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Summer camp helping fight tech addiction in kids

Posted at 12:05 PM, May 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-14 12:05:54-04

Three-year-old Leo Cocovinis nimbly navigates a vintage Super Mario game. He giggles and squeals with delight while trying to save a princess and dodge fireballs. Plus, it gives his mom, Katy, a few precious minutes to knock out some work.

She’s glad he’s occupied. But worried what the gaming does.

“What is it about video games that really sucks them in that way?” Katy queries. “How does a three-year-old have the attention span to play for hours?”

Next, we are in the kitchen of Robert and Carolyn Mangano, whose 13-year-old son Anthony is in his room gaming up to 15 hours each day. He eats in his room, too. He sleeps very little.

PIX11's Kirstin Cole asks the parents, “Do you feel like, as parents, you are in control?” A sadness washes over the pair and Carolyn responds. “No. Absolutely not.”

Robert and Carolyn are struggling with how to unplug their son.

"Sometimes I could be in there almost all day," Anthony Mangano admits.

The teenager means inside his room, at his computer. Here, he plays completely immersive video games, like the wildly popular "Fortnite." "It was an addicting game, so I got my way out of it," he says.

Mangano has been home full-time for two years, after bullying forced him out of school. His social networks crumbled and he started racking up more and more hours in his electronic world. “I take sleeping medicine. But it's very hard to sleep," he says.

His parents, frustrated, have tried cutting the cord, cold turkey – But it only sparks Anthony’s anger, and more family discord.

"What it's done – It's taken on a beast of it's own, and it scares me, because I've reached out for help," his mom Carolyn says.

"Fortnite," a billion dollar business, counts some 200 million players worldwide, many who won't or can't walk away – And for good reason, says child psychiatrist and author Dr. Jodi Gold.

"Video game developers are developing these games to be addictive, like gambling," she says. "It stimulates the dopamine centers in your brain so they want to go back and get more."

Janis Suits, a North Carolina mom of a 15-year-old boy, says her son completely changed.

"He uses the Xbox for a lot of things. He escapes reality. It makes him feel like he belongs somewhere because he doesn't have friends," says Suits.

Like many tech-obsessed teens, Suits' son has gained weight, packing on 40 pounds in just months.

These families are now hoping a summer camp intervention will help bring their boys back.

"It's really horrible. From what I see, kids I work with, there is more anxiety than ever. More social anxiety than ever. More medication than ever," camp founder Tony Sparber explains.

Sparber and his wife run Camp Pocono Trails, and for 26 years they've helped some 20,000 kids with weight loss. Now, they've added tech addiction to their summer program.

Their success, they say, comes from old fashioned camp fun. "They do things they've never done before, like zip lining, swimming, jet skis," Sparber says.

The unplugging, combined with healthy eating, sleeping, and shedding pounds, leads to learning how to make actual friends again.

"When I send a kid home, they're completely different. Self esteem is higher, they have confidence, they do better in school," Sparber says.

Suits is sending her son back for a second summer after he spent two weeks at the camp last year.

"He learned coping mechanisms," she says. He was happy when we picked him up. He made friends. He got his personality back," she adds.

It's a game plan Dr. Gold, author of "Screen Smart Parenting," supports.

"At the end of the day it is a family model, and teaching your kids how to manage it, not restrict it. I think as adults, we are struggling just as much as our kids are," Gold says.

Dr. Gold says we need to model for our kids. Eating dinner with no phones at the table and everyone putting devices to bed outside the bedroom, so they can actually sleep.

The CDC's latest recommendation? Absolutely no screen time for kids under the age of five.