Digital drugs: Unplugging kids from 'electronic cocaine'

The habit of using portable devices can be as addictive as using controlled substances.

There’s a dangerous addiction kids are developing that’s turning them into digital junkies.

The iPads and smartphones parents are putting into kids' hands could be forming a habit that's harder to kick than heroin. That’s the warning from an addiction doctor who tells 10News it’s time for parents to consider pulling the plug.

Mom Donna Vaughan says it’s a rare sight to see her daughters glued to a phone screen.  “I grew up without it until I was 16 or 17, they can do it,” says Vaughan.

The 4-, 7- and 8-year-old girls know their screen time limits.  “I get five minutes,” says 7-year-old Abby.

When asked how many times per day she's allowed, 8-year-old Morgan replies, “Two.”

The girls know why their mom pushes them to play in the real world instead of the virtual one. “Sometimes, it can damage your brain,” Abby says.

“I'm worried about that when they get older, as teens,” says Vaughan.

Screens are being called “electronic cocaine" by some studying the phenomenon.

“I can tell you it's harder to treat a tech-addicted teenager than it is to treat a heroin addict and or alcoholic,” says Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, an addiction expert and the executive director of The Dunes rehab facility in East Hampton, N.Y.. He's also the founder and executive director of Hamptons Discovery, a progressive adolescent treatment program.

Dr. Kardaras has rehabbed more than 1,000 teens struggling with addiction and believes parents should keep technology out of the hands of kids younger than 10.

“If a child has crossed the line into digital addiction, it actually does take what we call a “digital detox” or “tech fast,” which means unplugging for a period of at least four weeks,” says Dr. Kardaras.

He says the same area of the brain that’s impacted by drug addiction is impacted by tech addiction.

“What brain imaging research has shown is excessive screen time shrinks the frontal cortex, which is exactly what happens in chronic cocaine addiction,” says Dr. Kardaras.

The addiction can affect grades, sports involvement, sleep, and interaction with classmates.

When phones, like drugs, are taken away, it can lead to a meltdown. “That's why it's better to moderate that usage to begin with, so they don't develop the screen problems,” says Dr. Kardaras.

Dr. Kardaras says every child is different when it comes to how much screen time is too much.

 

In his book, “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids - and How to Break the Trance,” Dr. Kardaras urges parents to ask how much time the kids are staring at a screen at school and says parents can choose to opt-out of the tech time.

“There's no educational benefit, no research that has shown a young child with a screen has a better educational outcome than a child without a tablet, yet we know it is a Pandora's box that could potentially lead to some clinical side effects,” says Dr. Kardaras.


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