We’ve all seen them: kids hypnotically staring at glowing screens in restaurants, in playgrounds and in friends' houses—and the numbers are growing. Like a virtual scourge, the illuminated glowing faces—the Glow Kids—are multiplying. But at what cost? Is this just a harmless indulgence or fad like some sort of digital hula-hoop? Some say that glowing screens might even be good for kids—a form of interactive educational tool.
Don’t believe it.
In Glow Kids, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras will examine how technology—more specifically, age-inappropriate screen tech, with all of its glowing ubiquity—has profoundly affected the brains of an entire generation. Brain imaging research is showing that stimulating glowing screens are as dopaminergic (dopamine activating) to the brain’s pleasure center as sex. And a growing mountain of clinical research correlates screen tech with disorders like ADHD, addiction, anxiety, depression, increased aggression, and even psychosis. Most shocking of all, recent brain imaging studies conclusively show that excessive screen exposure can neurologically damage a young person’s developing brain in the same way that cocaine addiction can.
Kardaras will dive into the sociological, psychological, cultural, and economic factors involved in the global tech epidemic with one major goal: to explore the effect all of our wonderful shiny new technology is having on kids. Glow Kids also includes an opt-out letter and a "quiz" for parents in the back of the book.
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How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids â" and How to Break The Trance
By Nicholas Kardaras
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Nicholas Kardaras
All rights reserved.
INVASION OF THE GLOW KIDS
LOST IN THE MATRIX
It was almost ten years ago when I had my "Houston, we have a problem" moment. Sure, I had first seen some disconcerting red flags in Greece years earlier, but up until 2007 I was still blissfully unaware of the severity of the problem; I hadn't yet fully grasped just how neurologically damaging and addicting hypnotic glowing screens could be for kids.
All of that changed one cool afternoon in October of that year. I thought that I knew a lot about addiction — after all, I taught the subject at a major university, was a professor of neuroscience on the doctoral level and specialized in the treatment of addiction in my clinical practice. So I had seen all of the various flavors of addiction — or so I thought.
I also thought that I had seen everything when it came to working with young people. As the mental health provider at a local high school, I had treated hundreds of teenagers; I'd seen sexually abused kids, drug-addicted students, antisocial teens, gang members, anarchists, pedophiles, schizophrenics, Columbine-style misfits, cutters, obsessive-compulsives and arsonists. It was all in a day's work.
But I was entirely unprepared for "Dan," a young boy who was referred to me on that fateful day in 2007.
As he walked into my office, he looked dazed and disoriented ... and terrified. He slowly sat down, nervously fidgeting in the chair across from my desk, constantly jerking his head as he kept fearfully looking around my office.
I asked him if he knew where he was; he didn't answer. He just kept nervously blinking and looking around, his head in perpetual motion.
"Dan, do you know where you are?" I asked once again.
Again, no answer.
After a long, uncomfortable silence, he abruptly looked toward my ceiling lights and squinted, trying to get his bearings. Still blinking hard, he looked down again, his dark brown eyes fixing on mine. His face reflected the terror and confusion of people who seethings — sometimes horrible, sometimes mundane — that the rest of us can't. I recognized that frightened look; I had seen it many times in my work with schizophrenics.
Although this pale and greasy-haired 16-year-old high school junior wearing a weathered Metallica T-shirt didn't have any history of mental illness or substance abuse, he'd been sent to my office because he'd been acting very strangely.
I asked him again, more firmly: "Dan, do you know where you are?"
He blinked once more.
Then, finally, he looked straight at me and stammered in a tone of genuine confusion: "Are ... are ... we still in the game?"
No, we most certainly were not.
"Dan" was my first encounter — in what would eventually be many — of gaming-induced psychosis (also called Game Transfer Phenomena [GTP] or the "Tetris Effect"), a form of psychotic break that can occur when excessive gaming, often combined with sleep deprivation, blurs the line between what's real and what's fantasy. And, sure enough, Dan had been playing the fantasy game World of Warcraft — lovingly called "WoW crack" by many of its addicted devotees — for 10 to 12 hours a day and had become lost in the Matrix.
I would discover that World of Warcraft is a mythical role-playing game (RPG) that takes place in a fantasy realm called Azeroth and tells the story of the war between two factions, the Alliance and the Horde. Incredibly in-depth, with well-written lore and player-created and -administrated guilds, WoW offers a rich fantasy experience with opportunities for social interactions (via voice interface) with other gamers (these player-connected games are known as massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs).
Players become emotionally invested in these worlds, the progression of their characters, and the bonds with their fellow players. Indeed, with over ten million subscribers, World of Warcraft is the world's most popular massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) in the world.
As I sat there trying to assess Dan, I realized that kids getting lost in the fantasy of a video game was new territory for me. Reality blurring has long been the purview of psychedelic drugs; addiction psychologists are used to working with the substance-induced psychosis of LSD, mescaline and angel dust. Yet now it seemed that this new mind bending of the twenty-first century was the byproduct of a digital drug.
As Dan sat in my office, he was visibly scared and confused. He suffered from psychiatric symptoms of both derealization (not knowing what's real) and depersonalization (when people feel that they themselves aren't real); his brain had been fried by his complete immersion in his fantasy game.
In my work with psychiatric clients who had these kinds of dissociative experiences, I knew that grounding techniques could be helpful. Essentially, you help the client use his or her five senses to feel the immediacy — the physicality — of the present moment. Dan and I tried standing together and making a loud clapping sound; that seemed to help snap him out of his delusion for a moment. I asked him to grab and crumple a piece of paper, which he did.
"Where are we?"
"You're in my office talking to me. Are you still in the game?"
"No, I don't think so ... but I feel weird ... like I'm still not in my body."
Dan went on to describe his WoW-playing experiences. He was so addicted to WoW that he'd play straight through the night and wouldn't eat, sleep or go to the bathroom; when nature called, he'd simply pee in a mason jar next to his computer. I would eventually find out that peeing in jars isn't uncommon for World of Warcraft enthusiasts; the addictive gravitational pull of the game is so powerful that they've been known to wear diapers, like deep-space astronauts or long-haul truckers, so as to not miss a moment's playing time.
Then he started to cry. "I'm scared. I don't know what's happening ... am I going crazy?"
Because his symptoms would briefly get better, then abruptly worsen as flashback images of the game would overwhelm him again, he was sent to a psychiatric emergency room. The poor kid had to spend a month as an inpatient on the psych unit in order to get stabilized with pharmaceutical antipsychotic meds and psychotherapy so that he could eventually retether himself to reality.
While he was in the hospital, I spoke with his mother and asked her about his excessive all-night video game playing. His mother was a single mom with a limited education who worked at the local Walmart; while she was mildly concerned about his vampire-like hours, she was happy that at least he was "safe at home and not running the streets like other kids" when he was holed up in his room playing video games.
When he was released from the hospital, he asked for my help to stay off of the games. I encouraged him to throw all of his video games and gaming devices in the trash and to start reconnecting with things he used to like doing. He had, pre-video games, liked to play basketball in the local playground — I encouraged him to go outside and play again.
About a week later, I received an angry call from his mother.
"Do you know how much money those games and electronics cost that you encouraged him to throw away? Do you?!"
Taken aback, I responded: "Your son was just released from spending a month in a psychiatric hospital with problems that seem to be either directly related to, or at least impacted by, his playing of video games. He may have other underlying problems — wedon't know yet — but those games were not helping."
I paused and then tried my best to help her understand that Dan wanted off of the games. "Listen, Mrs. Smith — he asked for help to stay off of those games. He asked for help."
I don't shock easily, but I was shocked by her reply: "Yeah, but now he wants to go outside and play! He wants to go to the playground and play basketball! God knows what could happen to him outside!"
* * *
Over time, it became clear to me: the video game phenomenon was about kids seeking something and parents, albeit misguidedly, thinking that they were keeping their kids safe indoors. Or, if they really wanted to feel better about the digital babysitter, believing that video games and screens might even be educational, or enhancing their children's ability to focus, or increasing their hand-eye coordination, or doing whatever else the game packaging might claim.
Unfortunately, since I worked with Dan in 2007, screen culture and video game playing has spread like wildfire. Today, 97 percent of all American children between the ages of 2 and 17 play video games. That's 64 million kids. And those numbers are rising every year.
What's driving that growth — what's so appealing about playing a video game?
Sure, shooter games can create an adrenaline rush, and kids certainly like that; and match-three puzzle games like Candy Crush and building-block games with increasing levels like Minecraft certainly have their own highly addictive appeal. But what are we to make of the explosion of myth and fantasy games like World of Warcraft that appeal to tens of millions of kids? I've come to understand that, for some, the appeal here is much deeper and more fundamental than just adrenaline. Indeed, the need for mythical experiences may be hardwired into our human psyche.
The legendary Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and his devotee, the mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, both wrote extensively about our need for myth and the soul-feeding role of archetypal experiences. On a very deep and human level, we need our myths — ourcreation stories, our hero's journeys, our parables and our morality tales.
Yet, by and large, we have lost that in our modern age. Almost 100 years ago, Jung wrote that the modern world had been "demystified" and was experiencing a "poverty" of meaning; while the advances of science have certainly immeasurably improved our lives with everything from medical cures to useful household gadgets, the iconoclasm of science has also created a meaning void. Science has stripped us of our myths, telling us that there are no gods or demons, no heaven and hell, no Elysian mysteries, no Santa Claus and no tooth fairy. Indeed, we are told by science that the world is a rather cold, mechanistic place without myth or meaning — the necessary life blood of the human psyche.
In that archetypal desert, myth-starved young people gravitate to fantasy worlds where they can play out the most fundamental of archetypes — the hero's journey. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Joseph Campbell describes this archetype, which can be found in the myths of every culture: A hero who has to overcome obstacles, pass initiation rites and cross various thresholds to achieve some transformational goal that's the object of his or her quest. In that sense, many of today's mythical fantasy games like World of Warcraft are nothing more than digital versions of the hero's journey writ small on a hypnotic glowing screen.
As I worked with hundreds of gamers, it became apparent to me that many of these kids were looking for some sort of deeper connection and a sense of purpose. Alienated and adrift in soulless and institutional high schools, the meaning-starved kid finds purpose in a digital fantasy realm of adventure where there are monsters to slay, competitors to vanquish and prizes to attain; there is a soul-satisfying sense of purpose — and, if the games are played with others, a shared sense of purpose.
As I treated and talked to my various young clients, another dynamic also revealed itself: escape. Imagine you're a teenager and just don't feel like you quite fit in. Or you don't like the way that you look or live with a dysfunctional family; or let's say that you feel alone and empty and are often depressed. You hate school and have no real friends. In the cruel dynamics of the adolescent hierarchy and pecking order, you are on the outside looking in — after all, there can be only so many kids sitting at the cool table in the school cafeteria.
Would you escape from that life if you could?
For some, the Matrix does have its appeal.
Sure, there are the old standbys of drugs and alcohol to help ease the discomfort of not fitting in or not feeling comfortable in your own skin. But today kids also have magical fantasy worlds to lose and reinvent themselves in; worlds where they can create strong and powerful majestic personas that get to shoot everyone into oblivion, all while pursuing some noble common goal.
Which would you choose: being on the outside looking in at the cool lunch table or being a magical warlock who can conquer entire worlds?
I had worked with one gaming-addicted 16-year-old boy named "Matthew" who couldn't stop playing Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy, like World of Warcraft, is also a fantasy RPG in which four youths called the Light Warriors each carry one of their world's four elemental orbs, which have been darkened by the four Elemental Fiends. Together, the Light Warriors go on a quest to defeat the evil forces, restore light to the orbs and save their world. It's a boilerplate hero's journey.
I could understand how Matthew became entirely consumed by this game: Matthew was a very sweet, sensitive and soft-spoken young man who lived in a filthy, dilapidated house with disabled parents. His father was a disabled veteran, his mother a homebound, mentally ill woman on disability. Their house was such an unsanitary pigsty that Child Protective Services was frequently at their home. In school, Matthew would be mocked with the nickname "Roach Boy" as, on several occasions, cockroaches literally fell out of his clothing and onto his desk.
No, it wasn't hard to figure out why Matthew preferred to spend most of his waking life as a Light Warrior in Final Fantasy rather than as Roach Boy.
But not all kids who become addicted to escape come from such dysfunction. Others come from beautiful homes with loving parents. In some of those cases, the kid isn't necessarily escaping from some terrible external reality; rather, he or she may be escaping intrapsychic demons or discomfort.
"Jonathan" was just such a young man. His mother was a beloved educator at a local school, his father a kind and supportive dad who owned his own business. Always introspective, Jon started having increasingly dark thoughts and began exploring the world of extreme conspiracy theories: 9/11 truthers, Illuminati, One World Order. He began gravitating to a group of goth kids, but eventually even they found his antisocial rantings to be too much. Isolated, he talked of moving into a cabin and getting "off the grid." Instead, he fell into the Matrix, as he too lost himself in World of Warcraft.
For the socially better-adjusted, the traps are different. If you are lucky enough to be part of the cool lunch table, escaping into a video game may not be as compelling. Sure, it may be fun on a sheer adrenaline level to play some shooter games, but you get to sit at the cool table, so who needs to escape 24/7? Yes, you may not be as into gaming if you're one of the cool kids — but social media, now that's another story.
Mean Girls — and Guys — are no longer limited to good old word-of-mouth gossip and verbal put-downs in maintaining the social pecking order; now they have the amplification of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Kik, and every other social media site at their disposal to add to their arsenal.
Here's the rub: video games for the alienated kid and social media for the cheerleader are both just as addicting as heroin is to a junkie. With every burst of virtual gunfire, every text and tweet, there is a release — a little squirt — of dopamine, just as surely as cocaine tickles our dopamine neurotransmitters. And, unfortunately, some kids, based on genetics and psychological temperament, may already be predisposed toward addictive personalities and thus might be more vulnerable to getting hooked on these various digital dopamine stimulants.
But I have learned one other very important lesson in my years of working with addiction. Even the "average" person or kid can get hooked — the kid without the lousy home life or internal demons can get trapped by addiction too. Regardless of why you do it, if you drink too much or play dopamine-activating video games all day, addiction can suck you in as well.
Surprisingly, digital drugs may be even more insidious and problematic than illicit drugs because we don't have our guard up about them; meanwhile, they're ubiquitous, continuously reinforced and more socially accepted than their reviled powdered counterparts, making them so much more accessible.
Excerpted from Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras. Copyright © 2016 Nicholas Kardaras. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Trouble with Tech 1
1 Invasion of the Glow Kids 7
2 Brave New e-World 35
3 Digital Drugs and the Brain 49
4 Interview with Dr. Doan: Neuroscientist and Recovering Video Gamer 75
5 The Big Disconnect: Texting and Social Media 81
6 Clinical Disorders and the Glow Kids Effect 113
7 Monkey See, Monkey Do: Mass Media Effects 133
8 Video Games and Aggression: The Research 147
9 Ripped from the Headlines: Real Cases of Video Game-Influenced Violence 161
10 The Newtown Massacre: Video Game Psychosis 173
11 Etan Patz and the End of Innocence-and Outdoor Play 189
12 Follow the Money: Screens and the Educational Industrial Complex 195
13 It's an e-World 223
14 The Solution: Escaping Plato's e-Cave 235
Appendix: Does My Child Have a Screen or Tech Addiction Problem? 247