• Teen uses a mobile phone. (Getty)Source: Getty
"Empathy development might be hindered in a teenager because we learn empathy when we see the consequences of our actions. When you’re writing hurtful things from the couch at home, you’re not seeing that.”
By
Sharon Verghis

20 Apr 2021 - 8:26 AM  UPDATED 21 Apr 2021 - 8:43 AM

Suffering separation anxiety from your smartphone? Experience a Pavlovian reflex when you hear that sweet ping of a push notification? Whiled away a whole weekend down various electronic rabbit holes? You're not alone.

In SBS On Demand’s interactive documentary Are You Addicted to Technology?, you can discover exactly how much a slave you are to your screens based on the largest ever interactive survey of everyday Australians.

The show has a blunt message for parents: from cyberbullying to declining literacy and attention spans to decreasing levels of empathy, sleep issues and depression and anxiety, our children’s brains are being rewired by the insidious spread of technology into their every waking moment.

The ubiquity of smart phones is almost at saturation point, says Dr Sharon Horwood, a lecturer in Deakin University’s School of Psychology, who helped developed the interactive survey used in the show to measure  use of technology and levels of screen dependence. 

Over 94 per cent of teenagers, 67 per cent of primary school students, a third of pre-schoolers and 17 per cent of infants and toddlers have one or more of their own personal mobile screen-based devices such as a smartphone or tablet.

Last year, Dr Horwood was lead researcher in a world-first study of 500 Victorian university students that confirmed that problematic smartphone use is associated with lower subjective wellbeing, including a lack of control, sense of purpose and ability to resist social pressure.

Problematic smartphone use is associated with lower subjective wellbeing, including a lack of control, sense of purpose and ability to resist social pressure.

The show also explores the tricks big tech uses to keep users online, how they leverage brain chemistry to manipulate behaviour, and how addiction is the new business model in that most lucrative of emerging markets, the attention economy.

Some screen time has a positive effect, particularly if it involves direct communication with a friend or loved one, she says.

Particularly detrimental to a sense of wellbeing? Entertainment-based screen use: “people using their phone passively to scroll social media, You Tube videos, things like that, which are not necessarily a good use of their time. Suddenly, you find you’ve wasted an hour. We’ve all been here.”

One of the most interesting segments in the show is when researchers take participants’ devices away, and send text messages to their phones while measuring levels of the stress hormone cortisol as they do a memory test. As each ping and beep goes unanswered, stress hormones increase and memory function declines.

It reminded Dr Horwood of the famous Stanford marshmallow test led by Walter Mischel in 1972 which found that a simple delay of gratification in a child could predict future achievement in school and life. “We are becoming more and more like little kids who couldn’t wait 15 minutes to get that second marshmallow."

Like the pigeons in B.F. Skinner’s famous operant conditioning test, pecking buttons for food rewards, we are hooked on pecking at keys for virtual treats – a like, a smiley emoji, a thumb’s up.

Like the pigeons in B.F. Skinner’s famous operant conditioning test pecking buttons for food rewards, we are hooked on pecking at keys for virtual treats – a like, a smiley emoji, a thumb’s up.

Casinos were the first to use operant conditioning; the Internet soon followed. Cognitive neuroscientists have found that positive social media stimuli gives us a dopamine hit similar to cocaine, working on the same neural pathways, she says.

For Dr Horwood, one of the more disturbing findings featured in the program is an apparent decline in levels of empathy among Australian students linked to tech use, tracked in a study by the Gonski Institute of 1876 Australian schoolteachers.

Are we producing a generation of tech-obsessed sociopaths? Dr Horwood, who is currently researching the “surprisingly high” use of screens in toddlers, says only a comprehensive longitudinal study can answer that.

“But there is a good theoretical reason to think that perhaps empathy development might be hindered in a teenager because we learn empathy when we see the consequences of our actions. When you’re writing hurtful things from the couch at home, you’re not seeing that.”

You can watch Are You Addicted To Technology?  from April 21 on SBS On Demand. iOS & tvOS apps only. Update or download the latest app version. Minimum requirement OS 13.5.  

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