Are Digital Devices the Modern Cocaine Infecting Our Kids’ Lives - Literally?

04/22/2017 12:10 am ET Updated Apr 25, 2017

Emily got her little boy Henry a tablet when he entered first grade. She, like many other new age moms considered this a rite of passage, giving her kids a head start into the digital world. Apple & Samsung have been ballyhooing the benefits of educational tech for quite some time.

“Something magical happens when you put Apple products in your classroom. You can create unique opportunities for personal learning at every level. Lessons become more immersive through the power of touch, motion, and sound. Assignments can be sketched, scored, charted, coded, or performed. And the work your students need to do becomes the work they love to do.” Source - http://www.apple.com/education/

We have been told repeatedly that these devices are good for learning. We see kids playing games on them all the time, educational or otherwise. And then of course there is Minecraft – some education technologists have given it the name “electronic Lego”, just like there is the electronic version of Monopoly. Parents have all used those blocks as kids so are usually prompt to let their children into the world of tablet Minecraft. Little do they realize that there is a growing epidemic of children Minecrafting their lives away, metaphorically speaking.

Henry seemed to be doing great at the beginning being all creative with his new tablet. Emily thought she had made the right choice. She did however, compare it with her own childhood when shooting dinosaurs with pistols, rifles and bazookas was not part of what stoked the creative spirit [ever see a kid play Dino Hunter?]. She noticed how Henry jumped with excitement as he watched the bullet go right through the first dinosaur to then slay the second one standing behind. A thousand golden points for the feat, Henry earns an upgrade to a missile!

Killing animals and scavenging for minerals to make the next level was the play. The school even had its own Minecraft club. Emily thought to herself, this was how it was going to be for kids now. But she did start seeing change in her little boy as he started getting more and more involved with the tablet, losing interest in what he considered more mundane tasks like playing ball or reading a book. He would rebel when asked to make his bed or do simple chores, something he had never protested before. Henry told her he was seeing Minecraft blocks in his dreams. Emily thought Henry just had an overactive imagination like so many other kids that were exposed to everything life had to offer.

With time Henry’s tantrums flared but Emily considered it part of growing up as a kid with all this exposure. She would give in to his eruptions. One day she went to Henry’s room in the middle of the night to check up on him, and found him staring in the distance with blood red eyes, dazed, as the tablet sat next to him in full glow. The apparent hypnosis he seemed to be under was dumbfounding. She soon realized it was the effect of the glow screen and its hypnotizing power on children.

It’s worth noting that some of the most tech savvy parents are extremely low tech in their homes especially when it comes to their kids. Steve Jobs was one of them. Don't believe me? Then read this NYT article titled "Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent".

"We limit how much technology our kids use at home." - Steve Jobs

When asked if his home was a nerd's paradise, Jobs said

"Nope, not even close" - Steve Jobs

In fact many of my colleagues and friends that are leading tech venture capitalists, engineers and renowned tech entrepreneurs send their children to Waldorf schools – that are known for having low to no tech. I also discovered that Jeff Bezos, Jimmi Wales (Wikipedia) and both Larry Page and Sergey Brin attended zero-tech Montessori schools.

Children on these devices tend to get bored, detached and apathetic to their surroundings, albeit temporarily initially, but the condition only gets worse with time as devices become the principal mode of contact amongst kids, limiting the opportunities for physical inter-personal interaction. I have witnessed children of family members and colleagues that have visited me in New York, utterly dispassionate to the hubbub of Manhattan as I drive them through the city, just because they have their heads buried in their tablets. This is an extremely common occurrence nowadays. Children seem to want the constant stimulus that these devices offer them. It’s as if their brain is always turned on (or “off” as the case might be).

Renowned experts like Dr. Peter Whybrow, physician-in-chief of UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Hospital, executive chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and director of the Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, have studied this phenomenon using brain imaging, and claim that tablets, smartphones and video game consoles are indeed no different from drugs like cocaine, affecting the frontal cortex of the brain in much the same way that heroin or cocaine would do. In fact he calls these devices Electronic Cocaine.

Researchers also say that these devices with prolonged use are so intensely addictive that they heighten dopamine levels in the brain to the same degree a drug addict would experience when high. Chinese researchers call it Digital Heroin. Dr Andrew Doan, the head of the Department of Mental Health, Addictions and Resilience Research at the US Navy calls them Digital Pharmakeia.

So, can we infer from all this that our kids’ brains when on these devices, as time passes, starts to resemble a brain that is addicted to drugs? Is that a fair conclusion? I don’t know. What I do know is that I have witnessed several incidents where kids have acted out or gone into a frenzy when a parent interjected or took away their screen. Further, melancholy, angst and bellicosity are words common in the screen-addict’s psychological vocabulary.

What I struggle to understand is, if these devices are indeed compared with hard drugs like cocaine or heroin, why is our Government's "war on drugs" not regulating the use of marketing of these devices to kids and youth in the name of education? I am not making a statement, I am just being a citizen asking questions based on imaging based research that has been presented by some genuine experts in this case.

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates an average of 8 hours/day of digital screen time for third to fifth graders, and 11 hours/ day on average for teens. That’s crazy. Here is a cool tool parents can use to plan-out their family media time. Dr. Kimberly Young is a psychologist and world expert on Internet addiction disorder and online behavior. She founded the Center for Internet Addiction and has a PhD in Clinical Psychology. According to Dr. Young, nearly 1 in 5 US college-bound adults are tech addicts!

The problem we all face is that digital temptations are all around us. In an always-on world full of televisions, tablets, smartphones and consoles, what has been your experience of having these devices around your kids, and around you if I might add? Even if you have created the controlled environment for electronic use within your own family, how do you feel about other parents, many of who will likely be your friends, blindly giving away their smartphones to their kids at a restaurant you might be in, thus putting unwanted pressure on your own kids who'll likely be in the company of these other kids. If you think such devices are like drugs (I am not making this claim, I am speculating based on the research), would you think that your kids are surrounded by other kids that are carrying 'electronic cocaine'? How does one prevent this from getting worse? Please share below.

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