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How Screen Addiction Is Damaging Children's Brains

"I've worked with hundreds of heroin addicts and crystal meth addicts, and what I can say is that it's easier to treat a heroin addict than a true screen addict."
Thumbnail image via Flickr user Sleeping TV Man

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

In the 80s, Graham Nash from Crosby Stills & Nash appeared on MTV for an interview. The popular band had refused to make music videos, and Nash said the reason why was that he didn't want to provide the images that people would see when they hear his music. Instead, he said that they should instead create their own internal and unique mental visuals to accompany the track. Today, as a consequence of our constant bombardment with screen-based media, some experts believe that kids may have a harder time doing that.


A new book out on August 9 called Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids by Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, one of the country's top addiction experts, details how compulsive technology usage and reliance on screens can neurologically damage the developing brain of a child the same way that drug addiction can. Through extensive research, clinical trials with diagnosed screen addicts, and experience treating a variety of other types of addicts, the author explores the alarming reality of how children could be "stunting their own creative abilities" by constantly turning on and tuning in.

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Dr. Kardaras, who grew up playing Asteroids and loved Ms. PacMan, discusses how game developers use tests to measure dopamine and adrenaline levels in order to make video games as addicting as possible. He also explains how technology might stagnate frontal cortex development. With Glow Kids, Kardaras seeks to push the thesis that we should let children's "brains fully develop first before we expose them to these digital drugs." VICE chatted with the author to learn more about his research, why kids are both boring and bored today, and why social media is an illusion of real connection.

VICE: In the beginning of your book, you quote the song that the Oompa-Loompas sing in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory featuring the lyrics, "It rots the senses dead/It kills the imagination dead." How relevant is this to what is going on today with kids and screens?
Dr. Nicholas Kardaras: I think that Ronald Dahl lyric is extremely relevant and prescient. I've worked clinically with over 1,000 teens over the past decade plus and one of the most amazing things that I observed was that kids raised from an early age on a high-tech/high-screen diet suffered from what seemed to be a digital malaise. They were, almost universally, what I like to call "uninterested and uninteresting." Bored and boring, they lacked a natural curiosity and a sense of wonder and imagination that non-screen kids seemed to have. They didn't know—or care to know—about what was happening around them in the world. All that seemed to drive them was a perpetual need to be stimulated and entertained by their digital devices.


Kids' brains develop during key developmental windows when they engage their active imagination in such things as creative play. These windows are when the body builds the most neuronal connections. Kids who are just passively stimulated by a glowing screen don't have to do the neural heavy lifting to create those images. The images are provided for them, thus stunting their own creative abilities.

I grew up in the 1970s and started playing Atari around middle school. I was enthralled with the video games, but still remained active. What's the difference between how young people engaged with gaming back then compared to today?
The real key difference with that generation of video games and today's generation of video games is a qualitative one. Games today are more immersive, interactive, and realistic. And that's just the two-dimensional games. Don't get me started on immersive 3D and augmented reality holographic games. As my friend Dr. Andrew Doan, the Head of Addiction Research for the Pentagon and US Navy who has extensively researched video games, likes to say, today's games are a multi-billion dollar industry that employ the best neuroscientists and behavioral psychologists to make them as addicting as possible.

The developers strap beta-testing teens with galvanic skin responses, EKG, and blood pressure gauges. If the game doesn't spike their blood pressure to 180 over 140, they go back and tweak the game to make it have more of an adrenaline-rush effect. The problem is that adrenaline rush affects what's called the H-P-A Axis (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis) and creates the fight-or-flight adrenal response. But that fight-or-flight response in nature is a fairly brief event—you get chased by a dog, your heart races, and your adrenaline surges, but then you calm down when the threat is gone.


With video games, however, the kid sits and plays for hours of adrenal-elevated fight-or-flight. This is not a good thing. Research has shown that this latest generation of games significantly raises dopamine levels, the key neurotransmitter associated with our pleasure/reward pathways and the key neurotransmitter in addiction dynamics. One study showed that video games raise dopamine to the same degree that sex does, and almost as much as cocaine does. So this combo of adrenaline and dopamine are a potent one-two punch with regards to addiction.

I've worked with hundreds of heroin addicts and crystal meth addicts, and what I can say is that it's easier to treat a heroin addict than a true screen addict—Dr. Nicholas Kardaras

A friend of mine has two kids, and he takes them everywhere with him, but both kids are always engaged with their tablet and have headphones on. The only time we hear from them is when their battery runs out. What are some long-term effects of this type of behavior?
What you have observed is exactly what I just talked about: Kids who are so habituated to their hyper-stimulating and dopamine-activating immersive screen reality that they choose to stay in the digital Matrix. The reason why this effect is more powerful on children than adults—although we all know of many adults who are screen-addicted—is that children still don't have a fully-developed frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls executive functioning, decision making, and impulse control.


Neuropsychologists call the frontal cortex a person's "brakes," but that part of the brain doesn't develop until our early 20s, which is why teens engage in all sorts of risky behavior—from bungee jumping to unprotected sex. They don't have the impulse control and "consequential thinking" parts of their brains developed. Adding to the problem, research shows that both drug use and excessive screen usage actually stunts the frontal cortex and reduces the grey matter in that part of the brain. So hyper-arousing games create a double whammy. Not only are they addicting, but then addiction perpetuates itself by negatively impacting the part of the brain that can help with impulsivity and good decision making.

Can a screen addiction even compare to a heroin or cocaine addiction? Most people would say no, especially since phones are a necessity in today's world.
Well, I definitely think that screen addiction meets all diagnostic clinical criteria for addiction. As does the Chinese Health Organization and many other countries throughout the world. The US is a bit late to the dance. We don't have it as an "official" diagnosis in our DSM, but we do have the topic marked as requiring further study and review. While phones may be a necessity—and I say may because, let's face, we can live without a phone—they're definitely not a necessity for an eight, nine, or ten-year-old.

My whole thesis is that we should let the child's brain fully develop first before we expose them to these digital drugs (which they definitely are). I've worked with hundreds of heroin addicts and crystal meth addicts, and what I can say is that it's easier to treat a heroin addict than a true screen addict, precisely because they're so ubiquitous in our society that people inevitably have to interact with them on some level. Not so with heroin. In my clinical experience, the key to digital addiction prevention is to be mindful of the potential dangers of screen addiction and limit usage during those key developmental ages before it creeps over into digital addiction, because that's a real bitch to treat.


How does screen tech affect behavioral disorders like ADHD, anxiety, depression, increased aggression, and psychosis?
Dr. Dimitri Christakis' research has found that screen exposure increases the probability of getting ADHD, and several peer-reviewed studies have linked internet usage to increased anxiety and depression. I think some of the most shocking research is that which shows how kids can get psychotic-like symptoms from gaming, wherein the game blurs reality for the player. It's known as "Game Transfer Phenomenon" and has been extensively studied by Dr. Mark Griffith and Dr. Angelica de Gortari in England. Gamers hear and see elements of the game long after they've stopped playing; Minecraft players start seeing the real world in the cube-forms of the game. I've worked with several teens who've had apparent psychotic breaks from their excessive gaming, and two who needed to be psychiatrically hospitalized. It's scary stuff. We know that children develop their sense of what's real and what isn't—what psychologists call "reality testing"—between the ages of three and ten. If they are exposed to reality-blurring imagery during that key developmental stage, it compromises their ability to discern reality. That's less likely to happen to an adult gamer, but it's occurred.

Even though we are seemingly more connected than ever with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, it seems there's a big disconnect in the way people communicate in person because of all the texting and social media. How does the screens play into that?
I like to call social media the illusion of connection. Author Johan Hari calls it a "parody" of genuine connection. We are social animals hardwired for social connection, but that seems to require genuine, in-depth, face-to-face intimacy and connection—not Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

Research has shown that the more Facebook friends one has, the higher the likelihood of depression. That's been attributed to the "comparison effect": I get more and more down about my life the more and more idealized images I keep seeing of peoples projected happy lives . Let's face it, most people don't post Facebook pics of when they're struggling. Instead, it's just, look at how wonderful my vacation is! types of photos. You see enough of those and you can begin to feel pretty crappy, if that's your only social connection.

'Glow Kids' is out August 9 on St. Martin's Press. Pre-order it here.

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