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Helping Kids Avoid Screen Addiction is Harder Than Just Saying No

Can interactive technology be as addictive as crack?

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Dr. Nicholas Kardaras has spent years warning parents about the addictive dangers of screen-based interactive technologies. Where educators see a tool and many parents see a diversion, he sees a public health hazard with potential long-term consequences, including, but not limited to, the creation of a generation of adults uncomfortable thinking creatively. Why does he equate iPads and cigarettes? Because he’s seen screen addiction’s effects first hand. Some are subtle and require research, but others are as plain as a pain on a child’s face.

Kardaras, who’s new book Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids – And How to Break The Trance features both exploration and advocacy, has found that  glowing screens as dopamine-activating as sex and as potentially damaging to a child’s developing brain as cocaine is to adults. He spoke to Fatherly about his work sounding the alarm and why technology itself is not the problem. 

There’s obviously a lot of material out there on screen addiction, including a number of peer-reviewed studies. Still, it sounds different than cocaine addiction or even alcohol addiction. Is it?

The main clinical feature of any kind of addiction is that a behavior or a substance adversely affects your life and you continue to engage in that behavior or consume that substance regardless. That is the case with screen addiction, which meets all the physical criteria for behavioral addiction. I’ve seen clinical cases of screen addiction first-hand that are so significant young people’s lives were being destroyed. Some of these young addicts had to be hospitalized. Some of them were failing out of school or were losing relationships over it.

How do you see screen addiction develop? Beyond hospitalization, what are some symptoms of screen addiction?

Otherwise vigilant parents who “just say no to drugs” and protect their kids from drugs and alcohol have allowed the digital fox into the chicken coop. Kids who are exposed to screens are more vulnerable at younger and younger ages. “High screen diet kids” raised on iPads are more prone to develop addictive types of behaviors on screens. This can look like kids who are exposed to Minecraft in first grade or to social media in adolescence, but the result is mood dis-regulation when they have their screens taken away.

Somebody overly dependent on their screens will get angry when those screens are taken away. They can get explosive and they can get violent.

How does this addiction affect development?

One thing that doesn’t get talked about enough with kids who are on screens excessively, is what it does to their creativity. Kids who are on screens frequently or for many hours a day have a decreased sense of creativity. The screens are programming their mental imagery for them so they don’t have to develop their own mental imagery. One of the best things that a child can do developmentally is to use their imagination. The very vivid, high-use screen-imagery robs a child of his or her ability to create imagery. In other words, it robs them of their ability to have an active imagination, because that imagery gets imported into their brains.

Kids have to read books. They have to use their imagination to create the visual imagery of the story. Kids who are watching vivid imagery don’t have to use that neuro-synaptic muscle to create imagery.

Are neuro-synaptic muscles weaker in children who are on High Screen Diets?

Definitely. Most of these neural functions are developmental windows, like language. Language is a developmental window that you have to develop. You have to build your language neuro-synaptic muscles during a key age of your development. If you don’t develop the ability to have language during these key ages those muscles atrophy permanently. So you have kids that are feral children that aren’t exposed to language when they’re young, they struggle with language.

Attention also has a developmental window. If you don’t develop your ability to focus and pay attention, it gets compromised. If you don’t develop your imagination and creativity, those are permanently compromised. Kids get hypnotized by the screen, but they don’t focus. When the screen gets shut off and taken away, they are perpetually distracted.

Are there strong physical symptoms of withdrawal when screens are taken away from addicted children?

You see the exact same withdrawal symptoms with screen addiction that you see with substance addiction. Obviously, I’m not saying that screens are as lethal as heroin, but they’re certainly as addictive. Any addictive substance raises dopamine levels. When a person gets addicted, they chase that dopamine high. One research study showed that screens raise dopamine as much as sex. Sex raises dopamine 100 percent, and a video game raises dopamine 100 percent. We’re giving kids a digital brain orgasm. Kids aren’t equipped neurologically to handle that.

I’m friends with Dr. Hilarie Cash, who runs the only tech addiction rehab in the country in Seattle. It’s called Restart. And she talks about the fact that kids go through withdrawal. For the first three or four days, these kids go through very visible physical withdrawal symptoms.

What does that look like?

Mostly irritability, disordered thinking, and explosive violent behavior. When I go into the home of a kid whose parents have called me because their child is a screen addict, very often you’ll see holes in the sheetrock.

What would a rehabilitation program look like when you’re trying to wean your kid off of a tech addiction?

Wilderness Programs tend to work really well. Kids unplug and then begin to immerse themselves and reconnect and ground themselves with nature activities. I’ve also started experimenting a little bit with sensory deprivation. This is for kids who have sensory overload, who are being overstimulated by screens. There are these flotation tanks. A flotation tank is a room that has no light and sound and you just float in this room. It’s almost like you’re floating in space, but there’s no sensory stimulation. It helps reset a hyper-stimulated adrenal system because that’s what happens. A lot of these kids who are on screens for long periods of time get overstimulated. Their fight or flight response, their overstimulated adrenal systems, needs to be calmed down, reset and re-calibrated. So taking them away from their stimulating environments, in sensory deprivation tanks, or taking them into nature, are big parts of treatment models.

All of this just seems more daunting when you consider that more and more classrooms across the country are so tech-dependent.

Education Technology is a 60 billion dollar hoax. Schools are the digital drug dealer to some degree. They’ve given parents the narrative that screens are educational. It’s a false narrative! There’s been no research that shows that a kid with a tablet in school does better educationally than a kid without. There’s no research that shows that. And yet, we’ve kind of instilled that company line: ‘The more tech in schools, the better.”

Research shows the opposite! Kids in screen-free classrooms tend to do better.

Can a kid be addicted to television in the same way that they could be addicted to video games or social media or that kind of interactive tech?

In the world of screens, not all screens are created equal. Some are more dopaminergic. If we run with the analogy of digital drugs, television is sort of like the “marijuana,” and iPads are like crack cocaine.

That’s pretty disturbing. Is there any hope?

It’s like cigarettes in the 1950s. Everyone smoked. Smoking was the coolest thing out there. All the cool actors were smoking and kids were told by Joe Camel to smoke, and it was a very cool thing to smoke. All of the sudden, you realize there are some not good things about smoking and people started smoking less. I think people are starting to regulate their children’s behavior and their own behavior, because they see that our children model themselves after their parents.

I do worry when I see things like VR and Hololens and Pokemon Go and augmented reality because those experiences are even more intense, but I think there’s hope. I hope there’s hope.

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