Addiction and the adolescent brain

DAVID GILLESPIE explains that, due to major changes in their brains, adolescents are particularly susceptible to addiction, and yet they have 24/7 access to highly addictive software that exploits this vulnerability. By KATE BARBER.

Since the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, our kids have been able to move through cyberspace with little restriction and with next-to-no effort, says David. Gen Z (born from the late 1990s until about now) is the first generation to have portable digital devices with them at all times, and these devices, says David, are “carriers” for “a subclass of software designed specifically to exploit teenagers’ susceptibility to addiction”. 

The teenage brain
The human brain goes through a period of major construction during the teenage years, as adolescents experiment and explore and “learn to be adults”, explains David. Integral to this phase of neurodevelopment is a delicate reward system, which “reinforces behaviours that promote the survival of our species,” but which so easily gets “out of whack” during adolescence. 

Two key players in this system are the chemical messengers dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is what David calls our “go-juice” or “motivation drug”, because it converts sensory input into desire for something. Serotonin is our “reward”, our “chill pill” – we get it once the desire is satisfied. He explains that, “once we start consuming the thing we were chasing, our serotonin levels go up. This, in turn, increases the levels of a dopamine suppressor called GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid)…. GABA dials down the stimulating effect of the dopamine and allows serotonin to make us feel calm and connected.” 

Bring on adolescence. For puberty to start, GABA (which suppresses dopamine) is significantly reduced. “On low GABA, as in puberty, we act on impulse, make poor decisions and overreact,” says David. Driven by desires, teens aren’t exercising self-restraint or weighing up consequences.

Both girls and boys are operating in a state of reduced impulse control, but this is “massively magnified” for boys when you consider the huge increases in their testosterone, he says.  At the same time, oxytocin (the chemical released when people bond with others) is at play. Big time. As David explains, “adolescence is a phase when the addictive power of oxytocin is magnified enormously” and girls are “extremely sensitive” to its charms. 

Addiction occurs when this delicate reward system malfunctions: “when there is no energy cost but a strong desire for something – so we keep stimulating dopamine with no effort”. Effectively we flood our system with dopamine and are less able to satisfy this with serotonin, and we become addicted to whatever is producing the dopamine hit, he explains.

David emphasises that “we don’t actually need to consume something to begin desiring it. We receive a dopamine surge from simulations of rewarding behaviour.” He explains that, just as porn is a dopamine-inducing simulation of sex, computer games and gambling simulate danger, and shopping and social media simulate being liked by others. Yes, your teen can become addicted to being “liked”, says David – in fact they may be already.

Gender plays a critical part in determining what your child might get addicted to, he says. Teenage boys – who have reduced self-control and whose testosterone levels are at an all-time high – are particularly susceptible to what David calls “Danger Porn”, in the form of computer games like Fortnite. While players aren’t really shooting others, their brains respond as if they are, David explains, and their dopamine levels rise along with their adrenaline and cortisol.

Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to fall prey to what David calls “Approval Porn”: their “sensitivity [to oxytocin] is dialled up to the ‘maximum’, making them desperate for the approval of others and extraordinarily vulnerable to technologies that exploit that need.” It’s so easy to “farm the likes” on Facebook and Instagram, he says: with each new “like” – to a story or photo – your social-interaction system starts salivating in anticipation of the oxytocin reward. 

What parents can (and must) do
Having discussed the neurological changes going on for teenagers, and exposed the “malicious code” of software exploiting their vulnerability to addiction, David talks about what parents can and must do to protect their kids from addiction, especially to electronic devices. “Because addiction significantly increases the likelihood that a child will be anxious and depressed, it’s vital to manage access to substances and behaviours that are potentially addictive during this phase.” David is emphatic on this point.

“I am not offering a complete solution,” he says, “but, however you do it, you must minimise the harm”. This starts by managing access to devices in the home, which has implications for the whole family (not just your teens). Limiting or denying kids access to their screens is a massive challenge, and David warns parents that this “won’t be pretty. Expect a lot of teenage sneakiness, tantruming and outright deception.”

He says there need to be “clear, reasonable and unambiguous” rules (and consequences) regarding device usage: these may be used for homework only, in a public place where parents can see the screen at all times, for example. Along with rules covering other addictive substances and behaviours, dangerous activities, relationships and sleep (it’s all in his book). 

One solution he offers is “ye olde flip phone”, which cannot connect with the Internet, and isn’t addictive. This is what his kids have, and they are not missing out, he says. “They miss this second’s meme, and the next one. But if it’s really important, someone tells them. Social status doesn’t depend on someone being on Snapchat.” 

As David says, “dopamine buttons [devices] are massive time sinks,” and kids (and parents!) find themselves with so much time for other things when the temptation is eliminated.

“Teens are wired, biochemically, to seek out new, rewarding experiences,” says David. The problem is that “their sensitivity to rewards has been massively amplified and their impulse control has been turned off”.