We often joke about our kids being addicted to their cell phones. It might actually be true.

Lt. John Pizzuro, the commander of the New Jersey State Police Internet Crimes Against Children task force, says one reason why the cyber predator threat is on the rise is kids are developing a dopamine dependence to their smart device — getting a rush when they go online.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate emotion and sends signals to make people feel happy. Its role in gambling addiction and other addictive behaviors has been well-studied, and experts are increasingly describing it and other biological triggers as factors in compulsive smart device use.


This week, New Jersey 101.5 takes a special look at the hazards children and parents face online. Wednesday night, join us on-air and online for our special on-air town hall on Cyber Safety. View it live at Facebook.com/NJ1015 at 7 p.m. Wednesday. As our experts questions in the chat, or call 800-283-1015 during the program.


Pizzuro said some kids as young as 7 are spending as much as 10 hours a day online.

“They are trying to compete with people for likes, followers and viewers, so that dopamine is basically (telling their brains) 'It’s not enough. All of a sudden I have 100 followers. It’s not enough. I need 150.”

And, Pizzuro said, they're turning to troubling techniques to get that stimulus.

“We have more 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds taking seductive pictures of themselves and then sharing them on the Internet, as well as being groomed by individuals to take sexually explicit photos and then share them with other people," he said.

Pizzuro said an they're measuring themselves against the images people see of peers online — a constructed, limited fantasy world where people show off their happy times, food and wonderful events, but hide the grittier and less attractive parts of their lives.

“Children are trying to compete with that," Pizzuro said. "They’re trying to compete with that attention, so that’s where that dopamine-dependent society comes in. It’s that what they’re competing against is something that is not even real to begin with.”

He said to try and get the attention they crave, kids will do just about anything, and today, that spells trouble. In one case, he said, a child predator's victim told police "she didn’t have enough likes so she had to do something — so this is an 8-year-old who now is 10.”

Pizzuro said more arrests are being made because of improvements in technology coupled with the creativeness and ingenuity of undercover investigators, and this trend is expected to continue.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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