When Using Digital Devices Becomes an Addiction


In the hit Pixar movie Inside Out, a character sorts through memories like books in a library; discarding the memories deemed no longer useful. One memory in particular – phone numbers – is thrown into a pit, lost for good. Why? Because in today’s world, phone numbers are stored in our digital devices, no longer committed to memory.

The moment in the movie is comical but illustrates the world we live in today. Students, in particular, have come of age in a society where digital is the norm. Computer screens and Internet searches are as common as letterhead and postage stamps were before binary code clouded our vision. Research findings from Common Sense Media show media use of 8- to 12-year-olds is now more than six hours per day. And a Pew Research study found a quarter of teenagers are online almost constantly. In addition, among 12- to 17-year-olds, texting has become the primary means of communication, outpacing human contact. The trends continue for young adults as they enter into higher education. So long, analog, we barely knew you. Though the transition to a digital world fell at the snap of a finger, with it brought new benefits and challenges for students and their parents across the country.

The benefits of a migration to a digital space are two-fold: students see their social lives broaden while parents of students see it as direct communication, or a way of keeping a watchful eye on their burgeoning youth. Before cellphones, how did parents know their child snuck out to see that forbidden band or watch that R-rated movie? Now with a cellphone on the hip of every student, parents see a direct link to knowing the whereabouts of their children on any given day. The research I completed at the University of San Diego indicated that college-aged girls will talk to their mothers as much as seven times a day while college-aged boys are much more reluctant to call. Either way, families are growing accustomed to their student having a phone – it’s a safety net, a personal GPS for their young adults’ location. Ask any parent and they’ll tell you they view that as comfort. But is it? As an interventionist, I have learned that the phone can be a direct dial to more nefarious goings-on—a call to the local drug dealer, fast line to sketchy Internet sites, and direct dial to places we would rather not have our young adults go.

On the plus side, the benefits of a steady digital presence go beyond the parents and can have a direct impact on the student engaging with digital devices. Jim Taylor, Ph.D., recently commented on the affects of digital media on young adults in Psychology Today, claiming, “research shows, for example, video games and other screen media improve visual-spatial capabilities, increase attention ability, reaction times, and the capacity to identify details among clutter.” As such, we’re seeing the different ways young adults are adapting to the digitally saturated environment they were raised in. Like the example in the opening, students today won’t memorize phone numbers; rather, they access them with their digital devices. This is a much different approach children and young adults are taking than when their parents were growing up. Taylor continues, “It only stands to reason that knowing where to look is becoming more important than actually knowing something. But how does this shift from knowing to engaging change the way young adults learn and grow?” Not having to retain information in our brain may allow us to engage in more “higher-order” processing, such as contemplation, critical thinking, and problem solving.” So the digital space and the devices that allow us to engage in it may be seen simply as tools. And it has become incumbent upon young adults to possess the knowledge to use these tools to succeed in society.

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