Image: Mike Holm

The guy we’ll call Mark became obsessed with video games as an early teen. By the time he reached legal adulthood, he had few goals, save becoming a pro e-sports gamer. He flunked out of college and moved back in with his parents in Iowa.

At a loss for how to help their son, they admitted him to a Bellevue-based rehab facility where the 12-step program isn’t concerned with drugs or alcohol. ReStart, a residential recovery program for teens and adults, is part of a growing movement focused on behavioral addictions related to video games and internet use.

ReStart cofounder Hilarie Cash says her patients get hooked as teenagers, like Mark  did, or even younger. And instead of protecting kids against this pervasive risk, parents can be enablers.

Cases at ReStart are extreme, but raise a pressing question: What are the repercussions, down the line, for kids who get digitally immersed? Cash joins a growing chorus of doctors, educators, mental health professionals, parents, and activists attempting to pull the plug on screen time, from preschool devices to educational technology, from smartphones to video games. “We’re being swept away on a tide of technology that is being driven by profit, not by social good,” Cash says.

Some experts, of course, file internet technology fears under hysteria (along with rock, rap, TV). The iPhone arrived in 2007, and the iPad is under 10 years old, so the effects of ubiquitous technology on young brains are still being studied. Emerging research, however, indicates screen use may be linked to developmental delays, increased distraction, heightened anxiety, and a widening of the achievement gap between poor and wealthy children.

Certainly, kids gravitate toward screens. According to Common Sense Media, between 2013 and 2017, the amount of time children eight and younger spent on mobile devices tripled—from 15 minutes a day to 48. A 2016 study, from marketing firm Influence Central, found that kids’ access to the internet via their own tablet or laptop rose from 42 percent in 2012 to 64. They now get phones, on average, at 10 years old. Fifty percent have social media accounts by age 12.

“It’s very much like tobacco,” Dimitri Christakis says. He’s the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and contributed to the screen time guidelines compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Tech companies, he says, “are very aware they’re making an addictive product,” which overrides children’s natural responses and hijacks their attention even more than television.

Parents still have a lot of control when kids are young. The problem becomes more acute around middle school. So if you’re looking to exercise a little technological temperance, the early years may be your best bet. Nonprofit Wait Until 8th advocates keeping children smartphoneless until eighth grade. ScreenStrong, another nonprofit, aims to delay plugging in until kids are teenagers and fill their time with productive, nonvirtual experiences.

As for Mark, Cash says, “He’s blossoming into a person who’s willing to work hard” thanks to a long journey that included a digital detox, time spent in nature, and intensive therapy. But she worries about the growing number of kids she sees in front of screens now, and to what degree their brains may be rewired for immediate gratification—and how many, down the line, could end up in her program.

For Christakis, the best path forward is one of caution. “The moment you give a child a cell phone, you’ve given them the keys to the kingdom.”

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