It’s a fear shared by many young people, University of Sydney psychologist Andrew Campbell says, with Generation Y feeling pressured to constantly do more. They run the risk of developing an obsession or even an addiction to having too much to do.
Obsessions and addictions develop because people are getting a reward that makes them feel better about themselves, Dr Campbell says.
When it comes to being busy, the reward is not being left out, he says. “The longer they’re switched off … the more they feel they’re being left behind. In some ways, that translates to losing.”
Dopamine, one of the key neurotransmitters in our brains, is closely associated with this reward system and has been implicated in addiction, according to Anthony Hannan, head of neural plasticity at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health.
“When the brain gets a hit of this dopamine, it gives people pleasure and a sense of reward,” he says.
Our ancestors’ brains evolved to give them a sense of reward and pleasure for activities that increased their likelihood of survival, such as obtaining sex, food and water. In the modern age, the same response can be triggered by things such as “likes” on our Facebook posts and comments on our Instagram feeds.
Work and study are the last things to suffer when young people get too busy.
“On social media, these little artificial things may give someone a little hit of dopamine in specific areas of the brain,” Professor Hannan says.
“People may get ‘addicted’ to this, to the need for constant reassurance or feedback that gives them a feeling of connectedness and belonging.”
The addictive properties of technology are well-recognised. For example, a psychiatric diagnostic manual now includes internet addiction as a type of behavioural addiction, Professor Hannan says.
In one famous 1950s experiment, scientists placed electrodes in the brains of rats, in the nucleus accumbens, the structure that regulates dopamine production. A lever in the cage allowed the rats to send an electrical signal directly to their nucleus accumbens. To the great surprise of the researchers, some rats died because they stopped eating, drinking and sleeping. They just kept pressing the lever.
This experiment has been compared to cases of internet gaming disorder, including a Chinese man who died after playing video games for three days straight and a Korean man who went into cardiac arrest after playing for 50 hours non-stop.
These are extreme examples, but they illustrates a crucial point.
“At some point the [addicted] body will just give up because it can’t keep up that pace,” Dr Campbell says.
Women aged 18 to 29 are twice as likely as their male peers to report high levels of stress.
In his 2014 book, The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, American neuroscientist Daniel Levitin describes the cognitive cost of this “21st-century mania for cramming everything we do into every single spare moment of downtime”.
“Make no mistake: email-, Facebook- and Twitter-checking constitute a neural addiction,” Levitin writes.
Multitasking – what young Tadros was supposedly doing when he was checking his email while chatting on the phone – is “a powerful and diabolical illusion”, according to Levitin. It increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate the brain and muddy thinking.
Professor Hannan says this response is because human attention has evolved to mainly focus on one task at any given moment.
“We’re more efficient when we only focus on one task … you think you’re multitasking but attention is like a spotlight, you can really only attend to one thing at a time,” he says. “You’re single tasking, but switching from one task to another rapidly. You’re not actually doing those tasks simultaneously.”
Constantly jumping from task to task causes the brain to burn energy more quickly, leading to exhaustion and disorientation.
Causes of stress
Trying to save money and staying fit and healthy are the top two causes of stress among 18 to 29-year-olds.
Notably, young people put work well ahead of their physical and mental health, social lives and personal time, the report found. Only 28 per cent of young people say their work suffers, despite work emerging as the third-most common source of stress, according to the research.
Young women are twice as likely as men to feel stressed, with nearly two thirds saying they felt stressed often or all the time.
Although people from all generations use technology obsessively and cram their lives with one thing after another, Generation Y will be the first generation to have done this more or less from birth. So what is the cumulative cognitive cost of a lifetime of never switching off?
In his 2012 book by the same name, German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer coined the term “digital dementia” to describe the deterioration of cognitive ability that comes from overuse of digital technology.
Professor Hannan is more circumspect. “We really don’t know [the lifetime effect on the brain]. It’s an experiment in progress,” he says.
But he concedes that in a world where vast quantities of information can be stored in an easily-accessible device, rather than in your brain, “and you’re continually skimming over the top of huge amounts of information”, it makes sense that “your need to mentally store each piece of information in the long-term would decrease”.
The University of Sydney’s Dr Campbell says from a mental health perspective, the result will be increased depression, anxiety and stress rates with this generation, as well as relationship problems.
“And unfortunately, I think they’re not going to understand what quality of life means when they have to switch off because they’ve never been taught how to switch off.”
Tadros says “it sucks not being able to switch off” but is less certain whether the pace of his life could have a long-term effect on his health. “I haven’t actually thought that far ahead.”