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Digital Heroin: Screens Are Turning Kids into Junkies

Are iPads, smartphones and Xboxes a form of digital drug? Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex exactly like cocaine.

The frontal cortex controls executive functioning, including impulse control. Technology is so hyper-arousing that it raises dopamine levels — the feel-good neurotransmitter most involved in the addiction dynamic — as much as sex.

Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA calls screens “electronic cocaine” and Chinese researchers call them “digital heroin”. Even Dr. Andrew Doan, head of addiction research for the Pentagon and the U.S. Navy calls video games and screen technologies digital “pharmakeia” (Greek for drug).

No wonder parents have a hard time peeling kids away from their screens. Hundreds of clinical studies show that screens increase depression, anxiety and aggression and can even lead to psychotic-like features where the video gamer loses touch with reality.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is especially true when it comes to tech addiction.

According to a 2013 Policy Statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 8- to 10 year-olds spend 8 hours a day with various digital media while teenagers spend 11 hours in front of screens. One in three kids are using tablets or smartphones before they can talk. Meanwhile, the handbook of “Internet Addiction” by Dr. Kimberly Young states that 18% of college-age internet users in the U.S. suffer from tech addiction.

Once a person crosses over the line into full-blown addiction — drug, digital or otherwise — they must detox before any other kind of therapy can have any chance of being effective. With tech, that means a full digital detox — no computers, no smartphones, no tablets. The extreme digital detox even eliminates television. The prescribed amount of time is four to six weeks; that’s the amount of time that is usually required for a hyper-aroused nervous system to reset itself. Yet this can be very hard in our tech-filled society.

So how do we keep our children from this kind of addiction?

The key is to prevent your 4-, 5- or 8-year-old from becoming hooked on screens to begin with. This means Lego instead of Minecraft; books instead of iPads; nature and sports instead of TV. Ask 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 child without any screens at the table. Explain to them that if they caught up with screens and games, other parts of their lives will suffer.

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

About one in 10 people are predisposed towards addictive tendencies. Remember that screens are just as addictive as drugs and watch your use, as well as your child’s use.

Ariana Marisol is a contributing staff writer for She is an avid nature enthusiast, gardener, photographer, writer, hiker, dreamer, and lover of all things sustainable, wild, and free. Ariana strives to bring people closer to their true source, Mother Nature. She graduated The Evergreen State College with an undergraduate degree focusing on Sustainable Design and Environmental Science. Photo Credit: Amelia Wells/flickr


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