By Heather Moore
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- If you have little kids -- 4- 5- and 6-year-olds -- attached to tablets, that system in their brain that's getting rewarded over and over again can definitely lead to later life addictions
“That scares me,” Mesa mom Rachel Auer said.
She said her kids, ages 3 and 4, use their tablets every day. It’s not at all unusual for families today.
“It’s a pretty big part of their lives,” she said. “Most of the time they use it when mommy need a break.”
She often uses that “break” to tackle household chores.
“When I first started using electronics, I thought it was absolutely awesome because I got a lot done,” she explained. “But then what I would find, [with] my little guy especially, he would cry a lot if he got it taken away or if he wasn't able to use it when we were using it.”
Clinical psychologist and tech wellness expert Dr. Lisa Strohman says that’s a red flag. A big one.
“The minute you have a child that's starting to tantrum or starting to demand it, I think that's a warning sign for the parent there's a dependence that's starting to develop,” she said.
She says the feeling kids get from gaming platforms -- being rewarded with tokens or making it to the next level -- is similar to how a drug addict feels after a fix.
“It basically is a burst, if you can imagine, of an excitatory neuron in the brain and that burst makes us have an emotional reaction, like excitement,” Strohman exclaimed.
That’s not good.
“You wouldn't give your child cocaine as a child or you wouldn't give them a cigarette because you know it's an addictive substance -- it's creating that loop for later in life,” she said. “Why are we giving them these platforms that create that same sort of addictive potential in them, in what we kind of term as acceptable addiction?”
Strohman says the science shows a direct correlation between the amount of time kids spend online and changes in their developing brains.
“We're finding the microstructure abnormalities; we're losing gray matter and white matter in kids that have internet addiction,” she said. “That's been very clear in the studies.”
That worries Auer.
“I wouldn't want that for my child,” she said.
Along with structural changes in the brain come changes in behavior.
“When I was growing up, we spent a lot of time outside,” Strohman said. “I think kids nowadays would actually like to work on their iPads or play on their iPads more than just go outside and jump on the trampoline because it seems to be more entertaining.
“As a psychologist, our kids aren't learning how to be social anymore,” she continued. “You'll see they're not making eye contact. They don't know how to maintain a conversation and a lot [of this] has to do with anxiety, social phobias.”
When kids are constantly connected to the colorful and musical virtual world, interacting in the real world can seem a little depressing.
“Their reality is dull, so we have a lot of these kids complaining about boredom and not feeling like there's any purpose in life anymore,” Strohman said.
You wouldn't give your child cocaine as a child or you wouldn't give them a cigarette because you know it's an addictive substance -- it's creating that loop for later in life. Why are we giving them these platforms that create that same sort of addictive potential in them?
Auer is aware of some of the pitfalls of children using a lot of tech. She carefully supervises what her kids are watching – she recently deleted the YouTube Kids app -- and tries to limit how much her little ones are plugged in.
“They’re probably about a half hour maybe every three hours,” she said.
She knows technology is the wave of the future and sees the benefits in her little boy, firsthand.
“I do feel like since using the learning games -- the color games, the number games, the alphabet -- that he has learned how to speak and how to do his shapes and other different things,” she said.
The average age of children in the U.S. with their own devices is now 6.
Strohman suggests each family set healthy guidelines for their kids, and even if's a little more inconvenient, try to stick to it.
Auer is putting that advice into practice.
“I’m trying more and more every day to get them outside, playing outside and then they can kind of use the iPad as more of a reward instead of something as an activity,” she said.
When I first started using electronics, I thought it was absolutely awesome because I got a lot done.
[WATCH: Too much screen time for kids?]
Strohman recommends no screen time for kids younger than 2. For children 2 to 10, she suggests one hour of supervised screen time and for the teens and tweens, she recommends limiting the time online to two hours, not including academic use.
[RESOURCE: Technology Wellness Center]
[SCREEN TIME SPECIAL REPORT: Controlling screen time for kids & teens]
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