Kindred’s Contributing Editor and FCL board member, Michael Mendizza, responds below to the American Academy of Pediatric’s new screen time policy statement, Beyond “Turn It Off”: How To Advise Families On Media Use.
Normal isn’t necessarily healthy or natural,
or the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
It is so much more demanding for parents not to substitute virtual for real experiences; no wonder a recent essay applauded the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for softening its position on screen time. This essay is the latest edition of the blind leading the blind, looking at water from inside the fish bowl and not at the true nature of the child, that is, after all, nature, not FaceBook, Sesame Street or the criminally misleading Baby Einstein. The arguments go like this:
For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has adopted an on/off switch mentality when it comes to children and screen time. It used to recommend that children, ages two and under, have absolutely no exposure to screens. For older kids, the AAP recommended limiting ‘screen time’ to just two hours a day. Now, the guidelines have been changed so that they reflect a more nuanced approach…
Last month I wrote, Parents Don’t Need To Worry About ‘Screen Time’ Anymore In that post, I argued:
Screens are now a ubiquitous part of our lives. It is a technology that has been completely integrated into the human experience. At this point, worrying about exposure to screens is like worrying about exposure to agriculture, indoor plumbing, the written word, or automobiles. For better or worse, the transition to screen based digital information technologies has already happened and now resistance is futile. The screen time rhetoric that accompanied the television—when this technology was still in its formative age—is no longer relevant.
The AAP now seems to agree. “In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’” the update reads, “our policies must evolve or become obsolete. The public needs to know that the Academy’s advice is science-driven, not based merely on the precautionary principle.” Of course, that’s exactly what most experts in children and digital media previously thought, that the AAP guidelines seemed like they were the result of familiar technophobic paranoia that always accompanies new technologies.
“Familiar technophobic paranoia that always accompanies new technologies.” Really? I guess that’s me. I’m old enough to remember when bell bottoms were new and TV was going to revolutionize education. Referring to television, Jerry Mander noted way back in the 70’s; no invention or technology is neutral. Each seduces the human body and nervous system to adapt to its new norm. The new norm may be normal but that doesn’t mean it is healthy, natural or optimal.
For millions of years the human body adapted to the natural environment. There wasn’t anything else. As the imaginative and creative capacity of sapiens grew they altered the environment with their tinkering and the human body and brain mutated to stay in balance with these creations. The greater the tinkering the more the human body and brain adapted to mirror the new normal. To catch the enormity of our hubris, remember that nature has been creating us for billions of years. Rather than expanding our potential Joseph Chilton Pearce maintained for decades that each new technology diminishes our innate and near infinite capacity. Technological counterfeits are not substitute for the development of our vast human potential. The issue is the development of capacity, not content.
As many now realize BPA and other plastic molecules are dead counterfeits of estrogen. When present these counterfeit molecules displace natural living estrogen thus disrupting normal and healthy development. The same is true of screen technology. Remember, screens are dead but mimic living systems. Compared to a living face the same face on a screen is sensory deprivation, containing a distorted fraction of the information and meaning of the living system it mimics. The more we interact with the dead counterfeit the less attuned, sensitive and empathic we are when relating with a real face.
Our nature is nature, not FaceBook, InstaGram or World of Warcraft. Ideally the dominate environmental influence that shapes human development during the most formative years, preconception to around age eleven, would be alive, in a word ‘nature.’ The more the developing child interacts with dead counterfeit screens instead of living systems, the less aware, sensitive, connected and empathic that child will be to living systems. Less sensitive and less empathic translates into more aggressive and violent towards themselves, other children, or girlfriends and wives (domestic violence and rape come to mind), birds, bunnies, fish and trees. And this developmental pattern translates into culture and society. A perception-behavior system that is highly connected and empathic to living systems will respond differently, less selfishly and aggressively than non-empathic body-brain, and all this is established very early in life. First person shooter games do little to open and expand empathy.
Developmentally appropriate is another factor. Experiences appropriate for a twelve year old are not necessarily appropriate for a three year old. Well-duhhh, but why? Each stage of development rests on the previous, developed fully or not. When technology is concerned we tend to look at content or the program and ignore how interacting with the device itself impacts a child’s development and when. This has been a major blind spot since the development of television in the 50’s. Most damage, developmentally, is caused by interacting with the device and not its content or programing.
Plus we have the compulsive-addictive nature of the device, something well established, in fact a dominate force driving sales. The device literally grabs and holds the child’s attention years before they have the discrimination to make informed choices, similar to tobacco companies pandering to teens. The addictive-compulsive time invested in consuming commercial and culturally conditioning messages displaces the natural experiences nature expects young children to have: making up stories, playing with trees and grass, just being alone, quiet, staring at nothing at all, learning to listen, being aware of each sense, day dreaming, feeling the feelings others are having. Displacing these natural and organic experiences with dead counterfeits profoundly alters the way the brain and body develops. That is the point.
During early development the brain is packed with unused neural potential waiting to form connections based on experience. Use it or lose it is the law. The nature and quality of the experiences determine and shape how the brain grows and the capacities that are developed. After a few billion years of trial and error nature expects by age eleven that brain-body has experienced all that nature has to offer and washes away the unused neurons, neural-pruning it is called; bring the house to order where the child of the dream gives way to new forms of abstract logic. The question is: what is the nature of the house that is being pruned? Has this child spent appropriate time with complex living systems? If not, that brain will not have an empathic relationship with its own nature. Has he or she spent appropriate time reading the faces of other children and adults? If not their emotional intelligence may be stunted.
The central argument for limiting as much screen time as possible from birth to age eleven is to fill that body and brain with as many natural, non-technological, self-generated imaginative play experiences as possible therefore building what for millions of years would be considered a natural-normal sensory-emotional foundation for the more abstract processes that develop later.
We have two possibilities. The early sensory-emotional foundation for adult forms of abstract thinking and feeling is naturally and fully developed – or not. How that brain-body will react, meaning the nature and quality of perceptions, how that person interprets his or her experiences and therefore behaves is sculpted by the quality and quantity of experience with living systems or dead technology.
Technology has also placed unbridled and undisciplined human imagination on steroids, turning everyone it touches into the Sorcerer’s Apprentice without having a clue what they are doing. The social-cultural images we have about ourselves and others that social media amplify is not who or what we really are. We can say that the intent of true spiritual practices is to first recognize the exponential self-inflicted dangers of ‘not knowing thy self.’ Media-technology is an extension of this ‘not knowing’ and deeply conditions the individual brain and by implication the culture that brain creates to deepen humanity’s identity with false images and the murderous behavior these images induce. To think that early exposure to technology will provide a remedy to the increasing isolation and disassociation virtual reality is, is a perfect example of the blindness induced by our increasing and compulsive identity with virtual reality.
The second intent of true spiritual development, which is simply mature development free of narcissism and ego, is to dissolve all the false images, false beliefs and false identities we have miss-created, returning the cognitive, emotional and physical body-brain to its natural order with its billions of years of unimagined sensitivity and vast unknowable intelligence. Accessing and expressing this unadulterated, sensitive, awake and aware empathic intelligence depends on the experiences children have very early and extend to age eleven.
The less screen time before the great neural pruning around age eleven the better. Fill their life with safe, challenging natural living experience, open, develop and expand their capacity to imagine by immersing them in story and rich descriptive language, and model empathy for all living things; with this as the dominate influence during the early years let them have all the technology they want as teens and watch them soar. Retard the development of rich, deep empathic intelligence by substituting techno-counterfeits of living experience as the early brain grows and the narcissistic mass egos that result will eat themselves.