Screen Time and Content Might Increase Youth’s Risk to Future Substance Abuse, Part I

by Elena Vidrascu, MSc

JPHMP presents Preventing America’s Next Drug Epidemic: A Multidisciplinary Approach, a new series designed to introduce the many facets of substance abuse, and how integrating the work of multiple partners may be the best approach towards prevention and treatment.

Are we inadvertently increasing our children’s risk to drug and alcohol addiction later in life? Join me today as I look at whether and how screen time and media content impacts the developing minds of youngsters growing up in the digital age. In this two-part series, I examine the potential consequences and correlations of screen time, attention, and substance abuse. Next time, I’ll talk with Dr. Melissa Cox, assistant professor at East Carolina University, to discuss media influences and substance use, and what parents can do to intervene.

Listen to the audio or read the transcript below. When you’re finished, be sure to leave me a comment. What’s your take on this subject?


Welcome to this two-part podcast looking at whether screen time and media content may be inadvertently increasing the risk of children and adolescents to future substance abuse.

In this episode, I will make some connections between screen time, attention, and substance use. Next time, I will be joined by Dr. Melissa Cox, assistant professor at East Carolina University, to discuss media influences and substance use, and what parents can do to intervene.


Currently, among all 8- to 18-year olds, the average amount of time spent in front of a screen, whether that is TV, video games, or a computer, is over 7 1/2 hours in a typical day. That is as much as some adults spend at work! Technology, in moderation, is great for educating kids and giving them certain skills. But when it takes away time from interacting with friends and family, from exercising and spending time outdoors, this is similar to what a drug does when abused. In a previous post, I talked about social connections and how individuals struggling with substance abuse have impairments in social skills and processing social interactions as rewarding. Development of the front part of the brain during early childhood is critical for honing communication skills, and by allowing our children to use technology for hours every day, we are inhibiting face-to-face interactions and instead reinforcing the ease of communicating through use of technology. This use can become addictive. Using technology can increase levels of dopamine in the brain, which is the same feel-good pleasure chemical released when taking drugs like cocaine. Studies have shown that people addicted to the internet or gaming suffer deficits in their brain regions important for decision making, organizing, planning, and impulse control, which are similar dysfunctions experienced by people struggling with drug addiction. Even those who have only a few hours of screen time per day may be troubled, to some extent, by the same cognitive impairments.

Excess screen time for anyone at any age is not healthy, but it is of even greater concern with youth and young adults, given that the front part of the brain is the last to fully develop, and regions here are responsible for cognitive functions like attention. People are skeptical as to whether there’s a negative link between technology habits and cognitive function. The ability to shift and divide our attention may increase multitasking, but shorter attention spans may drive that need for immediate gratification when ongoing goal-directed activities are not perceived as rewarding. Increased media multitasking may make us less able to filter distracting environmental stimuli, such as people having a conversation nearby, when completing a task.

The connection between screen time and attention deficits reminds me of a theory that suggests that addiction is a disease of self-control. Research has shown that limitations on attention can lead to loss of self-control. Individuals struggling with substance use disorder have impairments in brain regions responsible for exerting control over thoughts, feelings, and actions, and sustaining attention. For example, let us think about people struggling with cocaine use disorder, which is the only type of drug addiction without any FDA-approved medication for treatment. It is so difficult for these individuals to maintain sobriety, with the inability to ignore certain internal and external cues, which triggers the user to seek that drug and fall back into old patterns. Think of a time you might have been stressed and saw a type of food that you love; let’s say cupcakes or French fries. You might not have been aware of it, but that stress acted as an internal cue for your brain to tell you to consume that food. Seeing that food on a billboard while driving might have acted as an external cue. You might have had the urge to consume that food but it soon dissipated, and maybe a voice in your head gave you reasons for walking away. Someone in recovery from addiction has lost this inner voice, and that urge to seek the drug becomes overwhelming whenever a cue is present. If every time a child is bored, they are exposed to screen time, their brains are learning to associate being bored with this immediate reward. Imagine this scenario: You are stuck in traffic for 10 minutes waiting for a train to pass: what would you do? Would you immediately pick up your phone and sift through Facebook or start up a text conversation with someone? Would your child ask if they can play games on your phone? If they get used to this behavior, without any sense of control, what is to say that if one day they tried a drug, their brains won’t tell them to seek more of it?

In one of my earlier blog entries I spoke with Mike Connors, Director of the Insight Program, which provides treatment for youth and young adults, and one comment he made that really stuck out to me was that in this program, people learn how to have fun sober. Think about that for a moment. Essentially, what we’re teaching people in recovery about becoming healthy, we are taking away from our children. Before they even consider touching a drug. It’s a bit paradoxical.

A few years ago, I had the incredible experience of living in Spain for 7 months as an au-pair, which consisted of living with a family in exchange of teaching their 8-year-old son English. In short time I learned that this child needed much more than improved language skills. He was an only child who had not learned how to share with others or respect his elders. He couldn’t sit still during our English lessons and became irritable when he didn’t get his way. He spent the majority of his free time playing games on his mother’s phone, his own tablet, or his PlayStation. While he did engage in other activities such as playing with Legos, participating in sports, and spending time outdoors with his friends, during short but significant periods of time, some sort of technological device consumed his attention. This kid was unbelievably brilliant and excelled in his classes, but on the tests he didn’t do well on, he confided to me that he’d known the information but couldn’t fully concentrate and was often distracted during tests, which led him to make silly mistakes. This kid, at just 8-years old, essentially told me that he wished he could stop his mind from wandering and his body from fidgeting.

The positive transformation of this young boy’s behavior by the end of my stay was remarkable. As I reflect on the experience, there’s one main take-away. Technology was an instant gratification for him when he was bored and had time to kill, and I believe that this was fueling his irritability, moodiness, and inability to sustain attention in other tasks. Whenever possible, I substituted his screen time with other mindful activities, such as cooking meals together, which required learning many new words and associations. I wanted to prevent his brain circuitry from wiring in such a way that technology would become the first thing to turn to when he felt bored or tired. We’ve all witnessed children who immediately get candy when they start crying. This was a similar scenario. When a child gets used to an immediate stimulus, he will learn to prefer this interaction, this immediate gratification. A child’s brain is like a sponge, so we have to be cognizant of what we introduce to their minds. Disconnecting from screen time does not only help youth, but adults too. With the many stresses that we encounter in life, we too are guilty of ignoring our health and taking shortcuts for transient relief. There are short practices we can adopt to instill more peace into our lives. Taking a walk in nature allows us to be more mindful of our surroundings. Practicing meditation, which consists of focusing on our breath and letting intruding thoughts pass without judgement, can improve our attention and manage anxiety and stress better. Engaging in meaningful conversation with people, or volunteering with an organization, can give us purpose and decrease depressive symptoms.

Thank you for listening to the 1st episode of this 2-part podcast. Next time, I will speak with Dr. Melissa Cox, Assistant Professor at East Carolina University, on her research looking at media influences, such as movie content, on substance use among adolescents, and how parents can intervene and help prevent these influences.

For further reading:

Elena Vidrascu, MSc, recently graduated from Wake Forest University with her MSc in Physiology and Pharmacology. Her primary field of interest is substance abuse, with goals to disseminate information to the public, including addicts and those in recovery, and to influence policy change to push for more integrative approaches towards prevention and treatment. In her spare time, she enjoys playing tennis, hiking, doing puzzles, and cuddling with her kitten Maple.

Read all columns in this series: