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Computer, Video Games and Psychosis: Cause for Concern

overstimulated brain“I hear voices at night, and sometimes I think someone’s outside my window,” the 19-year-old young man informed me.  “I know no one’s really there, but it’s still scary.”

In my practice in the past six months, no less than 5 youths have reported psychotic symptoms that were attributed to, or exacerbated by, electronic screens.    As per my protocol, I always get an “e-screen” history:

  • video games
  • computer/internet use
  • cell phone use (talking, texting, streaming, and internet).

Not surprisingly, all five of these patients, ranging from 15-22 years old, were “plugged in” for six or more hours each day.  Three were female and two male.  After discussing e-screens’ toxic influence on the brain, I recommended to each of these patients that they forego all electronic screens for at least 4 weeks.

The three females all decided to go “cold turkey ” and gave up their games, laptops, and phones.  All three saw their symptoms resolve completely within a month.  Of the two males, one cut down use significantly and his hallucinations disappeared; his paranoia remained but was less severe and caused less dysfunction.   The other male turned out to be severely addicted to the internet and video games and flat out refused to change his habits at all (a subject for another article entirely!  Needless to say he continues to suffer from psychosis).

Importantly, the therapeutic effects were achieved without using medication! This is a big deal, because medications used to treat psychotic symptoms are heavy duty, and have serious side effects, such as weight gain, hormone dysfunction, and movement disorders.

Electronic screens, particularly interactive ones (as opposed to passive ones, like television), increase dopamine in the reward center of the brain.  This effect has been demonstrated by brain scan (Koepp, 1998: http://www.nrc-iol.org/cores/mialab/fijc/Files/2002/120402_Koepp_Nature_1998.pdfDopamine is the “feel good” chemical, but is also related to stress, addiction, anxiety, mood, and attention.   Perhaps more disturbing, dopamine excess in certain parts of the brain can lead to psychotic symptoms-voices, delusions, paranoia, or confusion.

Psychosis is defined by abnormal thinking. This can involve thought content, such as hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia, or thought process (highly disorganized thinking, or feeling thoughts are “blocked”).   It is typically attributed to the severely mentally ill, like schizophrenics, but can also be seen in “normal” people under extreme stress.  Children in particular are more likely to hallucinate when traumatized, sleep-deprived, or over-stimulated.   E-screens cause or mimic all three of these states!

Take home point: Children, teens, and young adults who have unexplained hallucinations or delusions should have ALL electronic screens removed for at least 3 weeks, as part of the diagnostic process.  This includes cell phones, as texting, media viewing, and internet use can quickly rack up hours.  Virtually all teens and many young adults do not yet have the impulse control to moderate their own usage, and this is why the parent must physically remove these devices. While this may seem extreme, drastic times cause for drastic measures.   Psychosis–and treatment thereof–is serious and has long-lasting effects.

As psychiatric disorders in young people continue to explode, and evidence mounts about the toxic effects of e-screens on the developing brain, parents and clinicians would be prudent to remove this offending environmental trigger from the child’s life, as part of the diagnosis and as one “arm” of the treatment plan.

When you start to feel conflicted about removing screens-they are so ingrained in our lives, after all-this is what I tell my patients and their parents: “You will never regret removing video games and computer use, but you may sorely regret leaving them in place. “

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6 comments

  1. Fred Klink says:

    Dr. Dunckley,

    Powerpoint slides using a computer projector are used almost universally now at professional conferences and in continuing education courses. I’m guessing that as many as 3/4 of university lectures are also delivered with this medium. I don’t know if this is true in primary education as well but I wouldn’t be surprised.

    What, if any, are the possible effects of sitting in a classroom for four to eight hours a day watching these electronic images? Is this potentially as harmful as video games or does it fall more into the “passive” category like television?

    Thanks,
    Fred Klink

  2. someone says:

    That’s funny because I find when I am out in nature, away from everything and everyone including computers, I suddenly feel “normal”. My illness stared to become worse around the time we acquired a better computer with internet connection.

  3. jsolodar says:

    Psychosis can follow seizures, particularly clusters of seizures. Postictal (post-seizure) psychosis typically presents hours or days after an unusually active period of seizures. So seizures precipitated by video games could be producing these psychotic episodes. I have read that postictal psychosis is characterized by understanding at the time it occurs that the symptoms are not in fact real.

    Jessica Solodar, http://videogameseizures.wordpress.com

    • Interesting…how long does postictal psychosis typically last? Since my patients are typically playing every day, it would be difficult to ascertain whether the psychosis was seizure-related or just due to overstimulation (or perhaps it’s a spectrum). I do think they typically are aware that the hallucinations are not real, but that is the case sometimes with any psychosis. But I agree agree that when psychosis is accompanied by intact reality-testing it can indicate an environmental (vs organic) source.

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