Recently I gave a presentation to U.C. Irvine Medical Center’s Neuropsychiatry Department, entitled “The Negative Effects of Video Games and Electronics on Mood, Behavior, and Brain Development“. At the last minute, I added in a slide on children being misdiagnosed with mental disorders when the child was really suffering from being over-stimulated by electronics. A good portion of the audience were residents and medical students, and I wanted them to be conscious of this issue when they were assessing a child or adolescent for diagnosis or treatment.
Later that day I added a blurb about children being misdiagnosed on a post introducing a new minicourse (Save Your Child’s Brain) I’d been working on. Within hours I received an email from an old friend who saw the post on Facebook. Here’s her message:
COMMENTS: Wow am I glad I read this post on FB.
My 6 year old son loves video games and once he got his Wii he would play for as long as we would let him. Over the last few months we have been weaning him slowly because we knew that too much is harmful but not knowing where that line is we still allow him about 3-6 hours a week.
I just recently took my 6 year boy to the pediatricians for behavioral issues. She immediately implied that she thought that he was bipolar and urged me to get him to the psychiatrist and on meds asap. We decided to take it slow and try taking sugar out of his diet and modifying our reaction to his temper tantrums in lieu of rushing him to therapy.
This has really been a timely find and I look forward to
I got a chill after reading it. How many children were being put on psychotropic medication unnecessarily? Her story reaffirmed my conviction that people need information on this topic!!
Here’s another disturbing story: A colleague recently told me her 10 year old son had been given 4 medications in the space of 6 months’ time, and was diagnosed at first as ADHD, then autism, and finally as bipolar. This was a child with no problems until the 5th grade, and who was now failing all subjects, depressed, and suicidal. After a little sleuthing, we tied his symptom onset to him getting his first cell phone at the beginning of the school year. He played games on the phone for several hours every day, and well into the night, to the exclusion of all else.
This mother came to me asking for advice on what she should do next. It occurred to me how many children I’d seen that were diagnosed as bipolar over the years who eventually stabilized and were taken off medication. (Bipolar disorder is chronic, lifelong, and progressive). The fact that they stabilized and continued to be stable off medication meant those children were NOT bipolar, but only looked that way.
Video gaming is one of the environmental factors that can create mood instability, and therefore its influence became even more ominous to me. Were video games contributing to the shocking rise in psychotropic medication usage?
Due to a serious shortage of child psychiatrists, most children are first seen by their pediatrician- who have about 2 months of training in child psychiatry. Yes, you heard that right–2 months. Where do they get their education? Well, mostly from drug reps. Since drug reps are only allowed to talk about what’s FDA approved, and since most of us child psychiatrists use “off-label” medications the vast majority of the time, our methods are very different.
For example, I might use an older, milder, benign, and generic (read:cheap) mood-stabilizer when treating mood problems, especially if it’s unclear why the child is having mood swings. I normally would not head for the heavy duty drugs first- even though those are the ones that are FDA approved for “bipolar disorder” and “treatment resistant depression”. Most of those drugs are actually anti-psychotics, and have serious side effects such as weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and movement disorders. Those drugs have their place, can save lives, and improve a truly bipolar person’s long-term prognosis- (don’t get me wrong, I do use all of them, regularly-) but it is very difficult to diagnose bipolar disorder in a child, especially during a 15 minute visit!! A pediatrician may be more likely to use medications that are FDA-approved for a particular disorder, and to use newer brand-name drugs. Those drugs may be effective for that disorder, but with major side effects. What if the diagnosis is wrong?
Ever since “The Bipolar Child” was published, parents have read this book and think, “Whoa! That’s my child!” Again, don’t get me wrong– this book is a classic and a gem– but many, if not most, childhood mental disorders have a mood component to them, and many clinicians mistakenly think that severe mood swings and aggression=bipolar disorder. Children’s threshold for aggression is much lower than ours, because they have poor impulse control. Furthermore, many disorders, including ADHD and video game addiction, affect the frontal lobe, which is the dashboard for impulse control. Ergo rage and aggression. All that rages is not bipolar!
The point is, parents need to take a hard look at environmental influences, in this case video games and electronic screens. You’ll need to eliminate this factor before you can really tell what’s going on. Sure, your child might still have symptoms after you remove these things, but they will be less severe. Your child’s teacher, doctor, therapist, tutor–everyone!–will have a much clearer picture of what’s going on if you remove these factors.
To read more about the science behind the electronics’ toxicity and how to address it with your child, sign up here to receive a free, 4 day mini course. If nothing else keep an open mind and just read a little.
Trust me, your child’s brain will thank you:-)
Big thanks to RJS who shared her story with me and allowed me to share it with you. If you feel this article might be helpful to someone else, please pass it on– you never know whose life it might change!