Today’s teens are ‘wired and tired,’ but not wasted

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum - This ed­i­to­rial orig­i­nally ap­peared in The Dal­las Morn­ing News.

What if be­ing stupid over smart­phones ac­tu­ally shields teenagers from drug and al­co­hol use?

That’s the in­trigu­ing sup­po­si­tion out of a just-re­leased sur­vey by the Na­tional In­sti­tute on Drug Abuse. And isn’t it about time that our much-ma­ligned mo­bile de­vices — sup­pos­edly im­bued with the power to make dig­i­tal robots of us all — caught a break?

That goes dou­ble for their teenage users.

Amer­i­can teens have been rid­ing a 10-year trend of re­duced ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with drugs and al­co­hol. That’s the same decade that put smart­phones and so­cial me­dia ac­counts into the hands of most young peo­ple.

Co­in­ci­dence? Re­searchers don’t think so.

As first re­ported re­cently by The New York Times’ Matt Rich­tel, ex­perts sus­pect there’s some sym­me­try in dig­i­tal-first teens kick­ing drugs to the curb. They sug­gest that many young folks are no longer look­ing to il­le­gal sub­stances for thrills and en­ter­tain­ment be­cause their in­ter­ac­tive world plays to sim­i­lar im­pulses, in­clud­ing sen­sa­tion-seek­ing and the de­sire for in­de­pen­dence.

Today’s teens can’t re­call a world with­out smart­phones, yet the de­vices haven’t been around long enough to al­low re­searchers to un­der­stand their im­pact on the brain. So as part of its an­nual Mon­i­tor­ing Abuse study, the in­sti­tute will gather ex­perts next month to dig even deeper into the topic.

One as­sis­tant clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try, David Green­field at the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut School of Medicine, said that in the hands of a teen the ubiq­ui­tous smart­phone is “a por­ta­ble dopamine pump.”

For sure, a mo­bile de­vice can prove to be a use­ful prop — an op­tion or a dis­trac­tion from more reck­less ac­tiv­i­ties such as drugs. As one 17-year-old ex­plained it to The Times re­porter:

The phone pro­vides a valu­able tool for peo­ple at par­ties who don’t want to do drugs be­cause “you can sit around and look like you’re do­ing some­thing, even if you’re not do­ing some­thing, like just surf­ing the web.”

Re­gret­tably, if the teens’ in­ter­net-over-drugs bent is real, it also seems short-lived. While drug use has fallen among youths ages 12 to 17, it hasn’t de­clined among col­lege stu­dents.

And dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy can do its own share of dam­age to phys­i­cal and men­tal health, whether in the form of deadly tex­ting be­hind the wheel or the 24-7 ham­ster wheel of “wired and tired.”

While we’ve never en­coun­tered an ac­tual teen iPhone zom­bie, the de­vices can re­duce fo­cus and mess with young peo­ple’s sleep pat­terns. They also are a tool cred­ited with help­ing stu­dents adapt to a chang­ing world and mak­ing real so­cial con­nec­tions.

And if smart­phones oc­cupy time that other­wise would be spent on par­ty­ing, that’s prob­a­bly a good thing as well.

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