Screen Addiction An Epidemic

So here we go—another dire warning of the addictive qualities, and costs, of small screens on children and adults. But is this warning more serious than the ones having to do with television in the 1950s? You bet it is, because this plague is affecting the brains of children at very young ages in a way that may not be reversible. Growing evidence shows a correlation between ADHD, depression, anxiety and addiction. Studies show that the brains of younger people are being impacted by their screen habits in some of the same ways as cocaine or amphetamines impact them. Further studies show that the glowing screens are dopamine activating and stimulate the same areas of the brain as sex, and drugs like cocaine. The more they use, the more they have to use.

Like a Virtual Scourge, the illuminated glowing faces—the Glow Kids—are multiplying. But at what cost?   Dr. Nicholas Kandaras, from his book “The Glow Kids.”

How many of us have been in a restaurant and seen parents use their cell phones as pacifiers? How many of us have seen the screaming fits when the phone is taken away and put into a purse or pocket? It’s not just because the child is spoiled—it’s because the child is addicted. I have long been concerned about the constant stimulation of grown-ups and children by their electronic toys. It was more because I mourn the loss of eye contact and conversation in families and groups of friends as they each tended to their own device. I had qualms when I would see a young baby on someone’s lap being handed a phone to keep them quiet, but I knew it was none of my business.

I had those same kind of worry about kids addicted to gaming, but I thought there were recovery programs for this. There are, but what I didn’t realize is that most of those programs exist in other countries where youth video game and internet addiction are recognized as a psychological diagnosis. I somehow equated it with gambling or drinking and felt if they got help, they would be okay. I never considered the damage to their developing brains. My training showed me the amazing plasticity of the human brain and how much it could be affected by lack of quiet and time to think. I was aware from my studies that the human frontal cortex continues to evolve until we are into our twenties, and behaviors and accidents can interfere with that growth. Also, the frontal cortex controls impulsivity. When fully formed, it helps adults control their impulsive behavior. Interference in the growth of that part of the brain can cut off creativity at an early age.

Children and teens are controlled, in some ways, by their impulses, which is why parental awareness is important to growing children. Certain video games, like “The Call of Duty” are shown to have even more of an effect on aggression because the player is in the position of the shooter, thus feeding into the impulsivity problem by adding a huge dose of aggression.

“…game developers use tests to measure dopamine and adrenaline levels in order to make video games as addicting as possible.” Dr. Kardaras, one of the country’s top addiction experts.

I never expected this epidemic. I have observed young families gathered around a table in a restaurant gazing raptly at their phones, the interaction between them non-existent. I know people who can’t spend five minutes anywhere without checking in. Movie theatres had to admonish people to shut off the small screens as they watched the big screen. But I have to admit, the word “addiction” didn’t enter my mind.

The American Academy of Pediatrics maintains that children under the age of two should not be exposed to ANY screen time, as their brains are rapidly developing and actual interaction with humans is how they learn best. The AAP also says older children should spend no more than one or two hours a day with entertainment media.

Obviously we are a long way from that goal. Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair tells the New York Times that the issue with screen time occurs because parents are “throwing screens at children all day long, giving them distractions rather than teaching them how to self-soothe and calm themselves down.” We are now seeing this happening in schools. Work is being done more often on the computer, including homework, which used to be interactive with parents. In the Sept./Oct. issue of Poets and Writers magazine, a conversation about memoir was held between memoirists William Giraldi and Sven Birkerts who are prolific authors, teachers and editors. Paying attention and making meaning were emphasized in discussing the creativity of writing. At one point, Giraldi said this:

“It seems sinister to me how we’ve volunteered, ecstatically volunteered, to place these illuminated rectangles between ourselves and the world. How eagerly and expensively we buckled, surrendered the immediacy of experience, the tactile facts of our being, to a battery-operated autocrat.”

His passion brought me to tears. Yes, it feels sinister, and yes it feels like a ship that has long sailed. But with the recent recognition of the dangers of this voluntary servitude, maybe it’s not too late. Maybe parents, teachers, psychologists and those who love the children and young adults on this planet can make a shift and recognize what’s happening. We especially need mental health professionals to step up, especially those who are at a loss to explain the huge rise in childhood and young adult depression, anxiety, ADHD and other psychological issues. I know there are a lot of parents out there who will see their child in the recent articles and studies and care enough to brave the anger, disappointment and rebellion of their addicted off-spring as they change the atmosphere of their homes. Teachers are overwhelmed and tired, just as parents are, but their passion is for children. I will hold to that hope. It’s too late for some, but those young children sitting in their cribs with a mobile device deserve champions. And yes, it has to be us.