In combat with an encroaching sense of disconnection

There is no downtime for the digital native. Meals are photographed and shared online before the first bite is taken. A lull in conversation or a pause at the traffic lights are opportunities to check texts and emails. At home, with one eye on the TV, the other scanning Facebook, Twitter and Google, life in the clickstream is frenetic.

But some experts are starting to worry that the digital revolution transforming the way we live is also making us ill. For the ''always on'' generation, this constant overload of information could be triggering mental health problems. More worrying, they say, is emerging evidence that it may be causing structural changes in the brain.

''I see kids clinically who spend the whole day engaged with electronic media and it's clearly a problem,'' says Professor George Patton, from the Royal Children's Hospital's Centre for Adolescent Health in Melbourne. ''During those teenage years when the brain is in a very active phase of development and learning to process information about relationships and emotions, there's a concern that these kids are actually going to be wired differently in the future given the malleability of brains at that age.

''They may grow accustomed to, and be more comfortable with, the kinds of relationships that happen in this electronic space.''

With the march of technology outpacing research into its impact, medical opinion is divided on whether it will irreparably rewire our brains to crave instant gratification and screen-based stimulation.

Many believe the benefits of the internet - the ability to connect with geographically distant loved ones, or promote rapid social and political engagement - are too significant to condemn technology.

However, some specialists say there is already clinical evidence that behaviours such as online multitasking or addiction to Facebook ''likes'' bear the hallmarks of medical conditions such as hyperactivity and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A Californian psychologist and one of the world's leading authorities on technology overuse, Larry Rosen, believes future generations will increasingly suffer from ''iDisorders'' - psychiatric conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder, mania and attention deficit disorder, sparked by excessive use of social media, smartphones and computers.

He says the consequences of living life through a screen are already being seen in heavy users, who have diminished attention spans, impaired learning and difficulty forming relationships in the real world.

''Technology by its engaging nature is creating multiple problems,'' Rosen says.

''It encourages rapid, continuous task-switching, which means that we are only processing information at a shallow level and not deeply, so we're not able to have complex thoughts but only superficial ones.

''We're also finding certain technologies such as video gaming produce dopamine in the brain at high levels, which our brain interprets as pleasure and that makes us want to do it more. Smartphones are also causing people enough anxiety that they are checking them every 15 minutes or even more, often to help reduce the anxiety of missing out on important information.''

Australia's appetite for technology is voracious. There are 16 million mobile phones in circulation - a 7 per cent increase on last year. On Tuesday, the Bureau of Statistics revealed there had been a 32 per cent rise in smartphone data downloads between April and June this year, compared with the last three months of 2011. By 2015, it's estimated 80 per cent of the world's population will own a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Last week, The Sunday Age revealed increasing rates of addiction to online video games could lead to ''internet-use disorder'' being classified as a mental illness in the redrafted psychiatric bible, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

This cacophony of electronic noise has prompted calls for schools to start teaching students how to switch off.

A Melbourne non-profit group, Smiling Mind, has created a mindfulness meditation program - delivered, somewhat ironically, via a website and app - which is being piloted in 20 schools across Australia, with the aim of being embedded in the national curriculum by 2020.

Taylah Armitage, 14, from pilot school Elwood College, hopes the classes, in which students sit with eyes closed as they are taken through a guided meditation, will help her to focus more and become less dependent on her iPhone.

''If I have credit I'm pretty much always on it,'' she says.

''When my mum wants to go out I always need wi-fi so I can be connected because I need to be able to check my phone for Facebook and texts and Tumblr. Sometimes it feels like I've just been on it for five minutes but then I realise it's actually been an hour or more.

''I often find that I go straight home from school and I won't be with my friends so I can talk to people on Facebook or on my phone, which is pretty sad, so I have to try and stop that.''

A psychologist who helped develop Smiling Mind, Richard Chambers, says mindfulness improves our ability to concentrate and be present in the moment, which is protective against anxiety and depression, and can improve interpersonal skills and resilience.

''You can actually train this capacity to pay attention to what you're doing,'' Chambers says. ''As people do that, the mind becomes calmer, levels of stress decrease, productivity improves and over time it can actually create functional and even structural changes in the brain.''

Year 9 Elwood student Oscar Swift, 15, is wary of the lure of social media and says he tries to limit his time online: ''If you used all the time that you were on Facebook reading a book, writing or playing a guitar, you could either be, like, a musician or an awesome artist or whatever, so I think it's really important to be balanced with media,'' he says. ''Otherwise you can become a bit of a vegetable.''

But the potentially addictive nature of electronic information is hard to ignore, with some research suggesting that looking at Google activates the brain more than reading a book. An Oxford University neuroscientist, Susan Greenfield, has been the most vocal in raising the alarm on the shift to screen-based communication, a trend she says poses a bigger threat to humanity than climate change. She argues that non-verbal cues such as body language and eye contact, which may be responsible for up to 70 per cent of our understanding of human messages, are not available to social media users, and therefore innate traits such as empathy are being diminished.

However, Greenfield's claims, which include linking internet use to increasing rates of autism, have been criticised by many of her peers for being alarmist and not based on robust research.

''Too much of anything is not good for you,'' says Jane Burns, the chief executive of the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, a federal government-funded body set up to explore the role of technology in improving the mental health and wellbeing of those aged between 12 and 25.

''So there are certain young people who will be at risk of internet addiction, just as there are certain young people who are at risk of alcohol addiction,'' she says.

''We can't take small case studies and generalise it to the whole of the population.''

A study of 2000 young people, conducted by the centre and published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2010, showed one-third of respondents spent one to three hours a day online and on social media, and 50 per cent spent less than an hour on their devices.

Burns says the findings busted the myth that most young people are overexposed to electronic media. A blanket claim that technology is bad, she says, does not take into account its benefits, particularly for marginalised groups such as those with a disability or chronic illness, and gay and lesbian youngsters.

''Technologies allow you to be connected, and being connected is very important for mental health and wellbeing,'' she says.

''It allows you to share positive stories of change, reduce stigma and embrace diversity.

''There is research which shows that those who are engaged in both online and offline communication are more involved in activities, more involved in what's happening on a global scale, more interested in what's happening to the environment, to politics, and are actually more active and participating in more meaningful ways. The internet is here to stay, so we've got to harness its potential, and like all things big it has the potential to do both good and bad. If we can get the good right, then the bad becomes significant for a few but insignificant for most.''

Dan Lubman - an expert on addiction and the developing brain, and director of Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre - says that while he believes there is insufficient evidence to suggest adolescent brain development is being adversely affected by online behaviour, he wants government investment in research to address this vast knowledge gap.

''I don't think we have a good handle on when is this behaviour risky, or how do we let parents know in terms of when they should be worried,'' Lubman says.

''But by the same token, we also don't know what are the real strengths or advantages of this way of communicating in terms of how does this build resilience and improve our kids' ability to socialise.'' He agrees that lessons on how to manage information overload should be taught in schools, and argues that parents, who are increasingly using electronic devices to work outside office hours, do not always set the best example.

''There are lots of social pressures to respond instantaneously, whether you've got your on-leave email tracker on or not, so that work-life balance is a growing issue,'' Lubman says. ''We're embedded in a culture where this is normative and we just do things without stepping back and reflecting and asking: is this actually good for us or the next generation?''

The story In combat with an encroaching sense of disconnection first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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