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Digital Detox—At Every Age

An addiction to screens can be more difficult to treat than one to drugs, says addiction expert Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, who treats a range of addictive behaviors as executive director at renowned rehab center, The Dunes in East Hampton, NY. (The title of his new book? Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids-and How to Break the Trance.) Though it’s no surprise that screen usage for kids and adults alike has skyrocketed, the actual numbers are nonetheless staggering: The average teenager now spends eleven hours per day in front of a screen, says Kardaras. Beyond the concern of what’s missed during this time (outdoor activity, face-to-face interactions), research has connected screen time to ADHD, anxiety, depression, increased aggression, and even psychosis. If that sounds extreme, keep reading to see what qualifies as unhealthy tech use in adults; Kardaras’s checklist likely hits closer to home than you might expect (it did for us). Below, he explains how to do a digital detox no matter what your age, ways everyone can unplug a bit more—and most importantly—why we all (kids included) should spend more time being bored.

A Q&A with Dr. Nicholas Kardaras

Q

How does screen addiction differ (or not) in adults versus children? What qualifies as unhealthy tech use for adults?

A

Adults have a fully developed frontal cortex, so they are better neurophysiologically equipped to handle screen exposure. But they can absolutely become addicted to screens. The clinical symptoms are the same for adults as they are for kids: Is your screen time negatively impacting your life (job, relationships, health)? Are you unable to control how long you’re on a screen? Are you sleep-deprived because of your usage? Do you get irritable when you’re without your device?

Q

Is screen addiction associated with other unhealthy behaviors, outcomes, or addictions?

A

Yes, several studies have correlated screen usage and excessive social media usage (“hyper-networkers”—more than three hours of social media a day) to poorer grades, more acting-out sexual behavior, more behavioral problems. Beyond unhealthy behaviors, we see that excessive screen usage in adults can correlate to increased depression (so-called Facebook depression due to what’s known as the “social comparison effect”) and increased anxiety.

Q

Can you take us through the digital detox you’d recommend for extreme cases?

A

It’s basically unplugging from screens for 4 to 6 weeks (the extreme version also eliminates TV). This allows a person’s adrenal system to re-regulate itself and get back to baseline. One also should plan to REPLACE screen time during the tech fast with meaningful and/or healthy recreational activities. After the detox period, the person slowly reintegrates some screen usage, and sees what level they can tolerate without falling down the compulsion rabbit hole. Some can go back to some moderate level of screen time, others can’t. People have done digital detoxes on their own but it is more effective when facilitated by a mental health professional versed in addiction/digital addiction.

Q

For adults who aren’t full-on addicted, but who still want to reduce their screen time, what do you recommend?

A

I recommend tech-free dinners and no-tech periods throughout the day. Get rid of your phone if it’s by your nightstand. Increase your non-screen activities: sports, recreation, face-to-face time with friends and loved ones. Read a book; walk in nature. Better yet, learn how to be bored and deal with boredom—this applies to both kids and adults.

We have gotten used to the notion that we need to be perpetually stimulated. But that’s not true; the healthiest skill that we can develop is to learn to just sit and “be.” Whether this means learning to meditate or just day-dreaming, it doesn’t matter. As mindfulness-guru Jon Kabat Zinn once said, we have become human doings rather than human beings. We should all try and remember how to just “be,” because the healthiest people and the healthiest societies are able to do just that.

Q

How do you define and diagnose screen addiction in kids?

A

Screen addiction clinically looks like any other addiction and is typified by a person continuing to engage in aproblematic behavior—in this case screen usage—in a way that begins to negatively impact their life: Their school work begins to suffer; their interpersonal relationships begin to suffer. Perhaps their health and hygiene also begin to decline as the addiction gets worse. Oftentimes we see a person lying about, or hiding their screen usage. We see screen addicts whose real-life experiences get replaced with their digital experiences—for kids, that might look like less baseball and more Minecraft. Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have an official screen addiction diagnosis; in the latest DSM-5 (the psychiatric bible of diagnosis) it was listed under the appendix for further review. Yet, in other parts of the world, it is fully acknowledged as an official clinical diagnosis. In fact, the Chinese Health Organization (CHO) has called “Internet Addiction Disorder” one of the leading medical problems facing China, with an estimated 20 million screen-addicted Chinese youth, while South Korea has over 400 tech-addiction rehab centers.

Q

How widespread is screen addiction among children? How much time are kids typically spending on their devices?

A

Estimates vary; a recent report by Common Sense Media found that half of American adolescents felt that they were addicted to their electronic devices; other estimates indicate 20 to 30 percent. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average eight- to ten-year-old spends almost eight hours a day in front of various digital media while teenagers spend more than eleven hours per day in front of screens—that’s more time than they spend doing anything else, including sleeping!

Q

What research exists on the effects of screen addiction on kids, and what are you seeing?

A

There are over 200 peer-reviewed research studies that have correlated screen time with clinical disorders like ADHD, anxiety, depression, increased aggression, and even psychosis. Dr. Dimitri Christakis at the University of Washington did a lot of research into screens and their ADHD-increasing effects; many think that they are directly responsible for our national ADHD epidemic. Screens hyper-stimulate kids and create what’s called “mood dysregulation.” A screen-tethered, mood-dysregulated child can look like a child who is moody and throws fits, who has attention problems and can’t focus—and who can get aggressive when their devices are taken away.

Dr. Craig Anderson and his research associates at Iowa State have over fifteen years of research showing the aggression-increasing effects of violent video games. Dr. Mark Griffith and Angelica de Gortari have coined the term “Game Transfer Phenomena”—psychotic-like features that are often observed in compulsive gamers who blur the game with reality, or who have intrusive sights and sounds of the game manifesting even when they’re not playing the game. In my own clinical practice, I have seen first-hand this form of what I call “Video Game Psychosis”: Gaming clients who’ve had full-blown psychotic breaks after marathon gaming sessions and who needed to be psychiatrically hospitalized. It’s all pretty shocking and frightening to witness, even for mental health professionals.

Q

What is a safe amount of time for kids to be plugged in, and at what age? Are all screens and uses of technology equal, or are some more likely to lead to addiction?

A

My recommendation follows the lead of Steve Jobs who didn’t let his younger kids have iPads. Or Google and Yahoo executives and engineers in Silicon Valley who put their kids in non-tech Waldorf Schools. Elementary-aged children are just not neurologically equipped yet for such powerful immersive, interactive, and dopaminergic (dopamine-activating) devices. So, I recommend no interactive screens before the age of ten—it’s just not age-appropriate. Let their brains develop first; let them develop their sense of active imagination and their ability to focus and to deal with boredom before hyper-stimulating them. After age ten, parents should still use caution and monitor how their kids react to screens as every child is different; some can tolerate more screen time than others without becoming compulsive or developing other adverse effects.

As far as screen potency for addiction, we know that how dopaminergic a behavior or substance is correlates with its addictive potential. For example, according to research by MJ Koepp (and others), crystal meth is 1,200 percent dopaminergic while cocaine is 300 percent dopaminergic; in other words, crystal meth has more addictive potential to those predisposed towards addiction. Similarly, the more hyper-arousing and stimulating a screen experience is, the more addictive potential it can have. Violent video games and porn are the most dopamine-activating and the most potentially addicting. The reward interval of certain games also plays into how compulsive and addictive they are. Many games use a “variable reward ratio”—the same as casino slot machines, which have the most addicting reward schedule.

Q

How do you feel about the rise of technology in school and the benefits it can bring to the classroom?

A

As I wrote in TIME magazine, it’s the great 60-billion-dollar hoax: Tech in the classroom is big business. The tech companies have convinced both schools and parents—or conned them into believing—that screens in the classroom are educational. Meanwhile there is not one credible research study that shows any educational benefit or proof that screen kids become better students. Yet there are several studies (see this 2015 report from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation, an exhaustive 2012 Durham University meta-study, and the work of Jane Healy, education psychologist and author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds) that show just the opposite: The more screens in the classroom, the worse the educational outcomes. And they are Trojan horses filled with the potential for the above-mentioned clinical disorders. That’s why Finland—long-held as the gold standard in public education—has moved away from screens in school.

Q

What else do we need to know to keep our kids from becoming addicted to tech?

A

In this case, prevention really is worth a pound of cure. Be extremely careful and cautious as to what age you expose your child to a screen. The older, the better: The more developed their frontal cortex, (which is the executive functioning part of the brain and relates to impulse control), the better equipped the young person will be to handle the tech. I have treated drug addicts and I have treated screen addicts and, in many ways, it’s harder to treat screen addiction. That’s because screens are so accepted and ubiquitous in our society. Yet many young people I’ve worked with simply can’t handle any level of screen exposure, and develop very compulsive and self-destructive behavior when exposed to them.

Q

For children who are already addicted, what do you recommend?

A

As with adults, I recommend a digital detox during which kids unplug from screens for four to six weeks. Adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley recommends a cold-turkey detox. I advocate a gradual tapering down (cutting usage by, say, one hour a day per week) until the child gets to zero-screen time for a period of four to six weeks. I ascribe to the tapering method to avoid the aggression and withdrawal-like symptoms that we often see when kids are abruptly cut off.

Dr. Nicholas Kardaras is an internationally renowned speaker, one of the country’s foremost addiction experts, and the executive director of The Dunes in East Hampton, NY—one of the world’s top rehab centers. A former clinical professor at Stony Brook Medicine, he has also taught neuropsychology at the doctoral-level, and is the author of Glow Kids and How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save Your Life.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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