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Dangers of ‘Digital Heroin’

The supposed danger of digital media made headlines over the weekend when psychotherapist Nicholas Kardaras published a story in the New York Post called "It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies." In the op-ed, Kardaras claims that "iPads, smartphones and XBoxes are a form of digital drug." He stokes fears about the potential for addiction and the ubiquity of technology by referencing "hundreds of clinical studies" that show "screens increase depression, anxiety and aggression."

We’ve seen this form of scaremongering before. People are frequently uneasy with new technology, after all. The problem is, screens and computers aren’t actually all that new. There’s already a whole generation — millennials — who grew up with computers. They appear, mostly, to be fine, selfies aside. If computers were "digital drugs," wouldn’t we have already seen warning signs?

This addictive effect is why Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, calls screens “electronic cocaine” and Chinese researchers call them “digital heroin.” In fact, Dr. Andrew Doan, the head of addiction research for the Pentagon and the US Navy — who has been researching video game addiction — calls video games and screen technologies “digital pharmakeia” (Greek for drug).  

No matter. Kardaras opens with a little boy who was so hooked on Minecraft that his mom found him in his room in the middle of the night, in a "catatonic stupor" — his iPad lying next to him. This is an astonishing use of "catatonic," and is almost certainly not medically correct. It’s meant to scare parents.

 (image from http://genieinablog.com/2015/01)

This style of manipulation is most obvious in Kardaras’ use of statistics: "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," he writes. His article takes general aim at screens, but specifically stokes fears about video games and the internet ("I have found it easier to treat heroin and crystal meth addicts than lost-in-the-matrix video gamers or Facebook-dependent social media addicts," he writes). He makes no mention of television, which remains the predominant form of media for children and teens, according to a 2013 policy statement from the American Academy of pediatrics.

Kardaras’ op-ed goes on to warn that exposure to screens can cause "addiction," and he quotes researchers analogizing screentime to heroin and cocaine. "That’s right — your kid’s brain on Minecraft looks like a brain on drugs," he writes. This is, strictly speaking, true — at least, from a neuroimaging standpoint. This is a hoary old trope in science writing, and it’s apparently loosely based on fMRI, which is hardly the most accurate discipline. The brain’s reward center, the ventral striatum, is what makes you feel good when you eat, have sex, take cocaine, or play video games.

It’s true that there is research linking the overuse of electronics to mental health disorders. But the arrow of causation still isn’t clear, says David Hill, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media. No one has been able to tell whether excessive screentime can cause mental health disorders, or whether people with underlying disorders are more predisposed to problematic use of interactive media.

source: New York Post

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