Virtual Idols and Addictions

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I'm beginning to prepare for a parent-teen seminar that I will be leading in January on "Virtual Idols and Addictions," and the more I study the more my heart is saddened. I am learning things that as a parent I never wanted to know, but need to be aware of. And I guess that someone had told me some of these things ten years ago, so that maybe I could have made things easier for my own kids growing up.

I want to pass some of these things on to you, so that you can be warned, and so that you can begin as a parent to prepare yourselves to deal with these issues in your own home with your teenagers. So here are some excerpts from a press release in our local paper promoting the seminar...

Virtual Idols and Addictions : Video Games, Texting, and Worse

Can a person become addicted to something that doesn’t really exist, except in a virtual world? Is there in fact the danger of becoming physically “hooked” on video games, electronic entertainment, cell phones, or cyber sex? What kind of an impact is the electronic entertainment industry making in our culture, and in the lives of our teenagers today?

The whole idea of addiction to video games or to other electronic media is a new concept. No one ever explored the idea before the year 2001, and really, no one had to ever even look at the possibility before 1997 when the internet began to become popular. Think of how fast the internet has grown! Just fifteen years ago very few people had even heard of such a thing as an “internet.” Today we act as if we can barely survive without it.

The video gaming industry has grown over the past ten years to a 33 billion dollar per year giant. Video games are one of the biggest and most consistent influences in the lives of our children and teenagers today, with over 80% owning one or more video game consoles, most of which are kept in the teen or child’s bedroom where parents have little or no supervision over what is being played or how many hours are being spent playing.

David Walsh, Ph.D. from the AMA has estimated that as many as 20% of children and teens (mostly males) are addicted to video games. Gaming addicts show all of the classic symptoms of drug addicts, or other addicts, including dependence, tolerance, withdrawals, and mood disorders. Adrenaline is released, dopamine surges, and the brain gets “hooked.”

Virtual Idols are not limited to video games. Female brains are stimulated by conversations on phones in ways that no one would have considered thirty years ago. And now that everyone has a cell phone, teen girls can talk on the phone nearly all day, every day, constantly stimulating pleasure centers of the brain in ways that begin to train the brain to seek out the activity more and more. One researcher notes that, “It used to be that girls called friends on the phone when they ‘had a feeling’ to share, now they have to call friends in order to ‘get a feeling.’”

It gets worse. A new study funded by Cosmo Girl reports that 20% of teens, mostly girls, have sent either nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves via their cell phones to others, or have posted online, and about 40% of teens are sending sexually suggestive messages via text or email. According to the study, the problem grows as young people enter their 20’s. Once this sexually oriented material is sent to the intended recipient, it often gets forwarded to others including complete strangers, or posted on a website for the entire world to see. See for the study.

And that’s not all. The biggest problem of all is internet pornography addiction, particularly in males (70% of those visiting porn sites are males, 30% are females), beginning as young as age 12. In fact, The largest group of viewers of Internet porn is children between ages 12 and 17. The Internet pornography industry generates $12 billion dollars in annual revenue-more than the combined annual revenues of ABC, NBC, and CBS (Family Safe Media, January 10, 2006) and has over 450,000,000 million web pages of porn online. Searches for “sex” or “porn” in the top ten search terms on Google or Yahoo search engines.

Addiction to internet porn has neurological roots. Dr. Jeffrey Satinover writes, ". . . modern science allows us to understand that the underlying nature of an addiction to pornography is chemically nearly identical to a heroin addiction," and Dr. Judith Reisman reports that, "Pornography triggers a myriad of endogenous, internal, natural drugs that mimic the ‘high' from a street drug. Addiction to pornography is addiction to what I dub erototoxins – mind altering drugs produced by the viewer's own brain."

Parents are barely aware that these problems exist, and are not equipped to deal with these problems in their own teens as these problems did not even exist just fifteen years ago. In fact, our society is just now beginning to come to grips with the reality of the situation in the virtual electronic world. Certainly no one has a good grip on just what the consequences will be for families or society in the future. No society has ever walked down this road before.

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