Elizabeth Vargas and 20/20 Investigate Internet Addiction

By Dorri Olds 05/20/17

They struggled with anxiety and used gaming or social media to “escape” or numb it. That is exactly how I used … alcohol.

Elizabeth Vargas
Dorri Olds interviews Elizabeth Vargas on the growing problem of electronic and digital addiction affecting the youth. photo via ABC-TV

ABC-TV’s 20/20 news anchor, Elizabeth Vargas, reports on a year-long investigation into obsessive compulsive behaviors with electronic devices. Technology addiction, internet addiction and digital addiction are all unofficial psychiatric terms, according to the May 19 episode, used to describe the overuse of smartphones, tablets, or computers to access social media, texting, gaming and apps.

It’s a controversial topic among experts because many say additional studies are needed before calling it an addiction. The 20/20 team spent a year embedded with families whose suffering was directly related to their loved one’s antisocial and self-destructive internet dependence.

Josh is a 14-year-old video gamer whose obsession was destroying his life.

Here is a clip of 15-year-old Brooke, whose father cries after finding her suicide note online after years battling with her over the teen’s excessive sexting and social media activities. Maria describes her failing marriage to Chris, blaming his addictive gaming for destroying his connection to her and their four young children.

Vargas and co-anchor David Muir take us through the personal lives of these families while also seeking answers from leaders in this specialized field of study. In this clip, brain expert and chair of psychiatry at Wayne State University and DMC Michigan’s Children’s Hospital, David Rosenberg, M.D., explains to Vargas how MRI brain scans from his pilot studies show lower brain functioning in internet addicts.

In this clip, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, author of “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids-and How to Break the Trance,” offers his perspective on how age-inappropriate technology is harming the brains of an entire generation.

Victoria L. Dunckley, MD, author of “Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time,” talks about what she coined “Electronic Screen Syndrome.” She tells ABC, “The child goes into a state of hyper-arousal and the brain just starts to malfunction so you see problems with focus, behavior, and mood.”

The Fix landed an exclusive interview with Vargas.

Dorri Olds: How did you become interested in internet addiction?

Elizabeth Vargas: Like most parents I know, I was becoming alarmed at how large a role electronics was playing in my kids’ lives. One of our producers has an 18-month-old baby and she was fascinated by how quickly her child became attached to her phone. We decided to explore the issue and went online, asking our viewers if they knew anyone with real issues. We reached out to experts in the field to see just how real this complaint “my kid is addicted to his phone” really is.

How did you choose the stories?

We wanted teenagers and families that had deep issues with gaming or electronic screens. We found our teenagers, Josh and Brooke, through experts in the field of treatment. We found our middle-aged husband after his wife posted an anonymous blog about her husband’s inability to stop gaming.

How were you able to gather such candid footage?

Our team of producers embedded with these families for more than a year. We also had family members shoot their own video diaries about their struggle with the child or husband. We had unbelievable access to the treatment centers currently helping our two teens (and many others by the way) with what they call their “internet addiction.” These families, their therapists, and their doctors were very courageous and honest in sharing their journeys. I think I was most struck by the parents of the teenagers, and how lost and helpless they felt while their child spun out of control, and also how quickly it all happened.

You have been so open about your own anxiety and alcoholism—do you see any similarities with those addicted to electronics?

It’s interesting that all three of the people we profile in this hour revealed they struggled with anxiety and used gaming or social media to “escape” or numb it. That is exactly how I used … alcohol. There are clearly big differences between alcohol and drug abuse, and excessive, compulsive use of internet or video games, but many of the reasons … are the same, and [those with electronic addiction] are also really damaging their lives in the process.

SEE ALSO: 20/20 Anchor Elizabeth Vargas Talks to The Fix About Anxiety, Alcoholism and Recovery

Did you gather statistics on how many suffer from digital addiction?

The term “digital addiction” is in itself, very controversial. While other countries in Asia and the World Health Organization have already, or are about to, classify internet addiction as a health disorder, and have hundreds of rehab centers dedicated to treating it, here in the U.S. there is a lot of disagreement about whether it exists. Some doctors say it’s ridiculous, and the gaming industry says games are not addictive. But we interview experts who say that games and phone apps are specifically designed to “hook you and keep you.” We interviewed [brain expert Dr. David Rosenberg who] points to MRI images of the brain to show excessive gaming depresses important cognitive functions.

When Brooke listed social media apps she was on when she was 12, had you heard of all of them? And at what age was the now-15-year-old Brooke sexting?

I had not heard of all of them, and that’s what is so scary. Parents cannot keep up with apps that are specifically designed to keep us from monitoring what our kids are doing online. Brooke was sexting by the time she was 11-years-old. She was upstairs, in her pretty bedroom, with the door closed. Her parents, downstairs, thought she was safe, thought they were respecting their daughter’s privacy. They have a stark warning for parents who do not understand that a phone can be a portal into a very dangerous world.

Did covering this topic make you think about your two sons’ use of electronic devices?

You bet. But it also reassured me a little. I feel more confident sticking to my guns when they complain about my rules. I am relieved they love playing sports and going out and enjoying “real” life, instead of their virtual one.

What were your thoughts on this quote from Brooke’s father? “When you take a phone and social media, and you put it in the hands of a teenager, and then throw in some mental illness, she just becomes very vulnerable.

I think that is a powerful, cautionary quote from a father who has been through hell and back. We don’t always know when our kids or friends or colleagues might suffer from some sort of mental health issue. Jim did not know about all of Brooke’s anxiety. Millions of people suffer from these issues—anxiety, depression, ADD. Many of them are self-medicating, and we need to be vigilant and notice the warning signs that something is out of control.

What did you learn about the brain of those who become addicted?

According to [research by Dr. Rosenberg] at Michigan Children’s Hospital, kids who are gaming incessantly show areas of their brain that should be fired up – decision making, executive functioning—are depressed and failing to show activity.

Do you predict a whole new industry for rehabbing these types of addicts?

There are definitely more and more treatment centers and wilderness camps dealing with the issue of internet dependence, or social media syndrome.

With alcoholism and drug addiction there is very little that others can do; the substance abuser has to want to stop. Do you think it’s the same with this type of addiction?

This is very similar to alcohol and drug abuse – these people all had to want to stop as well. Similar to treating people with substance abuse, the teenagers needed a dramatic intervention and rehab far from home and any electronics to get to the point where they wanted to quit. The challenge will be going back. Then it’s more like treating an eating disorder. It’s very difficult to live today without a phone or laptop or desktop computer. They will need to learn to have a healthy, moderate relationship with these devices.

What warning signs can parents look for?

Your child is failing in school, losing interest in other activities, becoming excessively angry when you try and take the devices away, and becoming isolated.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.