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Digital Heroin

digital heroin

It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies

Susan* bought her 6-year-old son John an iPad when he was in first grade. “I thought, ‘Why not let him get a jump on things?’ ” she told me during a therapy session. John’s school had begun using the devices with younger and younger grades — and his technology teacher had raved about their educational benefits — so Susan wanted to do what was best for her sandy-haired boy who loved reading and playing baseball.

She started letting John play different educational games on his iPad. Eventually, he discovered Minecraft, which the technology teacher assured her was “just like electronic Lego.” Remembering how much fun she had as a child building and playing with the interlocking plastic blocks, Susan let her son Minecraft his afternoons away.

At first, Susan was quite pleased. John seemed engaged in creative play as he explored the cube-world of the game. She did notice that the game wasn’t quite like the Legos that she remembered — after all, she didn’t have to kill animals and find rare minerals to survive and get to the next level with her beloved old game. But John did seem to really like playing and the school even had a Minecraft club, so how bad could it be?

Still, Susan couldn’t deny she was seeing changes in John. He started getting more and more focused on his game and losing interest in baseball and reading while refusing to do his chores. Some mornings he would wake up and tell her that he could see the cube shapes in his dreams.

Although that concerned her, she thought her son might just be exhibiting an active imagination. As his behavior continued to deteriorate, she tried to take the game away but John threw temper tantrums. His outbursts were so severe that she gave in, still rationalizing to herself over and over again that “it’s educational.”

Then, one night, she realized that something was seriously wrong.

“I walked into his room to check on him. He was supposed to be sleeping — and I was just so frightened…”

She found him sitting up in his bed staring wide-eyed, his bloodshot eyes looking into the distance as his glowing iPad lay next to him. He seemed to be in a trance. Beside herself with panic, Susan had to shake the boy repeatedly to snap him out of it. Distraught, she could not understand how her once-healthy and happy little boy had become so addicted to the game that he wound up in a catatonic stupor.

There’s a reason that the most tech-cautious parents are tech designers and engineers. Steve Jobs was a notoriously low-tech parent. Silicon Valley tech executives and engineers enroll their kids in no-tech Waldorf Schools. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page went to no-tech Montessori Schools, as did Amazon creator Jeff Bezos and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Many parents intuitively understand that ubiquitous glowing screens are having a negative effect on kids. We see the aggressive temper tantrums when the devices are taken away and the wandering attention spans when children are not perpetually stimulated by their hyper-arousing devices. Worse, we see children who become bored, apathetic, uninteresting and uninterested when not plugged in.

But it’s even worse than we think.

We now know that those iPads, smartphones and Xboxes are a form of digital drug. Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex — which controls executive functioning, including impulse control — in exactly the same way that cocaine does. Technology is so hyper-arousing that it raises dopamine levels — the feel-good neurotransmitter most involved in the addiction dynamic — as much as sex.

This addictive effect is why Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, calls screens “electronic cocaine” and Chinese researchers call them “digital heroin.” In fact, Dr. Andrew Doan, the head of addiction research for the Pentagon and the US Navy — who has been researching video game addiction — calls video games and screen technologies “digital pharmakeia” (Greek for drug).

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Source: Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, nypost.com

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