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I am a dad of two teenage sons, the only ones in their respective grades without smartphones. Their images — and “cool factor” — take hits because I won’t let them have these digital drugs.

As a psychologist with decades of experience in the field of addiction, I tell my kids, “I care about your brains, not your images.” Contemptuous eye rolls and sulky withdrawals predictably follow.

Today’s teens spend up to nine hours a day on screens or smartphones, while children ages 8 to 12 are on for four to six hours, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Many teens spend more time on screens than they do sleeping, and some even acknowledge they use them too much.

As a practicing clinician, I know that attachment is the most critical ingredient in “healthy” development. Children’s attachment grows in response to where their attention goes. Our 86 billion neurons develop according to the inputs they receive, and neurobiological pathways are refined and mapped out during the teen years.

This is especially alarming given the amount of time teens are spending on their devices.

There’s no shortage of recent and frightening stories and studies about the state of our children’s mental health, from degraded attention spans and poor impulse control to decreases in empathy and significant rises in depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

The U.S. Surgeon General declared a national crisis in mental health last December. The correlation between declining mental health and increasing smartphone ownership isn’t lost on me.

The excessive use of digital devices could render an entire generation neurobiologically incapable, as adults, of reading novels such as Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” or processing complex issues that require sustained attention.

Not lazy but incapable— a horrifying calculus.

Our kids are learning to connect through digital devices, an unprecedented phenomenon — and one I’m concerned is radically altering the arc of our ancient brain development.

The alarming state of adolescent mental health is the most glaring symptom, and it fortifies my firewall against giving my kids smartphones.

Related: Proof Points: 10,000 student study points to kindergarteners who may become heavy screen users

About five years ago, as I walked my then-elementary school kids to school, I was bumped and run into by upper-school students glued to their phones — their consciousness taken hostage, essentially. The external “real” world could not compete with the hypnotic lure of their phones. I was pissed, then worried.

I was already aware of concerns around teens’ social media use, but this struck me as very different. It was clear to me that the devices had become overstimulating portals, intoxicating rabbit holes that kids cannot help but go down. Social media and other platforms are tunnels.

Their smartphones are, in essence, digital drugs. Tech and social media companies excel at marketing every advancement related to them as positive and cool must-haves. And because information and data are critical to human survival, it’s understandable that people crave instant access to the millions of bits of information that tech/smartphones offer.

But there are costs. The devices aren’t neutral. The devices want something from us all the time — first and foremost, our undivided attention.

Our kids are learning to connect through digital devices, an unprecedented phenomenon — and one I’m concerned is radically altering the arc of our ancient brain development.

I don’t let my kids gamble or watch violence because they would be riveted and absorbed, their brains electrified by dopamine dumps. Intuitively, I understand that this is both overwhelming and dangerous, and why children’s brains are incapable of integrating such stimulation in healthy ways.

Smartphones, in my view, fall into this same category.

For the past three years, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has conducted longitudinal scientific research focused on the neurobiological effects of devices on brain development, funded by my family’s foundation, through the Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain and Psychological Development.

We are creating tools for parents, caregivers and teens to make better-informed choices about how they interact with technology and social media.

Our research examines how technology use may be associated with changes in adolescent brain and social development, including increased risk for behavioral health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

In addition to contributing to our research, the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC-Chapel Hill teaches the undergraduate course Social Media, Technology, and the Adolescent Brain, which is consistently one of the most popular courses in the department. The course has sparked a broad community conversation on campus about the perils of device overuse.

More needs to be done to protect the emotional and cognitive development of our children. Tech companies have hidden destructive and addictive elements within smartphones, making them Trojan horses that kids now carry around in their pockets.

Related: Dealing with digital distraction

That’s why we need to raise the alarm with parents, alert them to the dangers of these devices and educate them about their children’s vulnerabilities and about how tech companies are building their bottom lines at the cost of our children’s future.

In a very short period of time, smartphones have been woven into the fabric of almost everyone’s lives. Managed responsibly, they are incredible tools. At the same time, recognizing our children’s natural curiosity and inclination toward novelty makes it even more imperative that we protect their pathways to healthy development.

If we are to conquer this deeply troubling trend, we must do more than recognize the problem. Parents need resources and support to help them navigate the path to appropriate device use for their children.

Like the guidance we have on the safe operation of vehicles or even which movies are developmentally appropriate for our children to watch, we should have protocols in place to help parents make the right decisions for how to introduce and manage our children’s technology use.

Age restrictions for smartphones and even guidance on time limits are good places to start. In fact, that movement has already begun with efforts such as Wait Until 8th, which encourages parents and guardians to delay smartphone purchases for kids until eighth grade.

Parents — and, ultimately, legislators — must act to keep this digital drug out of the hands of young kids who aren’t capable of responsibly managing it.

Jim Winston Jr., a practicing psychologist with extensive experience in treating addiction, is the founder and chairman of the Winston Family Initiative in North Carolina.

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