Protecting Children from Device Addiction


Written by Marcy Axness, PhD |  NewEarth University Faculty, School of Health & Wellness

My book Parenting for Peace came out in 2012, the same year as the device “tipping-point”— when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. Six years out, there’s growing buzz about unanticipated downsides of our digital dependence. (A sample: psychologist Jean Twenge’s Atlantic Monthly cover article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”). One of the most troubling issues parents need to be aware of is how these handheld wonders impact our neurochemistry and rewire our brains, tipping them toward device addiction.

Brain Hacking: Engineering Your Device Addiction

Here’s what 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper discovered in a segment titled “Brain Hacking,” for which he interviewed tech insiders:

[Former Google product manager] Tristan Harris: There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible. They are programming people. There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true.


Anderson Cooper: You call this a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” It’s a race to the most primitive emotions we have? Fear, anxiety, loneliness, all these things?

Tristan Harris: Absolutely. And that’s again because in the race for attention I have to do whatever works. It absolutely wants one thing, which is your attention.


Anderson Cooper: Do you think parents understand the complexities of what their kids are dealing with, when they’re dealing with their phone, dealing with apps and social media?

Tristan Harris: No. And I think this is really important. Because there’s a narrative that, “Oh, I guess they’re just doing this like we used to gossip on the phone,” but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive. That was not true in the 1970s.


Ramsay Brown, cofounder of Dopamine Labs: You don’t pay for Facebook. Advertisers pay for Facebook. You get to use it for free because your eyeballs are what’s being sold there.

Anderson Cooper: You’re almost saying it like there’s an addiction code.

Ramsay Brown: Yeah, that is the case. That since we’ve figured out, to some extent, how these pieces of the brain that handle addiction are working, people have figured out how to juice them further and how to bake that information into apps.

Tinkering with Social Intelligence

My main concern is the effect of digital dependence upon social intelligence. You see, fostering robust development of the brain circuitry responsible for social intelligence is a key focus of Parenting for Peace. Self-regulation and inner mastery are key themes in this endeavor of raising a generation of peacemakers, and yet the more research that rolls in, the clearer it becomes that device addiction works directly against these key traits: it fosters impatience and impulsivity instead.

From where we sit in today’s volatile world aswirl in disasters both natural and manmade, these words from the early pages of my book are chillingly relevant:

Many fields of research tend to affirm that we humans are indeed at a crucial moment in our evolution, and our survival is going to depend upon our realizing, deeply, that our true security is rooted in connectedness, in our relationships, in healthy interdependence with our fellow humans and with our natural environment.

We are designed — right down to our neurobiology! — to be in close contact with other humans, and to our natural world… and yet our most coveted technological wonders… these tiny devices barely larger than a deck of cards… are undermining our natural instincts and even our ability to be with others or in nature.

The quiet pleasures of the natural world and the slow pace of unmediated, tech-free human conversation have been eclipsed for many by the whiz-bang instantly-gratifying stimulation — and the accompanying dopamine — provided by the accelerated, exaggerated intensity of online engagement. Before long, nothing else will do. But the cruel irony, as mounting mental health statistics illustrate, is that these preferred “new and improved” interactional pastimes leave our instinctual need for interaction unmet. And we suffer.

Protect Your Kids By Cultivating Your Own Digital Mastery

One big challenge for parents is that everywhere we look, device addiction is modeled, encouraged and abetted. Images like this one, normalizing a family completely entranced by screens — a screen for each person — surround us!

Our digital devices have the power to influence the circuitry of our brains—and our children’s developing brains–if we allow it to happen. Remember the classic toddler mantra, “You’re not the boss of me!”? If not for yourself, parents, then for the sake of your children’s deep, lifelong wellbeing, I encourage you to embody the spirit of that declaration when it comes to your own digital dependence.

Remember: as parents, as teachers, as adults to whom children look as their models of how to be, we have POWER! The same neurobiological design that wants us to be in connection with other humans made it so that the most potent means of learning is through watching the example of elders.

My dear colleague and NEU faculty member Laura Uplinger reminds us of how this awareness – of our potent power as their models – might inform our digital dependence and inspire mastery over our choices:

It’s Simple to Start Protecting Them Now

At the end of her sobering Atlantic Monthly article about how smartphones are (mostly negatively) affecting today’s young generation, psychologist Jean Twenge ends with a reassuring fact together with a simple prescription: “Significant effects on both mental health and sleep time appear after two or more hours a day on electronic devices. The average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices. Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits.”

A simple yet effective way to begin some “mild boundary-setting” is with these 2 great guidelines for digital mastery.

Start there. Start anywhere.



Mom & daughter photo by London Scout on Unsplash
Family on devices from Earthlink webmail


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