If iPads, smartphones, and screens seem like drugs for kids, it’s because they have a lot in common with uppers when it comes to a child’s developing brain. Screen time, sugar, and reward all flood kids’ brains with dopamine, the same feel-good chemical released when people do cocaine or see that someone liked their Instagram post. Dopamine feedback loops are an area of increasingly intense concern as scientists grapple with the biological consequences and causes of digital actions. Is dopamine addictive in the purest sense of that term? Not exactly. Dopamine drives and reinforces habits without creating a biological need. But habits matter, especially for kids.
Scientists cannot say for sure that increased dopamine uptake during childhood increases the risk of substance abuse in adulthood. However, psychologists are learning that the dopamine from screens is impairing children’s impulse control, increasing the demand for instant gratification, and causing more kids to try and “swipe” real pictures and punch books as if they’re touch-screens.
“The brain works on a use it or lose it principle,” she says.“Unless we are intentionally creating opportunities for focus, for delay of gratification, and for boredom, the portions of the brain that regulate these functions have the potential to show less robust, and possibly even diminished, function.”