Last month, I wrote a blog about how addictive the iPad was for my 2-year-old son. I received a wide range of comments from parents — from relief that somebody else was experiencing this, to a total rejection that technology was addictive. I agree, if you’re a mother or father who is sleep-deprived and working a full-time job, the iPad is nothing short of a lifesaver, especially when your baby or toddler is out of control. Plus, we adults are constantly on our devices, so why shouldn’t our kids be allowed to “plug in” too? Are we hypocrites?
So much of our work and important communication with others has been made easier because of these devices. In many ways, they’ve allowed us to “unplug” from an office to be home longer and more often. But there’s a darker side to these devices and I’m not the first person to talk about it.
How often do we whip out our phones in an elevator, or when we're stuck in traffic, or on the bus, or waiting for our coffee order? The minute it seems like we’re going to be alone for a few minutes, we turn to our devices for distraction. Why?
In my documentary, In Utero, I include the now famous Louis C.K. clip (over 12 million views) talking about the “forever empty” that we all have within ourselves. Louis C.K. is convinced that this inner emptiness explains why we constantly turn to our smart devices. He jokes that whenever we feel that twinge of panic — the “forever empty” — we grab those phones like a drug. The clip is hilarious. And profound. He nails it. In the In Utero excerpt below, Dr. Thomas R. Verny, the author of Pre-Parenting: Nurturing your Child from Conception, and Dr. Gabor Maté, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, discuss how this need for distraction speaks to an emotional deficit, caused by early trauma or neglect. We turn to these devices to “anesthetize ourselves”, which was the only way we could deal with trauma when we were very young.
So, in some ways, these devices provide that “temporary relief” from the pain of the trauma we experienced when we were neglected and left alone as a child, which is triggered in our adult lives by situations that remind us of that painful solitude.
Current research makes it clear that when we are very young (a fetus, infant, toddler, child), we need calm and attention. Our developing neural networks require that we be protected, engaged with, paid attention to, and bonded with. Neglect, contempt, abandonment — and the stress brought on by them — all interrupt normal neurological development.
In other words, a child needs to be bonded to another human being very early on in order to fully develop his/her full potential.
That’s the good news as well as the bad news. And we (like every generation of new parents), have to take this new information and apply it as best we can. We have to do our best — even if we didn’t get the attention we needed when we were young. And the fact is, most of us didn’t get the kind of bonding that science now tells us was necessary. Just look back at the old, accepted parenting practices. The prevailing wisdom was that we had to control our children so our children wouldn’t control us. The parents’ needs came first, and the child’s emotional, developmental need for connection came second. And, let’s be honest, this credo still holds sway with a lot people.
This is why we’re all fighting an uphill battle to reclaim the kind of connection that is loving, which means that we first have to reverse this false logic. For now we know that it is the child’s emotional needs that come first.
Once we understand this, then maybe we can accept that, yes, the iPad is addictive (to us and to our children), that it is a stand-in, lifeless babysitter like the television set was for many of us when we were growing up; and that when we defend TV, the iPad, etc., it’s because we’d like to believe that we’re preparing our kids for a modern, technology-driven world, or that we are trying not to coddle our kids so that they’ll be self-sufficient when they grow up, when in fact we are denying the early betrayal of our own needs by reenacting the detachment and neglect of our parents.
So, on top of being exhausted beyond words, we parents have to consider the difficult truths about our own childhoods. It sounds insurmountable, distasteful, even bleak. But the upside is, if we look squarely at the problem (i.e., that connection is hard for many of us — maybe all of us), then we as adults can begin to reach our full potential and, as a result, become fully present to our kids. It’s like the airline safety tip — adults have to put on their oxygen mask before they put one on the child. It’s not saying that the adult’s needs are more important than the child’s, it’s saying that we have to be healthy before we’re in a position to help others. This will, in the long term, change the species — for the better, I might add.
That’s a pretty big upside.
It’ll mean (lovingly) seeing our parents very clearly, without exemption, and then looking (lovingly) at ourselves very objectively. Then perhaps we’ll be able to see our children’s intense needs as completely reasonable and natural. And maybe then, we’ll (lovingly) see them for who they really are — and so will they. And that forever empty will disappear.