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Is the Tech Industry the New Big Tobacco?

Lessons from Big Tobacco can shed light on
industries like Ed Tech

ed-tech-industry-next-big-tobacco
“Back then, we didn’t know it was bad for you.”

If we first keep in mind that technology is an industry — with associated corporations beholden to shareholders, not the general public — we can begin to build the framework needed to change how we view and use technology. We need to be conscious of the fact that, ultimately, corporations and even small businesses are driven by profits, not good will.

This is not a bad thing in and of itself; the tech industry — with its related Ed-Tech, entertainment, communications, information, and medical components — creates an enormous number of jobs and helps drive the economy as a whole. But financial incentive does need to be considered. Indeed, it can become a bad thing if messages conceived to drive profits impact health and education.

With the tobacco industry, this kind of realization — that the industry was motivated by profit, not scientific truth — is what helped shift attitudes toward smoking, since it allowed the dangers of smoking to be brought to light and helped the public and health agencies to appreciate that “evidence” denying these dangers was being manufactured.  As such, let’s look at a page from the tobacco story.

Early tobacco warnings regarding health risks were undermined by a powerful industry whose strategy was to create doubt and confusion. They accomplished this by repeatedly sending the message to the public (via the popular press) that there was a lack of consensus about whether or not smoking caused health risks, and by funding “research” at respected institutions with hand-picked unscrupulous researchers whose findings were communicated to Congress.1

Other strategies included aggressive marketing to younger and younger consumers — thereby acquiring addicted lifelong customers — and manufacturing “healthy” (filtered) cigarettes, while simultaneously altering cigarette composition to make them more addictive. Tobacco marketers decried government regulation proposals as both a violation of personal freedom and a belittling of one’s capacity to be responsible for one’s own health. Since then, we’ve seen many of these same arguments and marketing tactics being used in various industries, including the chemical and food and beverage industries.2

The technology industry uses these tactics, too — masterfully. For starters, concerns about screen-time affecting attention and brain development are held at bay by industry-funded research claiming the opposite. The mountain of evidence of screen-time’s harmful effects on cognition appears to be the same size as the evidence for “positive” studies, but only because the peddlers of the studies on positive findings have mountains of money to publicize them. In reality, there is probably a 20:1 ratio of negative to positive studies, and it’s probably higher than that if you exclude non-biased research.

Other health concerns are equally discounted or are quieted by a new spin: just as “safe” cigarettes were made, “healthy” video games and “educational” software are made; worry that screen-time makes us lazy is met with arguments about the stimulating effects of “interactive” screen-time; and concerns about technology making us disconnected and lonely are fought with reassurances that the Internet and social media “connect us all.” Meanwhile, video game designers purposely hook players into games that never end, and electronics advertisers market to younger and younger children, who then become dependent on devices for the rest of their lives. Perhaps most disturbing of all is that the infusion of technology into public education has created an ongoing “need” for more equipment and more products, making schools themselves dependent on the tech industry.3

Then there are the parallels regarding “personal choice” tactics. People — and especially Americans — don’t like their freedom being restricted. But how free to choose is a child who has become addicted to technology before his or her brain has finished developing, making the addiction a much bigger beast to tame? We adults determine the environment our children grow up in — but children have no choice.

When suggestions are made to limit children’s screen-time, we are reminded that this threatens our personal freedom, that Americans do not want the government in their living rooms telling them what to do. Yet ironically, at the same time, our children are being forced into using technology in public schools — largely because of government mandates and programs such as the Common Core and Race To The Top— whether they like it or not, whether it brings inherent health risks or not, and whether it helps them or not. On top of that, our children’s data is being mined in the name of education, but in reality it’s used and sold many times over to make more profit. Are Big Tech companies really benevolent, really free of conflict of interest, when they “donate” equipment and software in exchange for contracts to use their technology? With taxpayer dollars, no less?

When tech corporations play to our emotions by selling the promise of individualized education adapting to each child’s specific needs, or of creating “readiness for succeeding in today’s world,” they create an atmosphere that makes us feel we can’t possibly survive without them. This is despite evidence that the majority of kids — with and without special needs — are hurt and not helped by tech in the classroom.4  Since when are evidenced-based methods of learning no longer the gold standard?

While contemplating these issues might make us uncomfortable, it’s important to be conscious of them and to remember how powerful and sophisticated marketing tactics are these days. Be clear about the fact that politicians, governing bodies, and corporations don’t always (or perhaps even usually) have our best interests in mind; that’s just the reality of it. Ultimately, no one cares about your children more than you do. But that doesn’t mean you’re powerless; it just means you have to make decisions about your child’s future consciously, take advice regarding the “benefits” of technology with a grain of salt, and make healthy informed choices where you can.

In fact, by doing so, you help others to do the same — which takes power away from deceptive practices, and brings truth to light. The benefits of technology can still be realized, but the health impact of screen-based technology needs to be taken much more seriously, particularly when it comes to our most vulnerable citizens — our children. At the same time, we need to be realistic about what technology can and cannot do, and always be on the lookout for wishful thinking clouding our judgment.

In one of the lecture halls of my medical school, old black-and-white photographs line the walls, depicting a history of the hospital and its physicians.  One of them shows several physicians standing outside a patient’s room smoking cigarettes during what is presumably the doctors’ morning rounds. Everyone got a kick out of this photo — how ironic it was!

My hope is that eventually we’ll have this same kind of feeling about present-day screen-time practices. We’ll see how ironic it is to teach children with methods that impair concentration and creativity, to exercise them with mediums linked to obesity, or to parent them with devices that induce temper tantrums. It simply doesn’t make sense.

Someday, when we see an old picture of kids sitting motionless and glued to their iPads instead of playing, we’ll shudder and make the same remark previous generations did about how everyone used to smoke: “Back then, we didn’t know it was bad for you.”

Adapted from Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time

© Victoria L Dunckley MD, 2015. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. 

Notes:

1 Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).

2 Kelly D. Brownell and Kenneth E. Warner, “The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?” Milbank Quarterly 87, no. 1 (March 2009): 259–94, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0009.2009.00555.x.

3 Tara Ehrcke, “21st Century Learning Inc.,” Our Schools/Our Selves Winter 2013, accessed October 30, 2014,https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publicatio….

4. OECD, 2015. “Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection,” OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264239555-en; Colleen Cordes and Edward Miller, “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood.” (Alliance for Childhood, 2000), http://allianceforchildhood.org/fools_gold; Aric Sigman, “Does Not Compute, Revisited: Screen Technology in Early Years Education,” in Too Much, Too Soon, 2011, 265–89; Anne Mangen, Bente R. Walgermo, and Kolbjørn Brønnick, “Reading Linear Texts on Paper versus Computer Screen: Effects on Reading Comprehension,” International Journal of Educational Research 58 (January 2013): 61–68; Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science, April 23, 2014; Cris Rowan, “10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12,” Huffington Post, March 6, 2014,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cris-rowan/10-reasons-why-handheld-devices….

 

 

Screentime causes meltdowns

Screentime is Making Kids Moody, Crazy and Lazy

6 ways electronics use can make children angry, depressed, and unmotivated

pathdoc/fotoliaChildren or teens who are “revved up” and prone to rages or—alternatively—who are depressed and apathetic have become disturbingly commonplace. Chronically irritable children are often in a state of abnormally high arousal, and may seem “wired and tired.” That is, they’re agitated but exhausted. Because chronically high arousal levels impact memory and the ability to relate, these kids are also likely to struggle academically and socially.

At some point, a child with these symptoms may be given a mental-health diagnosis such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD, and offered corresponding treatments, including therapy and medication. But often these treatments don’t work very well, and the downward spiral continues.

What’s happening?

Both parents and clinicians may be “barking up the wrong tree.” That is, they’re trying to treat what looks like a textbook case of mental disorder, but failing to rule out and address the most common environmental cause of such symptoms—everyday use of electronics. Time and again, I’ve realized that regardless of whether there exists any “true” underlying diagnoses, successfully treating a child with mood dysregulation today requires methodically eliminating all electronics use for several weeks—an “electronic fast” —to allow the nervous system to “reset.” 

If done correctly, this intervention can produce deeper sleep, a brighter and more even mood, better focus and organization, and an increase in physical activity. The ability to tolerate stress improves, so meltdowns diminish in both frequency and severity. The child begins to enjoy the things they used to, is more drawn to nature, and imaginary or creative play returns. In teens and young adults, an increase in self-directed behavior is observed—the exact opposite of apathy and hopelessness.

It’s a beautiful thing.

At the same time, the electronic fast reduces or eliminates the need for medication while rendering other treatments more effective. Improved sleep, more exercise, and more face-to-face contact with others compound the benefits—an upward spiral! After the fast, once the brain is reset, the parent can carefully determine how much if any electronics use the child can tolerate without symptoms returning.

Restricting electronics may not solve everything, but it’s often the missing link in treatment when kids are stuck.  

But why is the electronic fast intervention so effective? Because it reverses much of the physiological dysfunction produced by daily screen time.

Children’s brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than most of us realize. In fact, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take much electronic stimulation to throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track. Also, many parents mistakenly believe that interactive screen-time—Internet or social media use, texting, emailing, and gaming—isn’t harmful, especially compared to passive screen time like watching TV. In fact, interactive screen time is more likely to cause sleep, mood, and cognitive issues, because it’s more likely to cause hyperarousal and compulsive use.

Here’s a look at six physiological mechanisms that explain electronics’ tendency to produce mood disturbance:

1. Screen time disrupts sleep and desynchronizes the body clock (link is external).

Because light from screen devices mimics daytime, it suppresses melatonin, a sleep signal released by darkness. Just minutes of screen stimulation can delay melatonin release by several hours and desynchronize the body clock. Once the body clock is disrupted, all sorts of other unhealthy reactions occur, such as hormone imbalance and brain inflammation. Plus, high arousal doesn’t permit deep sleep, and deep sleep is how we heal.

2. Screen time desensitizes the brain’s reward system.

Many children are “hooked” on electronics, and in fact gaming releases so much dopamine—the “feel-good” chemical—that on a brain scan it looks the same as cocaine use. But when reward pathways are overused, they become less sensitive, and more and more stimulation is needed to experience pleasure. Meanwhile, dopamine is also critical for focus and motivation, so needless to say, even small changes in dopamine sensitivity can wreak havoc on how well a child feels and functions.

3. Screen time produces “light-at-night.”

Light-at-night from electronics has been linked to depression and even suicide risk in numerous studies. In fact, animal studies show that exposure to screen-based light before or during sleep causes depression, even when the animal isn’t looking at the screen. Sometimes parents are reluctant to restrict electronics use in a child’s bedroom because they worry the child will enter a state of despair—but in fact removing light-at-night is protective.

4. Screen time induces stress reactions.

Both acute stress (fight-or-flight) and chronic stress produce changes in brain chemistry and hormones that can increase irritability. Indeed, cortisol, the chronic stress hormone, seems to be both a cause and an effect of depression—creating a vicious cycle. Additionally, both hyperarousal and addiction pathways suppress the brain’s frontal lobe, the area where mood regulation actually takes place.

5. Screen time overloads the sensory system, fractures attention, and depletes mental reserves. 

Experts say that what’s often behind explosive and aggressive behavior is poor focus. When attention suffers, so does the ability to process one’s internal and external environment, so little demands become big ones. By depleting mental energy with high visual and cognitive input, screen time contributes to low reserves. One way to temporarily “boost” depleted reserves is to become angry, so meltdowns actually become a coping mechanism.

Chubykin Arkady/Shutterstock
Source: Chubykin Arkady/Shutterstock

6. Screen-time reduces physical activity levels and exposure to “green time.”

Research shows that time outdoors, especially interacting with nature, can restore attention, lower stress, and reduce aggression. Thus, time spent with electronics reduces exposure to natural mood enhancers.

In today’s world, it may seem crazy to restrict electronics so drastically. But when kids are struggling, we’re not doing them any favors by leaving electronics in place and hoping they can wind down by using electronics in “moderation.” It just doesn’t work. In contrast, by allowing the nervous system to return to a more natural state with a strict fast, we can take the first step in helping a child become calmer, stronger, and happier.

For more on this topic, check out my new book, Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time. 

overstimulated brain

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. “

For more information on video games and a FREE mini course, visit www.drdunckley.com/videogames or fill in the form below:

holiday gift

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Lost and Confused

Misdiagnosed? Bipolar disorder is all the rage!

Lost and Confused
Feel Lost and Confused? You're not alone!

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
learning more.

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!

boy playing video game

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