Screens and Substance Misuse in South Africa

Exploring the Nexus Between Screens and Substance Misuse in South Africa

Is our increasing reliance on technology an integral part of modern life, or does our growing screen time expose us to potential problems such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse? Whether it’s tablets, consoles, or mobile phones, South Africa’s population has embraced screens in various forms. Nearly every aspect of our daily activities can now be carried out online, from medical appointments to reading books. This trend has only intensified since the onset of the pandemic.

With the average person spending approximately 6 hours and 58 minutes per day glued to screens, there is genuine concern about the impact this might have on our mental and physical well-being. In this article, we delve into the research on the connection between screens and substance misuse, especially among young individuals in South Africa, and explore avenues for seeking assistance.

How Does Screen Usage Affect the Brain?

Social media, messaging applications, and online games are all highly addictive, primarily because they offer users a sense of pleasure and reward. Screen use triggers a chain reaction in the brain that closely resembles the patterns seen in substance abuse involving alcohol or drugs.

Both screen time and substance misuse result in the release of dopamine in the brain, producing feelings of pleasure. Over time, the body craves more of these pleasurable sensations, leading to repeated behaviors, sometimes culminating in addiction.

The brain region influenced by screen time is the frontal cortex, the outer layer responsible for processing information. Studies have indicated that excessive screen time can cause physical changes in the brain similar to those observed in individuals who abuse cocaine. This is particularly concerning for young people, as their brains are still developing.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study found that children who spend more than 7 hours per day on screens tend to have a thinner cortex, impacting their cognitive abilities and concentration. According to the National Institutes of Health, children under the age of 11 who engage in more than two hours of daily screen activities also perform poorly on tests assessing thinking and language skills (1).

Excessive smartphone use and internet addiction have been associated with a decrease in brain volume in areas linked to impulse control and behavioral regulation. This has led experts to draw parallels between screen addiction and substance addiction.

The Impact of Excessive Screen Time

Spending excessive time staring at screens can have detrimental effects on one’s health. Whether individuals are fixated on computer screens during the workday or engrossed in video games during their evenings, the consequences of prolonged screen time are felt by all. Overindulgence in screen time can result in:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular diseases
  • Elevated levels of anxiety
  • Depression
  • Impaired stress regulation
  • Strained relationships

A recent reports, examining the screen habits of 16 to 24-year-olds in South Africa, revealed that this age group is more likely to use online communication platforms or apps regularly. Alarmingly, the report found that 9 out of 10 young people use social media, messaging apps, video-sharing platforms, and live streaming more frequently than adults.

Children are particularly vulnerable to developing screen addictions, and it’s crucial to watch for common signs. Individuals addicted to screens or substances often display similar symptoms, including an inability to stop or control cravings, a lack of interest in other activities, preoccupation or obsession, anxiety in the absence of their fix, deception about the extent of use, and relationship problems.

Can Screen Use Lead to Substance Misuse?

Excessive use of any pleasurable activity can potentially lead to addiction. Many individuals with behavioral disorders related to screen use, such as internet addiction, shopping addiction, gaming addiction, and gambling addiction, also grapple with alcohol or drug addiction. However, it’s challenging to establish clear causality between the two. Individuals may turn to substances to cope with the negative consequences of excessive screen use. Conversely, substance abuse can lead to irrational behaviors, which may manifest as another form of addiction.

Evidence suggests that adolescents who spend significant amounts of time on screens may be at greater risk of developing substance addiction. Anhedonia, a condition that results from overindulgence in a pleasurable activity, can cause young individuals to struggle to derive pleasure from other experiences. This may prompt them to seek out recreational drugs or alcohol to fill the void (2).

One study involving adolescents aged 12 to 17 found that heavy screen use was associated with depression, anxiety, and risky substance abuse. Experts believe that promoting healthy screen habits could help mitigate the potential for substance abuse in young people (3).

The Relationship Between Screens and Substance Misuse

The structural changes in the brain resulting from screens and substance addiction are similar. These changes may make individuals more susceptible to developing a dependence on alcohol or drugs as they chase the “high” of screen time. Excessive screen use often leads to social isolation, which can foster feelings of loneliness and, in turn, fuel substance abuse.

Mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, have been linked to gaming addiction, both of which are risk factors for substance abuse. Excessive screen use may also be associated with stress, another precursor to alcohol and drug addiction. For example, individuals in high-pressure roles that involve extensive screen time may become reliant on alcohol or prescription drugs.

The relationship between screens and substance abuse can also be influenced by circumstances. During the pandemic, when social isolation was enforced, screen time skyrocketed. Increased time in front of screens, combined with excessive computer use, led to higher alcohol and sugar consumption, with a reported 95% increase in the desire to drink. Ultimately, the relationship between screens and substance abuse is multifaceted. For individuals experiencing these challenges, reaching out for help is paramount.