When the Media Is the Parent

The media as family member

Asperger Nation: On Toddlers Becoming Consumers

We are turning toddlers and preschoolers into consumers of media gadgets.

An astonishing new phenomenon is now sweeping the nation: the turning of toddlers and preschoolers into consumers of media gadgets. Though many parents are major players in this social trend, there are good reasons for them to pause and contemplate what they are doing. As a practitioner of child psychiatry, I feel that parents need to be aware of my concerns.

In my clinical practice, I often see 4- to 6-year-olds presenting problems of anger, anxiety, or a combination of both, whose parents, interestingly, have worked to quell their symptoms via media gadgets. Mostly in order to amuse and distract their kids, many parents light on the idea of lulling their kids toward sweet dreams in their rooms by offering them mind-calming video games or animated movies. Likewise, when coping with a child experiencing tantrum problems, parents may place the child in a bedroom with a screen as a companion in order to distract the child from the feeling of rage and settle him or her down.

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As I have mulled over these clinical data, I've happened on certain articles in the popular media in which I discovered that the events described by parents in the privacy of my office and transpiring in the privacy of many bedrooms were really outcomes of a broad and premeditated thrust by manufacturers of media devices bent on introducing their wares to ever-younger consumers. In many articles, I learned how parents have been convinced to offer touch-screen devices for usage to infants and toddlers in their cribs. While the actual content of these media presentations often seems innocent enough, the act of introducing media as a mollifier has become very common.

On one level, the articles are amusing, even lighthearted. Yet on another, they are disconcerting, even a bit alarming. Here is the gist of my concern: Parents buy these devices to give themselves a break and to keep the child in good spirits, and they seem to work at least to a point. But when the child misbehaves, parents remove the media device as punishment. Interestingly, since the media device has grown very dear to the child, its removal results in the child pitching a temper tantrum.

Implied in this trifecta of phenomena—the use of media machines to distract the child, their removal as punishment, and the ensuing tantrum as a new problem—is a simple fact stated in various articles and then passed over with little comment: The media gadget seems to delight the children to no end, perhaps more than a well-cherished traditional toy. Why is this tight connection so? Why are screens so alluring, lulling, calming, mesmerizing, in fact powerful?  Let us dwell for a moment on this very crucial question.

Child development literature offers at least three distinct answers. First, mother-child attachment researchers have long understood through careful observations of infants, toddlers, and their mothers that infants and toddlers are hardwired neurologically to respond positively to certain attributes in other humans. Infants naturally are attracted to eyes, to smiles, to high-pitched voices, to bright colors, and movements. Because of this tendency to be attracted to so many traits extant in a mother, mothers are attracted to their infants, and so a very, very tight human connection begins. The child is loved, and the mother is loved too. The child grows, and the mother is thrilled to be a mother.

Yet the hardwiring responses of the infant apply not just to moms per se but also to whatever the infant sees and hears. When the child responds positively toward the mother, ideally she responds in kind. But when a media screen offers these same or similar visual and auditory cues, the child grows intrigued with them as well. So the screens to which infants and toddlers become connected in a very real sense are eliciting the hardwiring responses long in play in mother-child interactions, since prehistorical times really. The same magic alive in the interplay of child and mother, however, has now fallen into the hands of the makers of media devices. Its use by media-machine manufacturers creates a kind of child-machine pseudo-attachment experience. If misused, it might have serious consequences for both the child and the society.

Next, as has been recently discovered, humans playing action-packed video games experience an elevation of levels of a naturally occurring chemical in our central nervous systems: dopamine. A squirt of dopamine delivered to the players of games seems to instill a sense of well-being in the player, a sense of focus. If this hypothesis is true, then it can be inferred that the toddler glued to the screen who appears hypnotized may truly be so. A kind of euphoria has evolved in the viewer or player. The interruption of the bond can lead to a display of dysphoria, hence a temper tantrum.

Third, Sherri Turkle, a social scientist at MIT has described the so-called Goldilocks effect—not too hot, not too cold, but just right—in trying to understand the human fascination with screens and our intense tendency to get glued to them unendingly. Her idea is that all human relations, including ones between parents and infants or toddlers, can lead to deep satisfaction but also emotional upset. The infant crying inconsolably elicits in most parents the desire to soothe. Yet such attempts to help the child sometimes go awry. For instance, if a child awakens in the night, fearful, terrified of the dark, and cries out in horror, the mother usually gets up and rushes to help.  Sleep-deprived or not, she struggles to be emotionally present enough to serve as a good enough soother. But fatigue, distraction, irritability can elicit in the parent a too hot (angry) or a too cold (half-hearted and emotional unavailabe) response. In either instance, the child can suffer, and the child-mother relation can be weakened.

Not so with media gadgets, which are usually amiable and, if fed with electricity, indefatigable. Though, in truth, unemotional, media can offer facsimiles of upbeat and cheerful emotions in their responses to the child 24/7. Hence many parents learn instinctively to rely on media contrivances to lull their 2-year-olds to sleep, soothe their agitation, or bury their irritability. In a sense, parents are sidelining themselves from a central part of their parental role.

So where do these three ideas leave us? The upshot is that parent-child, even the mother-infant experience, can occur with more emotional distance. On an emotional, instinctive level parent and child learn to know each other less well. Connectivity between them can attenuate.

Over time in the culture where will this trend lead? I have three distinct concerns. First, children growing up from infancy onward into the preschool years with less parental connection will potentially suffer from significant mother-child attachment disorders. I am speaking of large clusters of children developing what researchers call "avoidant attachment," the crux of which involves an emotionally dismissive mother rearing a child who grows emotionally aloof, not in need of connectivity with other people.

Second, in terms of the issue of dopamine levels related to game playing, children run the risk of instinctively seeking out the euphoria induced by high dopamine levels. The media machine becomes a necessity, a kind of fix. Internet addiction begins at an early age.

Finally, in the area of the Goldilocks effect, children with more distance from their primary parental connection might develop problems in coping with internal distress created by human conflict. At all cost they might work to avoid such painful if crucial experiences. Due literally to less face time with other humans, they might develop difficulties at reading social cues, feeling empathy for others, and forming reciprocal relations. In short, we are likely to see large numbers of human beings manifesting the cardinal symptoms of what is fashionably referred to as Asperger’s disorder.

Dr. George Drinka is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians (Simon & Schuster). His new book, When the Media Is the Parent, is a culmination of his work with children, his scholarly study of works on the media and American cultural history, and his dedication to writing stories that reveal the humanity in us all.

George Drinka, M.D. is on the clinical faculty of the Oregon Health Sciences University.

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