Sunday, September 24, 2023

Breaking Behaviors with Dr. B: “Digital Heroin,” the new teen drug

By Dr. Bridget Melson

Social media has revolutionized communication and connectivity, but it also presents a range of dangers parents may not fully be aware of.

From the negative impact on mental health and self-esteem, to the risk of cyberbullying, the addictive nature of constant validation, and the increased risk of predators gaining access to our children, its negative impact on our teen’s development and safety can no longer be ignored.

I have a weekly radio show and many calls and emails I receive are from concerned parents wondering if “social media addiction” is a legitimate diagnosis.

To which I give an emphatic, “YES!!”

From distorted self-perception to addictive behaviors, social isolation, and cognitive effects, social media poses unique challenges to adolescent development to the extent that it has earned the name, “digital heroin.” This is due to the severe affect excessive online activity–more than an hour a day believe it or not–has on the developing teen brain.

Because of this, teens are experiencing:

  • Distorted self-perception
  • A rise in anxiety and depression from cyberbullying, comparison and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
  • Sleep disruption and increases in teen insomnia-excessive time on devices disrupts sleep patterns and negatively affects cognitive function and emotional well-being
  • Attention span and social development issues. Teens are becoming more socially isolated, relying on digital interactions rather than developing essential social skills necessary for building meaningful relationships
  • A decline in critical thinking abilities
  • Addiction and reward system issues and the “digital heroin affect”—this describes the addictive nature of digital technology and conveys the powerful parallel between the effects of heroin on the brain and the harmful effects of excessive screen time and digital consumption we are seeing in our teens and tweens today

Parents—we MUST wake up and help our teens help themselves.

  • LISTEN but LIMIT—Talk to your teens. Be non-judgmental but firm.
  • SET social media boundaries
  • LEAD by example
  • ENCOURAGE (and participate in) offline activities
  • PROMOTE social media self-awareness
  • EXPLORE alternative coping strategies—exercise, journaling, mindfulness, and creative pursuits
  • CREATE family “tech-free” days—and have the entire family participate

The impact of social media on the teen brain can no longer be ignored and we are seeing a developmental crisis in our young boys and girls. From distorted self-perception to addictive behaviors and social isolation, the negative physical, psychological, and cognitive affects are increasing exponentially.

We must stop this cycle and encourage healthy online habits, open communication between parent and child, and make household changes with digital media habits.

Parents—we can be the change needed for this generation and generations to come.


Dr. Bridget Melson, MFT, Psy.D is a Bartonville resident. Please tune in to Mental Health Mondays and Therapy Thursdays on “The Real Side w/Dr. B”

CTG Staff
CTG Staff
The Cross Timbers Gazette News Department

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