Name: Ethan Lawler
From: Fort Worth, TX
Electronic Screens: A Devil in Sheep’s Clothing
As George Bernard Shaw once stated, “beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” This insightful quote shows a profound truism in the realm of America’s ever-present technological advancement. In the U.S., many falsely and dangerously assume that because of the rigorous testing phases involved throughout the design processes of current technological devices, these devices have little to no adverse side-effects on the human mind; however, this assumption’s reasoning is far from reality. As a result, people of all ages across America have become victims of their “harmless” electronics. When seen in a greater perspective, the electronic mechanisms widely used today bring significant damage to the intricately-wired human brain, in effect causing addiction and fragmented thought processes (Kardaras).
Perhaps one of the paramount adverse effects of electronic devices, the risk for addiction plagues individuals who use technology across America. Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, who has earned his doctorate in neuropsychology and addiction treatment, has seen numerous cases of screen addiction during his time as Chief Clinical Officer of both Omega Recovery in Austin, TX and Maui Recovery in Hawaii. One of these addicts, a common gamer named Dan, proves a prime example of the addictive nature of electronics. After an extended period attempting to garner Dan’s attention from his coma-like state, Dr. Kardaras states that “then, finally, [Dan looks] straight at [him] and [stammers] in a tone of genuine confusion: ‘Are … are … we still in the game?’” (Kardaras 8). As a devoted gamer, Dan played World of Warcraft between 10 and 12 hours every day and had fallen into what experts describe as “the Matrix”, or gaming-induced psychosis (Kardaras 8). “Gaming-induced psychosis (also called Game Transfer Phenomena [GTP] or the ‘Tetris Effect’), a form of psychotic break that can occur when excessive gaming, often combined with sleep deprivation, blurs the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy” (Kardaras 8; Gortari and Griffiths; Leutwyler). This type of augmented reality on an individual’s neural pathways leads to an intense desire to stay in the game, thereby creating a vicious cycle that only hurls the affected gamer into a deeper level of addiction. As Dr. Kardaras soon finds out after his meeting with Dan, Dan became so emotionally attached to his World of Warcraft video game that he gave up eating and sleeping, and would even pee in a mason jar sitting beside him in order to maximize his gaming experience and possible playing time (Kardaras 9). However, Dan’s extreme level of enslavement to technology is not a secluded case: as expert Anna Leach notably points out, “the addictive gravitational pull of [World of Warcraft] is so powerful that [players have] been known to wear diapers, like deep-space astronauts or long-haul truckers, so as not to miss a moment’s playing time” (Leach). Dan’s case showed such severity that he was eventually placed in “a psychiatric emergency room”, spending “a month as an impatient on the psych unit in order to get stabilized with pharmaceutical antipsychotic meds and psychotherapy so that he could eventually retether himself to reality” (Kardaras 10).
But why do gamers become so addicted to these games in the first place? Due to the addictive cycle — the gaming-induced psychosis — of electronic games, “players become emotionally invested in [the] worlds, the progression of their characters, and the bonds with their fellow players,” creating a tight-knit conglomeration such as one would find in a gang (Kardaras 9). This highly-addictive nature comes as no accident. As the U.S. Navy’s Dr. Andrew Doan explains, gaming companies, when testing out a new computerized game, recruit some of America’s most experienced neurobiologists to attach electrode wires to the volunteer gamer (McKenna). If that gamer does not “elicit the blood pressure … [of] 180 over 120 or 140 within a few minutes of playing” or does not “show sweating and an increase in their galvanic skin responses”, the game technicians return to the design studio and alter the game in an effort to create a more-stimulative effect on the user (McKenna). Put in simpler terms, tech companies actively try to rope in susceptible and defenseless children by creating software that induces an intense dopaminergic response, in effect creating a form of “digital cocaine” (Huddleston). To the euphoria of the tech companies, their addiction-aiding strategies have proven wildly successful. For example, out of the Call of Duty video game series alone, users have put in more than 25 billion hours of play time, which adds up to 2.85 million years (Delahunty). Furthermore, Call of Duty players have shot upwards of 32.3 quadrillion rounds since the advent of the series in 2003 (Delahunty).
Across the board, the devices of these tech companies have garnered intense following: in 2016, 97 percent of children in America two to seventeen years of age actively use an electronic device of some sort, which equates to around 64 million kids and increasing every year (Lenhart et al.). As a telling reminder for how addictive “innocent” screen usage actually is, Steve Jobs, along with many other renowned innovators in the world of technology, limited their children’s technology time because they knew some of the ever-present dangers posed by technology (Kardaras 31). In effect, numerous high-standing technology executives of companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Apple in Silicon Valley put their children in tech-free Waldorf Schools like the one in Los Altos, where these technologically-informed parents can help protect their children from the dangers of electronics (Richtel). This reaction within the tech-designing community goes directly against the consensus in America, where many list technology among the classroom essentials. Technological experts such as Google executive and Dartmouth graduate Alan Eagle proclaim that America should “fundamentally reject the notion that you need technology aids in grammar school” (Richtel). Even more telling, former Microsoft executive Pierre Laurent did not allow his kids access to electronics such as computers and smartphones until they turned 12, stating that “the games are designed to be addicting and hypnotic” (Richtel). Laurent goes on to explain that in the “1990’s at Intel, … he and his co-workers would engage with other tech companies in what they used to call a ‘war of the eyeballs’” (Kardaras 32). This aptly-named competition aimed towards one specific goal: “to capture the attention of kids and thus create the most hypnotic and addicting products” possible (Kardaras 32).
In addition to classroom electronics tending to become a distraction to the user, they can also detract from the value of learning that happens naturally. Author and education professor Dr. Lowell Monke presents a notable example of this learning detraction: because of resources such as Discovery Channel, which “compress hundreds of hours of footage into a half hour of exciting video, [children] expect to see the deer drinking, the fish jumping, the otters playing and the bears growling all at once and with no effort on their part’” (Monke). Because of the intensity of the compressed footage, people, especially school-age children, become increasingly addicted to the novelty of events that exist as a rarity in real life. After all, who wants to ‘waste time’ in nature when you can get access to all of nature’s ‘exciting events’ from an electronic device in just a few seconds? Monke even goes so far as to promote the unpopular assertion that, “when the simulation becomes preferable to the real, there arises a real question of the simulation’s true educational value” (Monke).
Even though most studies tend to shift towards the topic of video game addiction when discussing side effects of screens, a substantial number of resources also cover a less-widely discussed but significantly more prominent avenue for addiction: social media usage. In the past decade, social media use has become a widespread avenue for artificial connection that carries an alarming addiction rate with it. A prime example of the addictive nature of social media is Heidi, another patient of Dr. Kardaras. As described by Kardaras, Heidi originally upheld the reputation of the “sweet, happy, loving girl whom her teachers had always described as their favorite student” (Kardaras 81). However, following her introduction to a school-leased Chromebook with social media, described as an “‘Educational’ Trojan Horse,” Heidi fell to a depth of addiction none had expected (Kardaras 81). Dr. Kardaras noted that “after a year with her … addiction, Heidi had transformed from a sweet, innocent girl who loved spending time with her parents into a sexualized, foul-mouthed and violent terror who has kept her parents hostage” …, and “now has a psychiatric profile after her two hospitalizations” (Kardaras 81). Even though Heidi’s example might seem initially outrageous, countless others across America come close to falling in this trap every year. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study of millennial communication habits in Psychology of Popular Media, “only 35 percent of teens socialize face-to-face anymore, compared with … 63 percent of teens who now communicate mostly via text … [at] 167 texts per day” (Lister-Landman). Furthermore, “each second we send over 7,500 tweets, 1,394 Instagram photos, over two million emails and view over 119,000 YouTube videos” (“Internet Usage”). As for text messages, “Americans send 69,000 … a second, with over six billion texts sent in the United States every day” (Burke). Once again, as seen with other forms of tech such as video games, the social media sites designed to become addictive draw in their users and create the addictive hook, the dangerous cycle spiraling the individuals into untold destruction.
In addition to the liability of addiction that screens pose to an individual, these same electronic devices also present a risk for fragmented thought processes in the individual’s brain. In the scientific journal Molecular Psychiatry, a brain-imaging study that examined 114 male gamers and 126 female gamers found that “video [game usage] … [affects] the development of microstructural properties of the brain[, resulting in] … negative psychological outcomes” (Takeuchi). One area of the brain integral to the effectiveness of human neural pathways, myelin, shows particular susceptibility to damage from interactive screens via the arousing properties they possess (Kardaras 65). In a 2012 study taken up by Dr. Hao Lei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, researchers found that the cerebral makeup of individuals struggling with “Internet Addiction Disorder had myelin … integrity abnormalities in [the] regions involving executive attention, decision making and emotional generation” (Lin et al.). After analyzing their collection of data, Dr. Lei’s team found that the examined Internet Attention Disorder “may share psychological and neural mechanisms with other types of substance addiction and impulse control disorders” such as dependence on heroin and gambling (Lin et al.). These results aid in explaining the root cause behind many developmental disorders experts now associate to the increase in screen usage across America. For example, clinical studies such as a 2011 research project at Tel Aviv University show electronic devices like smartphones and gaming appliances as catalysts to psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and psychosis (Nitzan et al.). Even more, according to technology expert Leslie Alderman, a verifiable link exists between the recent ADHD outbreak and the use of attention-destroying screens, as recent brain imaging reports prove that the frontal cortex of the human brain, the area that regulates impulses and degrades with ADHD, suffers damage through stimulation caused by technological devices (Alderman; Indiana University School of Medicine).
After reviewing endless scholarly studies relating increasing levels of screen time with the rise of psychotic disorders, it comes as no surprise that many schools have begun to limit and even ban electronic devices from campus. One country that intently reconsidered its school technology policy as a result from the recent research on the effects of screens, England, has already seen encouraging results. According to Jamie Doward of The Guardian, as seen from a 2001 survey, “no [English] school banned mobiles. By 2007, this had risen to 50%, and by 2012 some 98% of schools” had implemented regulations that prohibited smartphone usage during school hours (Doward). Non-surprisingly, in 91 of the English schools that implemented phone bans, test scores climbed 6.4 percent and the average test scores of underachieving poor and special ed students grew 14 percent, making the effectiveness of the screen ban “equivalent [to] adding five days to the school year” (Beland and Murphy). Other experiments, such as the series of tests conducted by Dr. Marcia Mikulak, only help in solidifying the proof that screen usage detracts from the brain’s ability to focus and learn. In the 1980s, studies carried out by Dr. Mikulak examined the youth of underdeveloped countries such as Brazil, Guatemala, and parts of Africa, as well as the more advanced nations of Europe and the United States. After reviewing the results, Mikulak concluded that “sensory acuity and sensitivity to the environment were up … 30 percent … in the children from the so-called primitive societies, showing that technologically-modernized societies pose a disadvantage for students’ learning and mental growth” (Avison). Even more, when these underprivileged students’ learning atmosphere mimicked that of an electronically-integrated nation, the children “demonstrated an ability to learn estimated [at] three to four times greater than that of their higher-tech peers, showing far superior attention, comprehension and retention” (Avison). Maybe the dated, pen-and-paper approach to schooling really does aid the mind in mastering learning: on November 29, 2015, CBS Morning News contributor Paula Poundstone stated that “research shows that the brain retains information better read from paper than a screen and that students who take notes by hand are more successful on tests than those who type their notes on a computer” (Kardaras 33). Respected educator Greg Graham confirms Poundstone’s statement, explaining that “there never has been – nor will there ever be – a more dynamic learning context than face-to-face in close proximity” (Kardaras 111). In other words, keeping the digital drugs away from the education of the developing youth provides the best pathway for learning and retention.
Another dangerous factor that one should consider when using an electronic device, the levels of radiation it emits towards the malleable human brain, has provoked widespread concern among tech researchers in America. As stated by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Electric and magnetic field (EMF) radiation, measured in milligauss (mG) and “associated with the use of electrical power and various forms of natural and man-made lighting,” disperses from common appliances such as microwave ovens and television remotes to tightly-monitored hazards like x-ray machines and radioactive waste (“Magnetic Fields”; Kardaras 130). Disconcertingly, the electronic devices that find continual usage throughout one’s day also radiate EMFs, and the EMF levels emitted are higher than the average person would expect. In fact, common technological devices can emit so much radiation that, due to EMF radiation frequencies from phones, the World Health Organization (WHO) ranks mobile phone usage in the “carcinogenic hazard” list that also contains toxins such as “lead, engine exhaust, and chloroform” (Dellorto). According to columnist and researcher John Cole, EMF emissions higher than two milligauss start to harm human tissue, and extended periods of time with this radiation level can cause cancer and immunity defects (Cole). Given this information, at a typical distance, desktop computers emit between four and 20 mG; smartphones and laptops can generate twice as much radiation (Cole).
One concern with the extreme levels of radiation present in electronics, especially with mobile phones, deals with impaired cognitive ability, as cellular devices can disrupt the cranial memory function since the memory temporal lobes of the brain sit next to where the smartphones rest during a call (Kardaras 129). The already-adverse effects of this technological radiation are exacerbated in children, where their thin skulls paired with the high division rate of their neural-transmitter cells place them at an exponentially-higher risk for impact from EMF radiation (Kardaras 130). Multiple studies at revered research institutions have given increased virtue in the aforementioned data; analysts at Harvard College have discovered that EMF exposure tampers with a human’s bioelectrical synchronization, an action exacerbating conditions of autism, and Columbia University professors found that excessive EMF exposure can permanently destroy and alter DNA coding within cells (Kardaras 131). Furthermore, a 2000 Hungarian study proved that EMF radiation disrupts and destroys the body’s cells and organelles, and a 2005 Italian study conclusion stated that “EMFs were shown to induce apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in human recombinant cells” at levels emitted by commonly-used electronic devices (Kardaras 131).
Even though countless detrimental side-effects plague the reputation of commonly-used technological appliances, these devices also carry profound benefits. According to tech analyst Kenneth Burke, “no less than 80% of professionals say they text for business purposes. For them it’s a tool to schedule meetings, flush out ideas, and get work done” (Burke). As Burke stated, with the extreme versatility of text communication, mothers can easily communicate plans to their children, friends can effectively stay in touch no matter where they may reside, and companies can effortlessly and instantly send out sales information and coupons to vast quantities of people (Burke). In fact, “89% of consumers recently said they want to text with businesses (typically for sales, service, and appointments)” (Burke). Even Dr. Karadas, author of Glow Kids, does not discredit the benefits of “technology[,] either in everyday usage or as a learning tool,” when used with mindfulness on the part of the individual (Kardaras 34).
Throughout the countless studies performed over the past years, experts across America have discovered technology as a cognitive aggressor that harms the intricate design of the human brain, leading to addiction and fragmented thought processes. The current American population has taken technology use to an alarming extreme, and experts need to continue to inform them on the dangers residing inside the electronic Trojan Horse. Even though technology has the potential to act as a true, innovative benefactor for all of mankind, one should still use it with caution, for without proper measures to safeguard the user, imminent danger can consume and utterly destroy his mental state, and subsequently, his life.
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