Sabbatical Sojourns: Social Work with Sybil Coleman

This is the sixth in a series of seven articles featuring the research conducted by faculty members on sabbatical during the fall 2018 semester. A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of STILLPOINT. Read more articles from this issue here:

Children today have never lived without digital technology, and with the release of each new device, Sybil Coleman ’64 (social work) delves deeper into uncharted territory. During sabbatical she continued research on a topic she introduced to her field back in 2008: the positive and negative impact of electronic and digital devices on college students. Narrowing her attention to a younger demographic, Coleman’s sabbatical research explored the potential changes in the brain that are associated with electronic and digital device usage on children below the age of 10.

“Giving your child a smart phone is like giving them a gram of cocaine,” Coleman said, quoting Rachel Pells in The Independent (2017). “Time spent messaging friends on Snapchat and Instagram can be just as dangerously addictive as drugs and alcohol, and should be treated as such.”

The excitement generated by digital technology, she explained, can produce a surge in dopamine—a common neurotransmitter chemical—that stimulates the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with the reward center of the brain that brings on the feeling of pleasure. These powerful surges can disrupt the prefrontal cortex and interfere with various executive functions such as critical thinking, impulsivity, and risk-taking behaviors. While dopamine alone does not cause addiction, compulsive behaviors looking for that surge of dopamine can lead to an addiction.

This means that at an early age, a child’s overuse of technology may affect their cognitive functioning as well as their social, emotional and communication skills. Coleman hopes to raise awareness about this and equip parents to better understand and help manage their child’s use of technology.