Imagine you’re on a plane.
It’s a crowded plane, but two little girls around the age of one stand out to you.
The first child is immersed in cartoons on her mom’s smart phone. She acts sedated and distracted by the cartoons, almost as if she were unaware she was heading onto a plane, surrounded by strangers. Her mother sits her down next to a stranger and the young girl starts crying because she is disrupted from her session of digital distraction. She is instantly transported back to reality and has a full-blown anxiety attack because she becomes aware that she is on a plane with a bunch of strangers. The mother is embarrassed and wants to quiet her daughter, so she finds another cartoon and turns it on. Throughout the flight, the girl freaks out whenever the cartoons end and she is made aware of her place on the plane. At the end of flight, her mother asks, "Do you want to talk to daddy on the phone?" Girl shakes her head with a determined "NO! I want Dora!"
The second child has her favorite blanket with her, wrapped around her. She is comforted by the blanket, she is using as a coping mechanism, but instead of being immersed in another world, she is present, engaged, looking around, processing what is going on around her. She is actively learning to deal with anxiety, is reading human body language to see who is friendly and who isn’t. The whole flight, she doesn’t make a noise – she is learning to process her anxiety, developing greater emotional maturity as her mind is unplugged from distractions that help her process information from her surrounding environment.
What is the difference between the two kids? Digital media can be used as a painkiller for the brain, it literally distracts the person so much that they don’t feel or process things around them the same way as those who are not engaged in the digital world. With the second child, even though she uses a blanket as a security mechanism, she is forced to look around and process what is going on around her. Before digital media took hold of our children, parents would give their children a shirt with their mom or dad’s scent to help them cope and deal with new situations. Or, they would give their children books to keep them occupied, rather than just sticking a digital babysitter in their hands.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends ZERO screen time for children under age two, so why are parents introducing their kids to digital painkillers so early, disregarding what experts recommend? When we disregard warnings like this, are we raising children to be more attached to digital painkillers, even as infants? Are they becoming emotionally attached to digital devices rather than connecting on a personal level with human beings? With repeated exposure to digital media, especially when used as a way to cope, we are teaching our kids that it’s ok to check out of real life and forget about dealing with their emotions in healthy, productive ways.
By Andrew Doan MD PhD and Brooke Strickland