Paula Poundstone. Image Courtesy of IMDB.

For Paula Poundstone, the absurdity of parenting in the digital age can be distilled in a brightly colored ‘iPotty’ for sale on Amazon.com. The small, plastic toilet would be typical baby gear if not for the stand placed between the toddler’s legs for their iPad. Apparently, toilet training and devices now go hand-in-hand.

“Any parent who would use that is missing something so important – the best conversations you have in your life are on the toilet,” Poundstone said of the potty-training stage. “You are stuck there and there’s nowhere to go.”

Poundstone’s son, Thomas, was around potty training age – three – when he first sat in front of a tangerine-colored iMac. The comedian strictly banned television while she raised three adopted children in Santa Monica, but made an exception for computers, deeming them educational. It’s an exception she deeply regrets.

“I foolishly used it as a reward system,” Poundstone said. “Now, he’s an addict.”

To hear Poundstone describe it, the 17 years following Thomas’ first gaming experience were a modern-day dystopian horror story. The ubiquitous nature of screens in school and modern life made it impossible to break her son from his destructive and isolating gaming obsession. By the time he was in middle school, Poundstone (who is an alcoholic in recovery) recognized his fixation with computers looked like an addiction. Thomas preferred gaming to interacting with peers, even at the Santa Monica Boys and Girls Club, where he spent hours in the computer lab after school. His gaming continued all night long. When his mom banned computer usage at home, she said Thomas took a laptop from his school to hide under the covers.

“He got harder and harder to wake up because he had been up gaming all night,” Poundstone said. “His response to not being allowed to use them became violent.”

While the American Medical Association does not recognize video game addiction as a diagnosable disorder, the symptoms are similar to gambling addiction, according to American Addiction Centers. Addicted gamers may feel restless or irritable when they can’t play, lie to friends and family about the amount of time they game and become isolated.

While the issue has gained media attention in recent years, Poundstone said many parents still don’t understand the impact computer games – even educational ones – have on developing brains. To educate them, the comedian known for her appearances on NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” and “A Prairie Home Companion” will host an event “Kids’ Brains & Screens: Smart Parenting in the Digital Age” Monday, Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Moss Theatre at New Roads Schools. She will be joined by two experts: child psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley and Melanie Hempe, founder of Families Managing Media. Tickets are $25 and available at brownpapertickets.com.

“They’re the cigarette companies of our time,” Poundstone said of technology companies. She believes most parents don’t know the powerful dopamine hit children get by playing games. Recent studies have significant changes in the brains of people who are addicted to online gaming.

Poundstone said local rehab centers and faraway wilderness camps could not alter the power screens held over her son. By the time he was in high school, Poundstone said he would regularly bike several miles from their home in Santa Monica to a Best Buy to play computer games. She eventually sent him to a remote wilderness-based high school in Virginia to get him away from smartphones and laptops that are now incorporated into most curriculums. Even there, Poundstone said his urge to game never went away.

“It was like Thomas was ‘patient x’ or something for a lot of programs,” Poundstone said

While she’s conflicted about talking so openly about her son’s problems, Poundstone believes parents should be aware of the destructive power of screens. She said Thomas, now 20, cannot even own a smartphone without gaming taking over his life.

“I just feel it’s bigger than he and I. It just is,” Poundstone said.

kate@smdp.com

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press

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