What does being constantly online do to our brain? TheJournal.ie

COLIN O’GARA has been treating drug addicts for over two decades.

The consultant psychiatrist began his career focusing on alcohol and drug use, but finds that an increasing number of patients are now presenting with new problems. The common denominator in many cases is the Internet – a phone or laptop that serves as a gateway to compulsive gambling, shopping, exercise or pornography.

O’Gara, who runs addictions services at St John of God’s Hospital, says such online behaviors have only become a serious concern in recent years. “The problem is normally related to the hours spent on a device. It usually involves someone withdrawing from other activities,” he said. The newspaper.

The internet often only facilitates other problems, but in some cases people are simply unable to stay offline. This is a particular challenge for young people who have grown up around screens. Smartphones have become “the hypodermic needle of modern times” for a wired generation, as Stanford professor Anna Lembke has written. One study has suggested that some even feel a closer sense of camaraderie with their phone than their roommates or co-workers.

Experts disagree on whether internet use can be considered an addiction, but our digital habits often border on obsession. Recent Irish research has shown that men look at their phones an average of 49 times a day and women 59 times a day. Deloitte Ireland’s 2021 Digital Consumer Trends report also found that more than a third of people – and more than half of 18-24 year olds – check their phone within five minutes of waking up.

Like most of us, Hilda Burke has felt the pull of online distractions. The London-based Irish psychotherapist started pinning down tech-free zones when she noticed how often she was reaching for her device throughout the day. At first she left her phone at home when she went for walks, and now she turns off her mobile data every Sunday.

As a couples therapist, Burke knows that smartphone addiction doesn’t just affect the individual. “It has a really negative impact on a lot of people’s privacy,” she says. “A partner would usually be frustrated that the other person isn’t paying their full attention, but you also get couples who admit they both spend way too much time on their phones.”

She points out that digital technologies are actually designed to be addictive, with every like, share and comment providing a new burst of dopamine. “A lot of the tech brain power is focused on making apps stickier. There are people who get huge salaries for finding ways to steal our time and attention.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many feel the need to be always “on”, meaning always available to answer an email or keep up to date with developments. “It can be difficult to set boundaries as an employee, especially if you work with people in different time zones,” she says. “I had a client who woke up at 3 a.m. to check if her boss in New York had sent something.”

A change

So when might a change be needed? “It becomes problematic when it gets in the way of you taking care of yourself, whether it’s getting enough exercise or getting enough fresh air, or just doing restorative things in general.”

Burke acknowledges that a total digital detox isn’t usually a realistic solution, but she says there are plenty of simple ways to resist compulsive phone checking. One tactic suggested in his book The Phone Addiction Workbook is “waiting training”, which involves gradually increasing the time spent away from digital devices. “I think the best approach is to start small and slowly build that muscle. People with heavy usage won’t be able to immediately turn off their phone for an entire day.”

Child and adolescent psychotherapist Colman Noctor has seen the internet wreak havoc on the mental health of many young people. “Someone may have depression or anxiety, but it’s only after you find out that most of the difficulties come from online communication. This could be due to being banned from a Snapchat or WhatsApp group, or even just seeing friends meeting up without you.

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Noctor says the evidence on the cognitive effects of being online is not yet conclusive, but he worries about the changing trajectory of child development. “There are kids who can surf online and play Minecraft from start to finish, but may not be able to ride a bike or tie their shoelaces.”

The internet provides a space for friendship and connection, but Noctor stresses that it does not replace the lessons of real-life interaction. “We can add things up on a calculator or use a spell checker, but there’s no shortcut to emotional development in terms of managing relationships, dealing with disappointments, dealing with failures. There is no app for these things.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant program from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are those of the author. The European Parliament has no involvement or responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information see here.

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