Digital Heroin: A rebuttal

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In August 2016, Dr. Nicholas Kardas published an article in the New York Post entitled “It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies”. In the opening paragraphs, he describes how playing Minecraft on an iPad quickly turned a 6-year old boy into an angry, obsessed, and addicted player.

Dr. Kardas goes on to explain that screen time has an inherently negative impact on children, as he states, “Many parents intuitively understand that ubiquitous glowing screens are having a negative effects on children”. But, according to Dr. Kardas, it is “even worse than we think.”

Citing some recent studies from neuroscience, Dr. Kardas explains that screen use has been found to be associated with heightened stimulation in the pre-frontal cortex and raised dopamine levels. He concludes that this represents an inherently addictive quality of digital media. His claims become so generalized that Dr. Kardas even states “That’s right – your kid’s brain on Minecraft looks like a brain on drugs”.

I am not discounting the validity of this research, but I suggest that we all take a deep breath and a step backwards. I recognize that several research groups have found that “glowing screen effect”. That is, exposure to a glowing screen (such as an iPad) can be associated with stimulation of the pre-frontal cortex, which is a pattern you also see with drug use. However, I completely disagree with the tone of these claims as presented in Dr. Kadras’ article as his underlying assumption that it makes that every child with an iPad is going to become an out of control, zombie shell of their former self after a few months of Minecraft.

Shared over three million times, Dr. Kadras’ article is a key example of media sensationalism and fear mongering. I would argue that using Minecraft addiction as his primary example was no coincidence. Video games have had a PR problem almost since their inception. Much like the media that came before them (comic books, radio, Elvis’ hips, television), video games are often chosen as the scapegoat of choice for the source of all societies aliments. In recent years, video game addiction has come to the forefront of this discussion. Fears of children spending endless hours in front of a screen, to the detriment of their school, work, and family, are real concerns for many parents. It is unfortunate that this article does little to quell these fears and bring forth a balanced view of the scientific literature but rather generalizes a few outlying cases of potential digital media addiction whilst suggesting that parents who are not tech-cautions parents (such as Steve Jobs and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page as discussed in the article) are doing their children a disservice.

It needs to be clarified that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not formally recognize technology addictions – such as addiction to one’s smartphone, iPad, or video game addiction – as a specific class of behavioural addiction. In fact, Internet Gaming Disorder is the only technology-based addiction to put forth by the APA but as a condition that requires further research to determine if it is a distinctive behavioural addiction in its own right. A behavioural addiction to a “glowing screen” would be an incredibly rare occurrence. Taking video game addiction as an example, recent research places the potential rates of a true addiction at 0.2% of the game playing population.

This is not to say that a behavioural addiction to a digital technology would not a serious issue. It surely can be as supported by the therapeutic work of Dr. Kardas and other clinicians. However, the fear mongering, and generalization of rare cases to the whole of the general population of screen users is doing a disservice to parents, educators, and other clinicians around the world.

This article also greatly ignores the potential benefits that screen time can bring, such as social connectivity and various learning opportunities.

I agree with Dr. Kardas’ suggestion that we should be encouraging our children to play with “Lego instead of Minecraft; books instead of iPads; nature and sports instead of TV”. But this advice was the same given to our parents “go outside instead of watching television”. The cycle of media fear mongering continues.