Unplugging the Cure for Kids' Addiction to 'Digital Drugs'

“Where’s Georgie?”

It wasn’t the first time that question was heard inside our home. During the summer, pockets of time where our 4-year old had disappeared somewhere inside our old cavernous bed and breakfast had become commonplace.

That next question: have you seen my phone?

Past experience had taught us that the key to tracking down our daughter meant locating my wife’s smart phone. Eventually we would find her tucked away in some far corner of our home dazing mindlessly into the glowing screen. And we always did.

At first we couldn’t help but be impressed by Georgie’s ability to navigate the intricate handheld technology. A tech-savvy tot by the age of 2, my wife and I would look on in awe as her stubby little fingers carefully swiped to unlock the phone, then navigated the YouTube app to watch her favorite videos.

As Georgie grew older, YouTube videos of three-minute clips of impersonations of Frozen characters evolved into downloading app games, such as “Candy Crush” or one where worms crawled around eating biscuits. We didn’t feel alarmed.

As parents who had adopted a parenting philosophy that emphasized flexibility and freedom as pathways to growth, our first tendency was to let Georgie go. Besides, maybe it’s a just phase, we thought. Full confession: As a father of four young daughters, including a 1-year old, sometimes having Georgie occupied by the screen also felt more like a gift than a danger.

10_21_screens_02 Children play "Pokemon GO" on the Pokequan GoBoat Adventure Cruise in Virginia, August 14. Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters

But shortly before her fifth birthday we had noticed that something was different with Georgie. It wasn’t just the hours lost to the screen in the corner of her bedroom. Her interests had begun to change, too. The sun was out, but suddenly Georgie was less inclined to play on the swings. Like the rest of our children, Georgie loved scary stories. But now instead of begging for me to tell a “scary,” she now preferred the comfort of her handheld  digital counterpart.

Like much of the outside world, I had been rendered obsolete to her new wireless companion.

And perhaps worst of all, there was the whining. When it came to screens, that gentle disposition we had grown accustomed to would change. Georgie wanted the screen, and she wanted it now.

The breaking point came one hot summer day, when, once again, Georgie had disappeared. Fortunately, this time it didn’t take long to locate her—she was lying near-comatose in our stiflingly hot, unfinished office. Her numb reaction to my voice reminded me of a scene of an apocalyptic horror flick. Her sweaty red hair was matted to her head. But Georgie didn’t seem to notice. Her glazed eyes were fixated on the screen two inches in front of her face. After I called her name, an incomprehensible moan dripped out of her mouth. We immediately interceded and took the screen away.

Overexposure, Real Consequences

Speaking with other parents, we’ve since discovered that our story of the slippery slope of child-screen addiction has become alarmingly common place. The statistics tell an even scarier tale. Children aged 5 to 16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen, compared with around three hours in 1995, according to The Connected Kids report, using data compiled by market researcher Childwise.

Dr. Andrew Doan, the head of addiction research for the Pentagon and the U.S. Navy calls video games and screen technologies “digital drugs.” Many of these technologies are so stimulating that it raises the dopamine levels—the feel-good neurotransmitter most commonly linked to addiction. It shows that long amounts of time focused on a screen can affect the brain’s frontal cortex in exactly the same way that cocaine does, according to research.

Depression, anxiety and aggression have all been linked to excessive screen time, and can even spur psychotic-like features. Further research shows that as more kids use digital media, their social skills erode, as the more time a child spends dedicated to cyber-reality the more they lose their ability to interpret real-life emotions.

The overexposure of screens isn’t just an American problem. In China, where many addicts even begin to view the real world as fake, screen addiction has become such a major issue that doctors now consider this phenomenon a clinical disorder and have created rehabilitation centers where children are confined for months of “draconian” therapy.

10_21_screens_01 "The Charlie, Charlie Challenge" is one of two books in the iShrieks series by author Matthew Lysiak. ishrieks.com

However, there is another, albeit less intrusive fix: unplugging.

A short time away from screens worked wonders for Georgie. After we took the phone away from her, a short period of agitation followed that could best be described as withdrawal. But a few short days later she was back to playing outside with her baby sister, coloring, and in general, being the energetic fun-loving kid we had feared had been lost.

In time, Georgie would be allowed to use screens again, but only for tightly limited time periods and under close supervision.

It was that first-hand experience with this mild, but very real world of screen addiction that became my inspiration for the creation of iShrieks, a horror series targeted at the middle-grade audience that engages tech-savvy kids by combining children’s love of scary stories with a growing fascination with smartphones, tablets and any other device that keeps them plugged into the world of the internet.

This series isn’t an anti-tech screed. It is undeniable that technology has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the world.

At our house, the role of smart phones and digital devices has become an indispensable part of our day-to-day existence. My 12-year-old daughter, Isabel, is employed as America’s youngest paid advice columnist for the local newspaper. She edits on her MacBook and posts on YouTube. My 9-year old, Hilde Lysiak, has created her own niche in the world with the publication of her own newspaper. Her smartphone and computer have replaced her pen and notepad.

However, as my wife and I witnessed firsthand, there is a very real and dangerous dark side to our new digitally enhanced world, lurking just below the surface.

iShrieks was written as a warning sign to this upcoming tech-savvy generation, that by staring into that glowing screen, the thin line separating horror from reality can grow into much more than a work of fiction—it can turn into a living nightmare.

Matthew Lysiak is a nationally recognized journalist and co-author of the young adult memoir of teen scientist Jack Andraka, Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator Is Changing the World (Harper Collins, March 2015), and author of Newtown: An American Tragedy (Gallery/Simon & Schuster, December 2013) and co-author of the upcoming series Hilde Cracks the Case (Scholastic 2017), which was acquired for television by Paramount. Matthew's original play Heidi’s Monkeys, a psychological horror, is performed every October at the Pajama Factory in Williamsport.