Digital Drugs May Be Less a Threat Than Concerta Crash

When science fiction writer and inveterate jokester Isaac Asimov worked in the Navy Yard during World War II, he once satirized the “formal, convoluted” style of the reports and specifications by handing in a perfectly correct parody so complex that “brain coagulation would have set in by page 2.” To his horror, his supervisors “took it straight” and “handed [it] out to new employees as an example of how specifications ought to be written.

I wondered, sometimes, in looking back on it, just how much, in my eagerness to play a harmless little joke, I had set back the war effort.”

Similarly, in 1995, when psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg created the concept of Internet Addiction Disorder it was “an effort to parody the way the American Psychiatric Association’s hugely influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] medicalizes every excessive behavior,” according to Greg Beato in Reason.

Online and console gamers won’t be happy about this, but their favorite pastime is being described as an addiction as bad as heroin by some in the psychiatric community who took Goldberg as seriously as the Navy supervisors took Asimov. At least, that’s what one Chicken Little-academic/addiction rehab head honcho claims. He also is pushing a book. That doesn’t make him wrong necessarily, but at the very least there’s no consensus.

In the second of two related New York Post articles, Nicholas Kardaras, a psychotherapist and author of Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids – And How to Break the Trance, wrote “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.”

Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is not officially recognized in the DSM-5 – despite some intense support – but the American Psychiatric Association is encouraging its study, and there is at least one dedicated rehab facility for the “digitally distracted,” though fewer than for other, more dangerous addictions

Kardaras also is the executive director of another rehab center, but he argues that since the luxury addiction recovery center does not offer treatment for screen addiction, he has no financial interest in generating unwarranted hysteria. (What, book sales aren’t an incentive?)

One reason the DSM hasn’t anointed screen addiction as a disease is that there have been few peer-reviewed studies in favor of such a diagnosis, and those dealt with small samples. At least one study says there’s not enough evidence that IAD is a disease, let alone one meriting “a discrete DSM-5 diagnosis.” Kardaras, for all his expertise, hasn’t conducted any either. According to Rachel Becker of The Verge, Kardaras “wanted to reach the broadest audience possible by publishing in the popular press.”

But Becker counter-argues that it is hysteria. There are many more people exposed to digital devices than are exposed to heroin, crystal meth, or problematic legal attention deficit hyperactivity disorder drugs such as Concerta. If digital devices were that addictive, there should be many more people showing signs of screen addiction and withdrawal – lack of focus, irritable, hyperactive, tired, anxious or a decreased heart rate – like a Concerta crash.

Kardaras does have anecdotal evidence – which every scientist or critical thinker should always take with a very large grain of salt – and circumstantial studies that show there are similar effects in the brain while playing Minecraft or shooter games as there are when abusing drugs. But Becker points out that these are similar to the effects of many activities, including sex. Behavior, even compulsive behavior, isn’t always addiction.

Becker points out that just as Kardaras can find some studies that supports his viewpoint, opponents can also “cherry-pick results that highlight the positive aspects of technology on kids’ brains.” Becker and other critics don’t deny that too much digital screen time may be bad for you – and there is concerning evidence of its negative effects – but say there’s not enough evidence in peer-reviewed scientific papers to justify Kardaras’s alarmist warnings.

But digital devices have not only made finding information a lot easier. They also are offering valuable therapeutic help, including helping socialize autistic children and managing pain better than morphine in burn victims. Kardaras acknowledges these, but uses it to sound the alarm, too. “Just what effect is this digital drug — a narcotic more powerful than morphine — having on the brains and nervous systems of 7-year-olds addicted to their glowing screens?”

Kardaras has no answer; he’s only being rhetorical. The only appropriate answer is “Let’s find out before we try to restrict or ban digital devices.”

More of a threat to our children are ADHD drugs, such as Ritalin, Adderall, or Concerta. Young people who take an ADHD drug long-term experience a surge in dopamine production while on the drug, but then experience “a 25 to 30 percent decrease in attention span when not on the drug,” or causing a sometime dangerous Concerta crash when not on the drug. And people with Adderall, Ritalin, or Concerta addiction when young are more likely to abuse alcohol or other substances when older.

Parents should monitor their children’s digital activities, and it certainly seems reasonable to ban them from the dinner table. But they also need to model good digital behavior and put down their own devices too.


BIO: Stephen Bitsoli writes articles about addiction and related topics. A journalist for more than 20 years, and a lifelong avid reader, Stephen loves learning and sharing what he’s learned.

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