact that extensive internet use can stimulate the same parts of the brain as alcohol or drugs, no one in Australia can currently be diagnosed as an internet addict.
But there is a place where digital addiction is widely diagnosed and treated. South Korea has more than 400 digital detox centres, and unlike Australia, students on average log only nine minutes of technology use per day. So why are they so much more cautious about technology? Huddleston says it’s because they’ve learnt some tough lessons.
South Korea has the fastest internet in the world, and they had it long before we did. Home internet speeds can be up to 10 gigabits per second, more than 100 times what most Australians can access. Like us, they embraced their new technology without fear or suspicion, but a few shocking incidents forced them to rethink their approach.
One young couple, while their baby slept in their apartment, would sneak down to the local internet café. And while they were actually playing a video game that required them to take care of a virtual baby, change its nappies and feed it, and you got points for looking after it, their own baby died of neglect and malnutrition.’
South Korea’s internet cafes, known colloquially as bangs, were extremely popular, and on weekends, teenagers would be playing online games for 72 hours straight, often without eating or drinking. One of these teenagers died after becoming so dehydrated that his heart stopped.
But it was what happened next which rocked the nation. As Huddleston described it, ‘The other gamers looked up, looked at the tape, looked at the body, and went back to gaming.’
These were only the most publicised examples of the many problems South Korea has seen in young addicts. One fifteen-year-old boy developed early onset dementia, after lifelong constant technology use damaged his long-term memory. Some gamers have also violently attacked people in real life, believing they were still playing.
They were one of the first to adopt this new technology. Now the South Korean government is perhaps the first to admit it may be harmful. They have introduced a night time curfew for their internet cafes, and opened more than 400 internet detox centres designed specifically to treat internet addiction.
As well as cutting back on technology in class, South Korea now has many ‘analogue only’ schools. These schools are also becoming more popular in the US, where executives in Silicon Valley’s tech industry are also recognising the dangers. He doesn’t agree with the philosophies of programs like Waldorf Steiner, nor the morals of some of those executives. But he does agree with Steiner’s emphasis on brain development.
Most experts agree that a child’s brain undergoes a development process, building habits and pathways which will affect their later life. ‘Those of us who study neuroscience know that screens are interrupting that process between zero and eleven,’ Huddleston said. ‘So the tech executives forbid their children to have technology at home and at school. And it’s not that they never give it to them, but they wait.’
The mainstream education system may eventually change its approach, but in the meantime, Huddleston says parents must take matters into their own hands. Alternative schools like Waldorf Steiner and Montessori are one option, and he hopes more of them will be built here. ‘I honestly believe it’s gotten so bad in some homes; those schools would fill up.’
In the US and in South Africa, parents are also home schooling their children in order to limit their technology use. Huddleston believes it’s a good idea, but he admits that our governments make home schooling unusually difficult.
‘For some reason here in Australia,’ he explained, ‘it’s deemed controversial to a lot of people. But I come from a land where it’s just norm. So I don’t get the controversy. To me it’s choice. That’s how you want to raise your children.’
Home schooling also helps parents protect children from other dangerous ideas and worrying social trends. ‘A lot of people want control of these children,’ And that’s another debate, but technology plays a big part of that, because that’s how they get their message through to the kids, while they’re under the roof of the parents. So home schooling is a great way to go.’
Thirty-six per cent of the Internet consists of pornography, and despite parents’ best efforts, children are being exposed to it. Andreia Tokaji, of the Porn Harms Kids campaign, told us that research proves that porn exposure has a very negative impact on a child’s moral and social development.
Huddleston describes pornography addiction as ‘a global crisis’. In his DVD series Porneia, he explains the neuroscience behind porn addiction, and offers practical strategies for parents. Named after a Greek term describing illicit sexual intercourse, the Porneia series has been astonishingly popular.
But it’s no wonder given the extent of the issue. Statistics published last year suggest that 95 per cent of sixteen-year-old boys had viewed pornography. ‘It’s not a men’s problem anymore,’ Huddleston added. ’80 per cent of the females are struggling.’
But in Australia, this issue is rarely discussed in church, because porn addicts are fearful and ashamed. Huddleston says that isn’t the case in churches of South Africa, where he often works and teaches. He believes those churches are so successful partly because they’re willing to tackle these tough topics.
‘They have me preach on this on Sunday mornings. And the churches are massive. And it’s because, I believe, God can trust them to deal with it, and if people leave, they leave.’
‘They trust Jesus to build a church,’ Huddleston continued. ‘What we do is we use our own psychology, and we do everything we can to lock the doors to keep them from leaving, and make them comfortable, and use political correctness.’
‘And I’m not judging anybody. I’m just calling it as a referee would call it. And what I’m saying is we have to love these people enough to address it, and offer them hope and redemption.’
Whether it’s video games, social media or pornography, all the research tells us the digital habits our children are learning are probably bad for them. Clearly, Australia’s attitude to technology needs to change, as South Korea’s already has.
But change usually only arrives when a lot of people demand it. The change must begin with parents, so the most valuable thing we can do is try to make other parents aware of the issue. An anonymous caller asked Huddleston how to address this challenge. ‘How would you suggest us reach other parents who are not on-board with the same ideas that we have?’
‘What I have recommended that you do,’ Huddleston replied, ‘is lay a groundwork of two weeks of prayer. Don’t make that a little Sunday school thing. Prayer works. It really softens peoples’ hearts.’
After that, he suggests you begin showing people his Digital Cocaine DVD, which explains digital addiction and its effects, and much more. ‘Invite them over to your house. Fix them coffee. Love them to bits. And then show that DVD, and let me be the bad guy, because I’m not in town.’
He recommends intimate meetings in a casual setting, to encourage discussion. He also says we should ask everyone to turn off their phones, because the Devil will make sure they’ll all ring. ‘So lay two weeks of prayer, have a meeting in your home, and just start with two or three parents at a time.’
Another caller, a mother of four, felt overwhelmed by the idea of advocating for her children without Huddleston’s qualifications. But Huddleston said she was qualified enough just by being a parent. He also reminds us that speaking up can make a difference. ‘I speak in Microsoft showcases,’ he said, ‘but that wasn’t always the case. It took parents to march into the principals’ office and say he will speak here.’
‘So parents wield a lot of power,’ he said. ‘You don’t need degrees to let your voice be heard and to make change. Just be sweet, but be powerful.’
Brad Huddleston’s Digital Cocaine DVD is available in the Vision Store, along with several other of his books and DVDs. He has also told us much more about some of today’s topics, including pornography, gaming, and how to be an ‘overcomer’ in this digital age.
You can read Digital Addiction in Children, Part 1 here