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Are we watching the unfolding of a public health emergency?



By Michael Hawton

5th September, 2019

Many of my middle-aged friends and colleagues are seeing more and more parents not looking at their infants, compared to a time before devices came into being. Parents not engaging with their children is a twofold issue: on the one hand, parents appear distracted by devices never looking at them when they’re feeding their baby or spending time with their children. On the other hand, devices are being “propped” up in front of babies and children to distract them.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

When parents do not take the time or opportunity to gaze at their infants, infants don’t gain practice at getting excited, and then being calmed. This excitement to soothing dynamic is a foundation for self-regulation.  Allan N. Schore, a renowned psychiatrist, says that early eye-gaze from about 2 months onwards is a necessary condition for the growth of self-regulation. The ability of an infant to regulate his/her emotional experiences begin when being breast-fed or bottle-fed. Schore says there are literally thousands upon thousands of explosive then soothing interactions that occur during feeding and when babies are gazing at the mother. Schore describes this process of adult to infant interaction as one in which the parent ‘synchronises’ but ultimately soothes the infant.

The recent phenomenon of ‘propping’ children up with a device in their face is equally problematic. Not only are devices meant to be stimulating (but never soothing), they cannot substitute for the effects of human-face to human-face interactions. The child may become quite obsessed by the flickering lights of the device but they are never soothed. Quite worryingly, Canadian research has shown that 3 year olds, who are exposed to more than two hours of screen time a day, are 5 times more likely to display behavioural problems than children who spend less time on devices and a startling 7 times more likely to earn a diagnoses for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

The World Health Organisation has only recently released guidelines for infant exposure to devices and it recommends children under 12 months have no screen time at all.

At a public health level, we need politicians to fund TV advertisements and billboards, extolling the importance of looking towards babies’ faces.

Otherwise, I’ll bet my house on it that, unless we take steps to stem the tide of parent distractedness and “propping”, we will see a tsunami of ADHD, autistic-looking and poorly behaved children in years to come. This won’t be good. Unless political, religious and therapeutic leaders start beating this drum, the public health crisis I am predicting, will come to pass.

About the author

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents.


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