It doesn’t seem like that bad of an idea: Carrie bought her son, John, an iPad. He was only 6 years old, but why not let him get a head start on the technology they’re going to use in school? John’s teacher had nothing but good things to say about the educational benefits of the tablet devices, so Carrie chose what she thought was best.
It started with educational games on the iPad. Soon, John discovered Minecraft — a favorite of his teacher, who compared it to electronic LEGOs. So, with his teacher’s approval, Carrie let John play Minecraft just about as often as he liked.
All seemed well at first. John was enjoying himself as he played in the cube-world, exploring and building. But what about the animals he had to kill? The ores he had to mine? This didn’t quite look like LEGOs to her anymore…
She began to notice changes in John’s behavior. As he became more and more involved with Minecraft, his other interests — baseball, mainly — and his chores all went by the wayside. Worse yet, he would some days wake up and tell her that he had dreamt of the cubes from Minecraft.
The changes came to an alarming head one night: As Carrie walked into John’s room to check that he was sleeping safe and sound, she found him sitting up instead. Staring wide-eyed into the distance, with his iPad beside him, John was barely responsive. Shaking him to his senses, Carrie wondered: How did this happen to my son, who had not so long ago been healthy and happy?
A trend emerges: The most tech-cautious parents are tech designers and engineers. Silicon Valley executives regularly enroll their children in tech-free schools. Steve Jobs was a low-tech parent. The list goes on, with founds of Google and Amazon also choosing tech-free schools for their children.
While some parents seem to understand that the constant presence of screens is harmful to their children, it hasn’t yet become common knowledge. Even as we see a spike in aggressive tantrums as the devices are taken away, concurrently these same children seem bored by interacting with the world around them rather than what’s on a screen. But it may be even worse than all this…
Recent research using brain imaging is showing that all this screen time may be acting as a sort of “digital drug”. The frontal cortex of children playing with these devices is stimulated in a similar manner as would occur with hard drug use — cocaine in particular. In a constant state of hyper-arousal, children find themselves unable to fully relax or engage with a world without video games.
The constant raise in dopamine levels from extended screen time helps explain its addictive effect. In fact, researchers in China and at UCLA have begun calling screen devices “digital heroin”, or “electronic cocaine”. Even more compelling, the director of addiction research for the Pentagon has labeled video games and screens “digital drugs” as well!
Indeed — our children’s brains on video games look an awful lot like a brain on hard drugs. Why else would it seem to be so hard to pull children away from their screens? The constant agitation expressed when this happens may be a genuine symptom of withdrawal, rather than a generic temper tantrum.
Says one researcher: “In my clinical work with over 1,000 teens over the past 15 years, I have found the old axiom of “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” to be especially true when it comes to tech addiction. Once a kid has crossed the line into true tech addiction, treatment can be very difficult. Indeed, I have found it easier to treat heroin and crystal meth addicts than lost-in-the-matrix video gamers or Facebook-dependent social media addicts.”
… And it doesn’t seem to be getting better, either. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 8- to 10-year-olds may spend as much as 8 hours a day in front of screens, with teenagers coming closer to 11 hours a day! One in three children may be given a smartphone or tablet before learning their first words. Other researchers put the rate of “Internet Addiction” for college kids at close to 18 percent.
As with any addiction, there’s a line that is crossed: Whereas previously you may have just casually dabbled in something, addiction implies that your body is now unable to function normally without it. Also as with drug addiction, the first step is a full detox. In the case of tech addiction, this can mean a full stop to any high-tech devices, including television. Four to six weeks later, our nervous systems can work themselves out.
But how do we keep our kids from crossing the line into addiction? Using tried and true parenting strategies from across the ages. Set boundaries; don’t let your kids spend all day in front of a screen. Replace digital activities with similar physical ones, to encourage the healthy development of an ability to play and interact with the whole world.
Honest discussions go a long way, too. If a child only sees their screen device as a fun, wonderful thing, it will continue to only be that — unless the parent teaches otherwise. Spend time yourself away from all technology, as children learn much in their younger years by imitating their parents. Can you take the time to eat meals with your children without a cell phone, television, or iPad?
Explain to your children why these things can be dangerous. Help them to understand that some kids play these games so much, they don’t want to do anything else. If nothing else is fun besides your games, you can’t take enjoyment in life’s simple pleasures — like baseball, or running, or playing with friends. Once your children begin to see the wisdom in this, it’ll be an easier transition to not being stuck in a screen.
Kids need social interaction, imaginative play-time, and real time spent with nature in order to understand and grow into healthy adults. As with any addiction, kids can often find themselves lost in screen time if they feel otherwise alienated from the world around them; developing healthy relationships and communities is a long road to follow, but a necessary one if we are to raise healthy children.
Thankfully, after a consultation with Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, Carrie decided to take John’s tablet away from him. Though it was a tremendous struggle at first, four years later John is almost back to his old self again. Playing baseball and making friends, he’s well on the road to recovery — and his mother is well aware of the consequences of letting him slip back into a technology addiction.