Photo: University of Iowa / Tim Schoon
The World Health Organisation’s decision to add “gaming disorder” to its International Classification of Diseases has generated a few headlines this week. Not everyone is happy about it, least of all the gaming industry, but many mental health professionals and parents are concerned about the addictive character of videogames.
From EverQuest 20 years ago to Fortnite, the latest blockbuster, these games have a compelling attraction — for men and boys in particular.
And it’s not just games that have professionals worried about addictive behaviour. Last year psychologist Jean Twenge wrote about the epidemic of depression – among young teenager girls in particular — that has coincided with their use of smartphones and social media.
Again, young children are primed for addiction by being given phones or tablets to amuse them too often, as well as being exposed to television. “Today’s preschoolers spend more than four hours a day facing a screen,” writes early childhood educator Erika Christakis in The Atlantic.
Yet it is adults’ use of screens she is concerned with in her article, “The Dangers of Distracted Parenting”.
Despite the fact that parents, especially mothers, have more “face time” with their children than at almost any time in history, she argues, “the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz.” Parents are physically more present but less emotionally attuned, and the chief suspect is phones.
In other words, parents who are otherwise on the job suffer their own kind of technology induced mental disorder – what one expert has called “continuous partial attention” – that is bad not only for them but for their children.
Christakis is not suggesting that parents have to give their kids full attention whenever they happen to be present in the same room, which for mothers of young children is usually a lot of time. Put them safely in a playpen and leave them to their own devices for a while, she says, or even give them a bit of screen time – no harm done.
What is harmful for the youngest children, according to the child development theory she draws on, is divided attention. It interrupts, most critically, the baby-talk that goes on between parents (especially mothers) and infants or toddlers and that builds the basic architecture of the brain.
Through this “conversational duet”, in which the adult adopts a higher-pitched tone, simplified grammar and engaged, exaggerated enthusiasm, and the baby responds with equal enthusiasm, the child learns language – or languages – much quicker than those who miss out on such emotionally resonant conversations.
What happens when these exchanges are interrupted by mom reading a text or doing a quick check on Instagram?
Researchers have actually observed caregivers and young children in various settings and found that the mothers or other adults who used their phones initiated less conversation and were less responsive to the children.
In one experiment 38 mothers and their 2-year-olds were brought into a room where the mothers were told to teach their children two new (made-up) words. They were given a phone so that investigators could contact them from another room. When the mothers were interrupted by a call, the children did not learn the word, but otherwise they did. (Seven mothers who didn’t answer their phone had to be excluded from the analysis!)
“Occasional parental distraction is not catastrophic (and may even build resilience),” says Christakis, “but chronic distraction is another story.” Such an adult may grow irritable when phone use is interrupted and miss emotional cues, or misread them.
Again, distraction is different from short, deliberate separations; the latter can be healthy for both parent and child, whereas the former (mom, for example, frequently checking her phone) can communicate to the child that he or she is less valuable than an email. Christakis again:
“What’s going on today … is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable – always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.”
And these effects can be compounded by pre-school institutional settings in which “children have few opportunities for spontaneous conversation.”
However, children are also prewired to get what they need from adults – by a tantrum if necessary – and we can expect to see more of those as today’s toddlers age into school, says Christakis. At the same time, we don’t know how much today’s kids will suffer “when we fail to engage” (think: Romanian orphans).
Adults are also suffering, she adds, from “the miserable premise that they can be always on,” and, “Under the circumstances, it’s easier for us to focus on our children’s screen time than to pack up our own devices.”
Christakis’ take-home message: you can do more for kids by doing less, but making the time you do spend with them count more by being engaged.
What she does not mention is the character building potential of her advice (“put down your damned phone”) making it easier for parents to get their kids to exercise temperance also — and not only with newfangled devices.