The Strange Situation Of Our Mobile Devices
At the recent conference of the Australian Home Childcare Association (AHCA), we were given a fascinating presentation by Trent Savill of Complex Care. Trent is a psychologist who specialises in complex trauma and attachment and responding to challenging behaviours in children.
Trent’s talk focused on the impact of complex traumas on the brains of young children. He spent a lot of time discussing the importance of the relationship between a young child and the people that the child depends on, particularly in the first four years during which 90 per cent of brain development occurs.
He spoke of the fundamental importance of ‘attachment’, a ‘special enduring form of emotional relationship with a child’s primary carer. In a healthy, secure attachment, the relationship brings [the child] a sense of safety, soothing, comfort and pleasure.’ In contrast, ‘loss or threat of loss of the attachment figure evokes distress’.
To emphasise this point, Trent described a developmental psychology procedure called the ‘strange situation’ which is used to assess the quality of child’s attachment to their caregiver. You can find examples of the procedure on YouTube, but in short it demonstrates just how quickly a young child can be distressed by detachment from their carer.
Trent’s main argument – put very briefly – was that it is loss of attachment (detachment) that is the most significant outcome for young children who suffer complex trauma. In short, ‘children can handle anything but being ignored’.
This detachment underlies most of the behaviours associated with trauma, which may include the inability to sit still, clinginess, diminished language skills, explosive behaviours and various other behaviours commonly associated with ‘naughtiness’.
Now what does all this have to do with smartphones?
One of the forms of detachment Trent described is called ‘disorganised attachment’. It occurs when the person that a child relies on for their safety cannot be trusted to provide that safety, that is, when a child is routinely ignores by their carer, which is exactly what is happening with mobile devices.
In a study by American paediatrician Dr Jenny Radesky in 2014, 55 groups of parents and young children were observed eating at fast-food restaurants. ‘Forty of the 55 parents used a mobile device during the meal, and many were more absorbed in the device than in the kids.’ Unsurprisingly, it was the kids who were being ignored who tended to play up.
Now this was just one study and Radesky emphasises that it was not rigidly scientific. However, her researchers’ observations certainly seem consistent with what anyone can observe in their local café. It is something I’ve observed frequently even at playgrounds.
Could It Be?
Could it be that carers dividing their attention between their mobile devices and the children (who look to them for care and safety) is causing a mild form of trauma in those children?
The truth is that we don’t know yet – these devices are still too new for researchers to have been able to do sufficient work in this area.
Yes, it’s always possible to be alarmist about new technologies. Previous generations made dire warnings about the advents of the printing press, the gramophone and the television.
But I strongly believe that this is different. None of those previous inventions has mimicked the characteristics of trauma on children. If we overlay the lessons of people like Trent with the observations of researchers like Radesky... I think there is cause for caution, at the very least, when we consistently allow our phones to take precedence over our children.