Melissa Rooney: Unplugging the drug

March 11, 2014 

My first child didn’t watch even toddler videos until she was a year old. When watching television in her presence, my husband would turn her infant body so she faced away from the screen. Who knows what minute details her virgin brain was absorbing every millisecond? We didn’t want brain space that might otherwise be reserved for curing cancer to instead fill with ideas of consumption, materialism, violence.

Though rarely interested in a particular program, her eyes jumped to the screen during the louder, more dynamic commercials. Once she could fully control her head, we had to turn the TV off to keep her from fixating on advertisements. Nonetheless, living in Australia without cable her first year set us in the right direction.

Her brother was born when she was two. He was more exposed to television and videos through his big sister, but these were mostly commercial-free children’s videos until he was three.

When visiting friends and family, most kids seemed to have demoted television to background noise. They’d hardly glance at the TV when we turned it on to entertain them during our ‘adult time’, but our kids were glued to the screen. If we wanted them to actually play with the other kids, the television had to be off.

Friends sometimes envied our television baby-sitter. ‘Hypersensitivity due to low exposure,’ we’d explain, ‘This is your brain on drugs’.

It was hard to keep the TV off when the kids were climbing the walls or I needed a break, but I generally kept both kids occupied. My husband restrained me from interrupting what little time they spent playing by themselves. ‘They’re never going to leave us alone if you keep entertaining them,’ he’d say.

Their grandmother once suggested that things would be a lot easier if I let the kids watch television. My husband and I gritted our teeth and excused her ‘generational differences’ – the television was rarely off in either of our houses growing up, and it remains on most the time in our parents’ homes now.

Don’t think I’m patting myself on the back here. There is a twist. We had a third child in 2010, nearly six years after the first two.

Until my daughter was 4 and my first son was 2, the electronics in our house consisted of a television (no cable), a VCR, a desktop computer (with dial-up Internet connection), and a 10-year-old CD player and radio.

When we brought #3 home, we had a Wii, an X-box, two I-phones, a couple of laptops, Direct TV, You Tube, Apple TV -- and what we didn’t have, at least one of our kids’ friends’ families did.

It didn’t help that he was a fussy baby. What better company is there, when you are bouncing a baby through the night, than on-demand television or whatever you can find on the Internet? My husband minimized visual graphics in the baby’s presence, but his brother and sister have had far less self-discipline. As it turns out, so have I. Now that he is a very active, stimulation-seeking 3-year-old and I have priorities in addition to my children, I often don’t realize how long he’s played ‘benign’ Wii games while I'm doing other things – usually on the computer.

My graduate research involved brain signals, and I’ve always been intrigued by the neurotransmission of visual signals from our eyes to our brains.

Dopamine has long been recognized as the ‘reward’ chemical in the brain. It’s most associated with drug addiction, but food, sex, exercise and even shopping increase brain dopamine levels according to the pleasure they elicit. More recently, dopamine is increasingly associated with novelty. New experiences, particularly if their results are beneficial, trigger increases in dopamine that, usually by eliciting pleasure, alert the brain to remember what has happened. It seems no coincidence that visual pathways use dopamine to transmit signals; the link between visual stimulation and addiction is becoming clearer with each passing year.

I joke that, had I been born during the Stone Age, I’d have lived a very short life, because my eye-sight is so bad I wouldn’t even see the saber-tooth until my head was in its mouth. Vision is the dominant sense upon which human lives have depended for millennia. It should rationally elicit strong brain signals, which, by their nature, use pleasure to get their point across. Furthermore, visual signals affect the very architecture of the brain, if for no other reason than to ensure that we learn from experience.

Recent brain imaging studies have revealed significant changes in the brain structure and activity of frequent ‘gamers’. In particular, brain areas associated with reward processing are larger in gamers. Likewise, prolonged screen time has been linked to psychological problems, including emotional distress, anxiety and depression – all symptoms of addiction.

In May 2013, the American Psychiatric Association added "Internet Gaming Disorder” to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, likening it to compulsive gambling and impulse control disorder. The most severe cases are associated with “Massively multiplayer online role-playing games” (MMORPGs), which have the two-fold effects of dynamic visual stimuli as well as the positive rewards of establishing new social relationships.

Diagnoses have been devised for just about everything these days, but this addiction is real and, at worst, causes sociopathic behavior. A couple years ago, the parents of one of my son’s classmates made the difficult decision to send their son, who had been diagnosed with this disorder, to a distant residential treatment facility when he became increasingly moody, aggressive and difficult to reason with. He is definitely not alone.

Even if he grew up in a hut in the jungle, my third child would likely have trouble controlling his emotions. But lately I wonder how much of what unsettles him is attributed to neuro-visual overstimulation. I have determined to restrict his exposure moving forward. It won’t be easy, with him talking incessantly about Wii Obstacle Course and asking to play ‘Dog Fight’ every 5 minutes, but his brain may very well depend on it.

You can reach Melissa Rooney at mmr121570@yahoo.com

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