It’s ‘Digital Heroin’: How Screens Turn Kids Into Psychotic Junkies

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From the New York Post article by Dr. Nicholas Kardaras

Susan* bought her 6-year-old son John an iPad when he was in first grade. 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.”

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.

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

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.

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. This addictive effect is why Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, calls screens “electronic cocaine” and Chinese researchers call them “digital heroin.”

That’s right — your kid’s brain on Minecraft looks like a brain on drugs.

So how do we keep our children from crossing this line? It’s not easy.

  • Prevent your child from getting hooked on screens to begin with. That means Lego instead of Minecraft; books instead of iPads; nature and sports instead of TV.  If you have to, demand that your child’s school not give them a tablet or Chromebook until they are at least 10 years old (others recommend 12).
  • Have honest discussions with your child about why you are limiting their screen access. Eat dinner with your children without any electronic devices at the table. Don’t fall victim to “Distracted Parent Syndrome” — as we know from Social Learning Theory, “Monkey see, monkey do.”

Developmental psychologists understand that children’s healthy development involves social interaction, creative imaginative play and an engagement with the real, natural world. Unfortunately, the immersive and addictive world of screens dampens and stunts those developmental processes.

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