Miles is a first-time counselor at a sleepaway camp in the eastern United States. He had seen an online ad for the camp at which I met him and decided that a summer away from his Midwest town working with children would do him a lot of good. It would give him both a change of scenery and a sense of purpose — and would add to his résumé as an aspiring Recreation Education major at Kansas State University. The orientation at camp had really inspired him. The camp leaders kept talking about making a difference in the lives of the children. The takeaway for Miles was that, while camp was certainly fun and filled with great activities, the “real work” of camp was helping the campers grow and develop character in a safe environment away from their parents. Miles began his first camp session filled with high hopes and promise.
The reality he encountered in the first week of camp threw him for a loop. The boys constantly bickered with one another, had trouble sharing space in the cabin, and picked on one another almost without remorse. There was a camper with such high anxiety that he constantly asked questions to the point where it irritated his counselors. A boy with ADHD was so impulsive that he put everyone on edge. And then there was the kid who was just plain slow and disorganized in everything he did. It wasn’t long before Miles was disillusioned with his ability to have a lasting, positive impact on his campers. By the time I caught up with him, Miles was demoralized and thinking of quitting. In my talk with him, two things became clear immediately: First, his expectations, while admirable, were so lofty that whatever he achieved with his campers was likely to fall short; furthermore, he had very little patience with himself or with the process of forming deeper relationships with his boys.
Miles represents the plight of a lot of camp staff who have grown up with smartphones, the Internet, and social media. You might rightly say that every generation of young adults has shown idealistic tendencies in their thoughts about making a difference in the world, and I would agree with you. However, I believe there are certain specific qualities of constant exposure to screens, the Internet, and social media that are exacerbating those idealistic tendencies in ways that are making it hard for young adults to thrive in the real world. To understand this better, let’s start with something very basic — the human brain.
How Smartphones and Social Media Make Us Want More
Every time we get a text, a tweet, a post, or other electronic notification on our smartphone, tablet, or computer screen, we get a little squirt of something in our brains called dopamine (Weinschenk, 2012; Sinek, 2016). Dopamine is the neurotransmitter in our brains that until recently was associated with the pleasure-reward cycle. Recent research is changing this view. It now appears that the opioid system is involved in experiencing pleasure, and the dopamine system propels us into what is called “seeking behavior.”
That is, dopamine drives us to seek out and search for objects or experiences that fulfill our sense of wanting. It increases our general level of arousal and our goal-directed behavior. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is critical. The dopamine-seeking system keeps us motivated to move through our world, learn, and survive. Furthermore, dopamine doesn’t just cause us to seek physical needs like food or sex; it also makes us curious about ideas and fuels our search for information. It also turns out that the dopamine pleasure-seeking system is much more powerful than the opioid pleasure-experiencing system. In other words, anticipating a reward (dopamine) is more powerful than actually achieving that reward (opioid system) and experiencing the payoff (Weinschenk, 2012; Berridge and Robinson, 1998). This explains why people often report instances when they have looked forward to something (a meal, a vacation, a treat, a connection) only to discover that the actual experience isn’t as satisfying as they had hoped.
What does this have to do with smart-phones, social media, and the Internet? The thing about dopamine is that it is highly addictive. With the Internet, Twitter, and texting, you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and he or she responds in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type your request into Google. Want to see what your friends are up to? Go to social media. Want a cup of coffee? Order on an app ahead of time and have it waiting for you — fully paid for — when you arrive. Need a ride? Tap Uber or Lift. Want to see a movie? You don’t have to check theater and movie times; just go online and stream one — whenever you want. Want an article of clothing or food? Get it delivered overnight or even that afternoon. Need an airline ticket or a place to stay in another city or town? Book it online and be there tomorrow. It’s easy to get into a dopamine-induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, texting, or checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text (Weinschenk, 2012; Sinek, 2016).
The addictive quality of smartphones is so pervasive that researchers have ascertained the average smartphone user looks at his or her phone an average of 86 times a day (Ward, 2017). A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center found that 24 percent of teenagers ages 13 to 17 reported being online “almost constantly,” and 73 percent had a smartphone or access to one (Richtel, 2017). As David Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction says in an article in Psychology Today, “People are carrying around a portable dopamine pump, and kids have basically been carrying it around for the last ten years (Richtel, 2017).”
In my work with camp staff over the past several years, I have seen how access to the ubiquitous, always-on “dopamine source” that social media, the Internet, and smartphones provide has affected several aspects of their functioning at camp, two of which I want to focus on here. One is interpersonal skill and the other is patience.
We live surrounded by mobile technology that entices, informs, and engages us in constant communication. Yet, ironically, with all the exquisite ways that we have to be connected to one another through posts, texts, tweets, and emails, there is a hunger in children and adolescents for a deeper personal connection that isn’t satisfied by electronics. In her popular article, “The Flight from Conversation,” Sherr y Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT who has been studying the effects of mobile technology for the last 15 years, says it simply: “We have sacrificed conversation for mere (electronic) connection” (Turkle, 2012).
I suspect we have all seen adolescents walking or hanging out together, each with their own mobile device, absorbed in a world that is anywhere but where they actually are. Couples and friends go to dinner and are seen checking email, texts, posts, and tweets, rather than talking to one another. As Turkle says, “We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being ‘alone together.’ Technology enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be.” It would seem that in this modern age what we value most is control over where we focus or place our attention, even if that means “not here” (Turkle, 2012).
Skyping, texting, and tweeting simply do not create the habits of emotional intelligence — recognizing facial expressions, being aware of the nuance in another person’s look, and responding in real time to those cues that face-to-face encounters supply (Klorer, 2012; Sinek, 2016). Two teens can spend an entire afternoon together, each looking at a screen, and never once looking at one another. We know the average teenage boy in the US plays 16 hours of video games a week. By the time a boy is 21, he will have played over 10,000 hours of video games. Compare that to the 4,800 hours of study and class time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. Teenage boys currently watch an average of 50 online clips of pornography a week (Zimbardo & Duncan, 2012). How much deep, meaningful, character-building conversation do we think is going on for boys in activities like these?
Contrast this further to the fact that boys spend on average one hour a week of interactive, quality time with their fathers. As psychologist Philip Zimbardo says in sounding the alarm, “Boys don’t know the language of face contact — the nonverbal and verbal set of rules that enable you to talk comfortably with another person” (Zimbardo & Duncan, 2012) — because that language is not taught through video games and smartphones. When that boy turns 19 and joins your camp as a counselor, what can we expect of him when it comes to engaging in meaningful ways with his campers?
The dopamine produced by unfettered access to devices like smartphones and tablets creates a kind of numbing effect among habitual users. We know that deep, meaningful relationships take time, patience, and skill. Once we have a friend or a mentor, that relationship needs nurturing and ongoing work to maintain the trust, openness, and flexibility that relationships require. Said another way, we all constantly need to practice the skill set of relationships to get the benefits. In a world where we turn to a device or social media when we experience significant stress, what we are doing instead is practicing the skill set of technological connection. Technical connection does not sustain most people in times of real need (Sinek, 2016).
I have met many talented and well-meaning young people who want to do meaningful work in the world — people who are well-suited to be camp counselors, like Miles. The challenge is that their idealism does not match their ability to wait, to delay gratification, or to be patient, because the technological world they have grown up in does not promote these qualities. My first response to Miles was to acknowledge his wonderful intention to do good in the world of camp with his campers. Then I pointed out that he needed to develop patience and some strategies for lasting through the slow process of making deeper connections to his kids. Taking a “walk-and-talk” with some of them; playing games with them during rest hour and other down times in the program; and getting support from his peers and supervisors would help him hang in there.
And sometimes that is what we do — hang in there!
Berridge, K.C., & Robinson, T.E. (1998, December 28). What is the role of dopamine in reward: Hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?” Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309–369.
Klorer, P.G. (2012). The effects of technological overload on children: An art therapist’s perspective. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 26 (2), pp. 80–82.
Richtel, M. (2017, March 13). Are teenagers replacing drugs with smartphones? The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2017/03/13/health/teenagers-drugs-smartphones.html
Sinek, S. (2016, November). Millennials in the workplace. Retrieved from youtube.com/results?search_query=simon+sinek+millennials+video
Soojung-Kim Pang, A. (2013). The distraction addiction.
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Sullivan, A. (2016, September 18). I used to be a human being. New York Magazine. Retrieved from nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html
Turkle, S. (2012, April 22) The flight from conversation. The New York Times Sunday Review. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html
Ward, A., et al. (2017, April 3). Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. Retrieved from journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/691462
Weinschenk, S. (2012, September 11). Why we are all addicted to texts, Twitter, and Google,” Psychology Today. Retrieved from psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-wise/201209/why-were-all-addicted-texts-twitter-and-google
Zimbardo, P., & Duncan, N. (2012) The demise of guys: Why boys are struggling and what we can do about it. TED Books.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.