Previously I wrote about the way screen exposure from smartphones, tablets, and the like interfere with the normal development of socialization, especially among the youngest in society.
When screen content pushes aside real-world interaction and emphasizes sensation at the expense of critical thought or even simple physical engagement—as it almost always does—then we have conditioned ourselves to “socialize” through texts and tech-at-a-distance rather than up-close-and-in-person, the way we have done for a hundred thousand years.
Did we think this would turn out well?
The malevolent influence of technology on child development is perhaps nowhere as starkly illustrated as in its effect on parent-child rapport. Long-established “Attachment Theory” sees the fundamental role of parents as being available and responsive when needed and ready to intervene whenever necessary to keep a child safe, out of trouble, and feeling wanted.
The three most common attachment outcomes are “secure,” “avoidant,” and “anxious.”
Whether a primary caregiver responds to a child’s needs sensitively, erratically, or not at all during the first two years of life determines whether that child grows up emotionally secure, emotionally anxious, or emotionally avoidant. Early childhood experience with one’s first caregivers forms a template against which all subsequent relationships are shaped.
What happens when that early caregiver is most often an iPad?
As the “still-face” experiment shows, using smart devices in front of their children makes a parent temporarily unavailable, and their disappearance psychologically damages the child’s emotional attachment.
The still-face paradigm consists of three phases: mutual free play between mother and child; the still face phase, during which the mother is physically present but stares down at her phone and neither responds to nor initiates any bids for attention; and a reunion phase that restores the parent as fully engaged and emotionally available.
When, during the still-face phase, physical or vocal attempts to gain a parent’s attention go unanswered, children become distressed. In the lab, the mother is instructed to scroll, type, and focus on her phone for just two minutes—the still-face phase. Mommy may think that checking takes only a second, but kids experience it much differently.
“It just takes a minute” is felt differently by a child.
Source: Norbert Schäfer/Radius Images
In previous generations, telephones were either bolted to a wall or tethered to the kitchen counter (and they didn’t have an attention-grabbing screen). Mother could signal with a look or a gesture that she’d be with you in a minute. She made eye contact while she dealt with whoever was on the line and held her gaze to reassure you.
But today, when a child sees a mother’s head looking down, there is no telling how long it will be before she looks up again.
The final reunion phase of the still-face experiment provides an opportunity for mother and child to reconnect emotionally. Unfortunately, the more a parent is habitually preoccupied with her screen, the less successful a reunion will be at repairing the emotional breach that the device itself creates.
In its effect on daily life, the screen world has no precedent. Previously, the car enabled easy movement from place to place; the fridge and microwave revolutionized meal preparation; the TV (initially available only on a fixed schedule and in a fixed location for a few hours each evening) provided vivid escapism that was nonetheless grounded in the real world.
People ate dinner together, argued and laughed together, shopped face-to-face, worked in close proximity, recreated, played games, and dated in a common physical space. Earlier technologies were a means to an end.
Today it is normal to wake up, work, shop, entertain yourself, and seek out sex without physically interacting with another person all day.
After lighthouse keeper, a writer such as myself has the second most solitary occupation. If I haven’t socialized in person all day, then I make it a point to call a friend before the close of the day.
I know that social media isn’t social at all; I need to hear the other’s voice, full of nuance and meaning, and I like to think that they benefit from hearing mine. Then, at the end of my workday, I turn off my devices until morning. Otherwise, I’d let the screen world become not a means but the end itself.