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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

Mental Health Holiday Challenge: No Video Game Gifts

Try going "old school" this holiday season with no electronics or video games...it may help when your child starts school in January!

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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

Video Games and other Devices…They’re Worse Than You Think!!

Do you have an uneasy feeling that playing video games is bad for your child's brain? It's worse than you think! Check out this post on Dr Dunckley's FREE Save Your Child's Brain minicourse, and take the first step to getting your child back on track.

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Dr Dunckley, Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist

About

Dr Dunckley, Child, Adolescent and Adult PsychiatristAbout Dr. Dunckley

Click here for a link to the California Medical Board for licensure and board certification(s) verification.

Biography

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., is an integrative child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with twelve years’ clinical experience in both the public and private sectors.  An active blogger for Psychology Today and speaker to both parents’ groups and clinicians, she emphasizes the impact of lifestyle factors on mental health, particularly the effects of overstimuling electronic screen media on mood, cognition, and behavior.  Dr. Dunckley has been interviewed on various television and radio programs regarding her integrative approach, and has contributed as a mental health expert for the Today Show and NBC News.  In 2011, Dr. Dunckley was named one of America’s Top Psychiatrists by the Consumer Research Council and won several patient care awards, including Vitals.com’s Patient’s Choice and Compassionate Doctor awards.

Boarded by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine, she consults frequently with schools, interdisciplinary treatment teams, and the courts, and specializes in working with children and families who have failed previous treatments.  By working closely over extended time periods with difficult cases, she uncovers issues that have previously been missed, and uses an approach that integrates traditional psychopharmacology with complementary strategies. 

A California native, Dr. Dunckley graduated cum laude with a biology degree at the University of California San Diego, then migrated to the east coast to receive her Medical Doctorate at Albany Medical College.  She returned to southern California in 1996, where she completed her adult psychiatry residency followed by her child/adolescent psychiatry fellowship at UC Irvine Medical Center.   A member of the American Holistic Medical Association, her practice became more holistic over time, addressing nutrition, utilizing natural supplements and herbs, and assisting patients with weight management.  

Areas of specialization include tics/Tourette Syndrome, reactive attachment disorder, weight issues related to medication, ADHD, sensory integration issues, trauma/abuse, and mood disorders including bipolar disorder.  Her practice is split 50-50 between children/adolescents and adults. 

In the public sector, she’s consulted with numerous community mental health organizations, working with the severely emotionally disturbed (SED) population in group homes, foster/adoptive placements, and residential treatment settings.  Currently she contracts with Westside Regional Center in Los Angeles, treating developmentally disabled (including autistic spectrum disordered) adults and children. 

Dr. Dunckley has a forthcoming book exploring the effects of interactive screen-time on mental health, and advocates use of an “electronic fast” to improve mood, raise grades, and boost social skills regardless of diagnosis.  You can read her blog on Psychology Today at www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth.