How your iPhone makes you invisible to your child

I have previously written about how screen exposure from smartphones, tablets and the like interferes with the normal development of socialization, especially among the youngest in society.

When on-screen content pushes aside real-world interaction and emphasizes sentiment at the expense of critical thinking or even simple physical exercise—as almost always does—then we have conditioned ourselves to be “socialized” through text and remote technology rather than up close and personal, as we have been doing for a hundred thousand years.

Did we think this would end well?

Perhaps nowhere is technology’s malicious influence on child development more evident than in its effect on the parent-child relationship. The 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, avoiding trouble, and feeling wanted.

The three most common attachment outcomes are secure, avoidant, and fearful.

Whether a primary caregiver is sensitive, unpredictable, or unresponsive to a child’s needs during the first two years of life determines whether that child will grow up emotionally secure, emotionally anxious, or emotionally avoidant. Early childhood experiences with the first caregivers form a template on which all subsequent relationships are based.

What if that early caregiver is mostly an iPad?

As the “Still Face” experiment demonstrates, the use of smart devices in front of their children makes a parent temporarily unavailable, and their disappearance psychologically damages the child’s emotional bond.

The still face paradigm consists of three phases: mutual free play between mother and child; the silent-face phase, during which the mother is physically present but stares at her phone and neither responds to nor initiates requests for attention; and a reunion phase that restores the parent to fully engaged and emotionally available.

When physical or vocal attempts to get a parent’s attention go unanswered during the still-face phase, children become distressed. In the lab, the mother is instructed to scroll, type, and focus on her phone for just two minutes — the silent-face phase. Mommy might think the verification only takes a second, but kids experience it very differently.

    Norbert Schaefer/Radius Images

“It only takes a minute” is perceived differently by a child.

Source: Norbert Schäfer/Radius Images

In previous generations, phones were either screwed to a wall or tied to the kitchen counter (and they didn’t have an attention-grabbing screen). Mom could signal with a look or a gesture that she will be with you in a moment. She made eye contact while dealing with whoever was on the line and held her gaze to reassure you.

But today, when a child looks down at a mother’s head, there’s 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 engaged with their screen, the less successful a reunion will be in repairing the emotional fracture caused by the device itself.

In its effect on daily life, the screen world has no precedent. In the past, the car made it easy to move from place to place; the refrigerator and microwave have revolutionized meal preparation; the television (initially only available on a fixed schedule and at a fixed location for a few hours each evening) provided for a lively escapism that was nonetheless rooted in the real world.

People ate dinner together, discussed and laughed together, shopped face-to-face, worked in close proximity, recreated, played games, and dated in a shared physical space. Previous technologies were a means to an end.

It’s normal these days to wake up, go to work, shop, chat, and seek sex without physically interacting with another person throughout the day.

After being a lighthouse keeper, a writer like me is the second most popular profession. If I haven’t met in person all day, I’ll call a friend before closing time.

I know that social media is not social at all; I need to hear each other’s voice, full of nuance and meaning, and I like to think they benefit from hearing mine. Then, at the end of my workday, I turn off my devices until morning. Otherwise I wouldn’t let the screen world become a means, but an end in itself.

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