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Are screens really ‘digital heroin’?

In 2016 a New York Post blog post gained a lot of media attention.  The blog post titled ‘It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies’ suggests that screens are a form of digital drug.

Panicked calls crescendoed from concerned parents and educators who read the article and panicked. In case you’ve missed the article, you can read it here.

Since its publication, I’ve been inundated with questions from worried parents, educators and journalists, who are concerned that they’re handing over something akin to a drug, every time their child uses their iPad.

Are screens really addictive for kids?

So I’ve decided to respond to this piece. In this blog post, I want to highlight some of the scientific flaws inaccuracies in the blog post and outline some of my concerns (as both a researcher and mum).

In the article that’s caused unnecessary parental angst and guilt the author, Dr Nicholas Kardaras, claims that, “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. Technology is so hyper-arousing that it raises dopamine levels — the feel-good neurotransmitter most involved in the addiction dynamic — as much as sex.”

No wonder parents express concern (and guilt) about their child’s screen-time. Kardaras’ article incites parental fear and angst. But, many of Kardaras’ claims aren’t grounded in research and some of the claims inflate or even misrepresent the actual science. This blog post not only demonises technology and causes (unnecessary) fear and angst amongst parents and professionals who work with young children, but many of the ‘scientific claims’ aren’t substantiated by research (at least by the research I’m familiar with).

When I read the article, I must admit I was outraged! In almost every Parent Seminar I’ve delivered since this article was published, I’ve been asked from concerned parents if the article’s claims are true. Parents are worried. It seems Kardaras’ blog post hit parents where it hurts the most: parental fear and guilt!  It pulled right at our heartstrings.

My simple response to many of the claims proposed in this article: they’re inaccurate and flawed.

Put simply, suggesting that screens are akin to a drug for kids is inflammatory, inaccurate and controversial. Causing parental guilt and concern isn’t helpful.

Kardaras’ article was intentionally written as click bait.  As you probably sensed from the fear-mongering headline (no parent wants to think that they’re handing over “electronic cocaine” to their child) and was written to promote a book that highlights the pitfalls associated with screens. So it’s no real surprise that the article highlights and focuses on the negative potential of screens (even when presenting scientifically flawed evidence).

Issues raised by Kardaras’ article-

I want to share some of the scientific inaccuracies and outline some of my concerns raised in the article, as both a researcher and a mum.

#1- Dopamine release doesn’t automatically cause ‘addiction’

Kardaras suggests that screens turn kids into “psychotic junkies” because of their reliance on dopamine. This is scientifically inaccurate. It’s faulty logic. This article has gained traction and media coverage simply because it uses a scaremongering headline and relies on “neuro-myths”. It’s click bait for confused and concerned parents. Referring to screens as “electronic cocaine” and “digital heroin” is both inaccurate and unhelpful for parents.

Kardaras proposes that because screens are typically a pleasurable experience for kids that screens are therefore “addictive”. There’s little doubt from researchers that watching funny YouTube clips, or playing an app is usually fun and therefore is likely to release the neurotransmitter dopamine* and activate the reward pathways in the brain. This seems like a logical neurological response. However, just because an experience is pleasurable and activates the dopaminergic pathways in the brain doesn’t automatically lead to “addiction”.

*Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s often associated with feelings of pleasure. This neurotransmitter is released during any pleasurable experience- eating chocolate, reading a book, watching funny movies, having sex, massages, eating delicious food, swimming on a hot day. However, just because something elicits a pleasurable response doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily “addictive”. Think about it- would you suggest that reading or chocolate is a drug and you’re “addicted” to it? I didn’t think so.

Just because an experience triggers a positive response in our brain (and our kids’ brains) and triggers the release of dopamine (and activates the reward pathways in the brain) doesn’t therefore mean that the experience is necessarily “addictive” or is akin to taking drugs.

 

Researchers generally accept that dopamine plays a role in addiction and in activating the reward pathways in the brain, but it’s not the sole causal factor. When it comes to addiction there are a host of sociological, biological, gender and psychological factors that also must be considered.

#2- We don’t yet know what regions of kids’ brains are activated when ‘plugged in’

The article suggests that we have research that shows that the neural pathways in kids are activated when they use screens and that these emulate what happens when people use drugs. “That’s right — your kid’s brain on Minecraft looks like a brain on drugs.” It’s speculation, not science, at this stage.

Personally, I’m not aware of any research that’s been conducted where neuroimaging scans have been performed on kids and show exactly what happens to kids’ brains when they’re plugged into digital devices! From a neuroimaging perspective this may be true (the brain’s reward centre, is the part that is activated when you have sex, take cocaine or play video games), so it’s highly likely this is what happens when kids use screens (there are some studies that have examined which parts of the brains are activated when playing video games, or watching pornography, but these studies look at adolescents’ and young adult’s brains). But at this stage, I’m not familiar with research that shows what kids’ brains look like when they’re playing Minecraft.

I do, however, acknowledge that there is some research that shows that similar pathways to drug addiction have been shown in people identified with Internet Gaming Disorder. For example, studies have found that chronic drug exposure results in involuntary and compulsive drug-seeking behaviour and similar neural pathways are activated in gamers as some studies have shown. But, these studies typically recruit adolescents and adults (not children) and they only look at one digital medium- video games.

My bigger questions- (i) do all screen activities elicit the same neurobiological response? I doubt it. Playing a violent video game is very different to reading and interacting with a book app. So it’s unlikely that all screen experiences would yield the same neurobiological response. (ii) do kids’ brains respond the same way to adolescents and adults when using screens? Possibly not.

The problem is, we don’t yet have a clear picture of what happens in kids’ brains when they’re using technology. Obvious ethical reasons mean that it is unlikely that we’d be able to conduct brain scans with kids (would you put your child in an fMRI machine to see if their brains are activated in the same way as drug addicts?)

So Kardaras is speculating when he suggests that your child’s brain looks like it’s on drugs when they’re playing Minecraft.

#3- Over-inflated scientific claims?

Kardaras also references, “hundreds of clinical studies that show that screens increase depression, anxiety and aggression and can even lead to psychotic-like features where the video gamer loses touch with reality.”  

Whilst it’s true that there is a corpus of research that links the overuse of technology to some mental health disorders (like anxiety and depression), we don’t yet have a clear and complete picture about screens causing mental health issues. There’s ambiguity in the research about the direction of causation. Do children with mental health disorders tend to engage in excessive screen-time (in this case, it may simply be a correlation)? Or does excessive or inappropriate use of screens cause mental health disorders (in this case, it may be causation)?

At this stage, we don’t yet know. However, Kardaras’ article implies that it’s a proven causal relationship. It’s simply not the case. We don’t yet know if heavy or excessive screen use increases depression, anxiety and aggression rates, or is associated with these conditions.

I admit, the evidence on violent video games and aggression is fairly clear- violent, age-inappropriate content is associated with aggression and antisocial behaviour, especially in boys.

 

 

#4- Defining “Internet addiction” is complex and unclear

We don’t yet have a universally, medically recognised definition of what constitutes a “technology addiction”. Researchers don’t have a good handle on what constitutes a technology addiction, yet the article’s author used the term repeatedly in the post.

As an aside, it’s also worth noting that Kardaras is an executive director at The Dunes East Hampton which is a luxury addiction recovery center in US. This is one of a growing number of specialised services that are offering treatment for “technology addictions”.

Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) is not currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Although some experts believe that there’s sufficient pathology to warrant further research and to consider IGD as a condition worth further exploring, it’s not yet a listed condition. Substance use disorder, is however, a recognised condition in the DSM-5 and therefore, Kardaras’ claims suggest the two are similar conditions.

There’s no denying that some children having developed problematic relationships with technology. Some children have formed an unhealthy dependence on screens. However, this doesn’t mean that they’re medically “addicted” to screens.

#5- Negative stigma associated with technology

Yes, we certainly need to be alert and alarmed about how kids are using technology and the impact of their plugged-in lives on their health, learning and development (and this is exactly what I share in my Parent Seminars). I don’t refute that for a moment (in fact, that’s the reason why I’m on a mission to help put an end to the guesswork and guilt that many parents experience as they try to navigate the confusing digital terrain in which they now find themselves parenting and it’s why I wrote my book Raising Your Child in a Digital World).

We need to think carefully and critically about how we use screens with and around young children. Yes, kids can form some unhealthy habits and even a digital dependence on technology, if technology is introduced prematurely, or if it’s used excessively, or in isolation.

But this doesn’t automatically mean that our kids are “addicted” to technology. Personally and professionally, I don’t believe young children, typically under the age of ten years of age, can form an “addiction” to technology (even if we did have a universal, medically-recognised set of criteria). Why? I think young children are still developing their impulse control skills (the part of the brain that’s responsible for these skills is the last part of the brain to be myelinated, i.e. come online) and they’re still learning how to emotionally regulate. If kids are conditioned to use always use a screen when they’re bored, upset or frustrated, then yes, it’s highly possible that they’ll form a dependence and attachment on screens (this is one of the main reasons why I discourage parents from always using screens as a pacifier).

There are certainly some children who could possibly be medically diagnosed as being “addicted” to technology. Whilst the medical criterion for identifying a technology addiction are not yet consistent, many psychologists and psychiatrists agree that some children would constitute a medical diagnosis of addiction.

There’s no denying that some children’s technology habits and patterns are problematic. But suggesting the iPads and Xboxes are a form of “digital drug” isn’t necessarily true and isn’t the case for all children.  We have a body of research that shows that the appropriate and intentional use of technology can certainly support and enhance children’s learning and development.

Wouldn’t our conversation be better and more helpful if we focused on the positive potential of screens (because they’re not going to disappear)? Rather than demonising technology, wouldn’t it be more fruitful if we at least considered both sides to the argument- the positive potential and pitfalls associated with screens? Suggesting that screens are akin to cocaine is not going to promote a positive discussion.

#6- Drug metaphors are alarmist and unhelpful

Using the technology is a drug metaphor is alarmist and inaccurate. It exacerbates parents’ already heightened state of techno-guilt. Time-poor parents, who don’t have time to delve into articles, read attention-grabbing, fear-mongering headlines like this and it causes parental angst and guilt. Parents already fret about their children’s digital habits, simply because they have no frame of reference- they experienced ‘analogue childhoods’ and are expected to know how to raise ‘screenagers’- kids who are experiencing ‘digitalised childhoods’. As a society, we’ve had an historical reluctance to embrace new technologies (we worried that the printing press would destroy verbal communication and we were even told that steam trains would cause baldness).

Raising kids in a tsunami of screens is new. It’s challenging. And it’s completely different to the analogue childhood most parents (and professionals) experienced. So our natural tendency is to worry. Kardaras’ article plays right to this fear, but it doesn’t necessarily provide any realistic solutions (apart from suggesting that, “The key is to prevent your 4-, 5- or 8-year-old 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).”

Digital abstinence is not a long-term solution.

We need to teach our kids how to form healthy and helpful relationships with technology. We need to teach them how to use and how to switch off screens (and yes, there are neurobiological reasons why your child has techno-tantrums and finds it hard to switch off screens- you can read more about that here).

Final Comments-

Technology and screens are not toxic and taboo. They’re not a digital drug. They’re simply a tool.  They’re neither good nor bad. It depends on how, where, when and with whom they’re used and what they’re used to do. Likening technology to a drug is misleading.

Yes, it’s highly likely that our kids’ brains have a neurobiological response to screens. As a  researcher, I don’t doubt that for a moment. But we don’t yet have a clear picture as to exactly what this looks like yet, so Kardaras’ claims aren’t necessarily based on science. I’m confident Kardaras has extensive field experience dealing with children and adolescents who have developed unhealthy relationships and a dependence (possibly even an “addiction”) with screens. But this article implies that screens (all screens) are “addictive”- this is not necessarily true.

We need to re-direct our conversation. As parents, educators and professionals working with families, we need to shift the dialogue.  We need to stop obsessing over quantifying “how much” screen-time kids have each day. We need to stop attempts to digitally-amputate our kids- technology is here to stay whether we love it or loathe it.

Sure, kids need limits and we need to balance their screen-time with green-time and ensure that screens don’t erode crucial developmental opportunities like sleep, play, relationships and physical activity. We need instead, to focus on WHAT they’re doing with screens, WHEN they’re using screens and HOW they’re using technology.

We need to teach our kids how to use technology in appropriate, safe and sustainable ways and how to mitigate potential harmful effects. We need to develop healthy technology habits so that our kids form healthy and life-long habits that will set them up for the future.

Instead of focusing on preventing kids from “getting hooked on screens” let’s focus on teaching them to develop healthy and sustainable habits from the start. Kids need their parents and teachers to teach them (and also model) healthy media habits. I suggest that we focus on this, instead of suggesting that screens are like an addictive drug.

 

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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