As a trauma therapist I am always interested in learning about my clients’ childhood attachment patterns. Growing up with parents who were either emotionally unavailable, inconsistently responsive, frightened by or frightening to their child has a profoundly negative impact on social, behavioral, emotional, and neurological development. “Trauma-informed care” includes assessing for adverse childhood experiences and reframing clients’ subsequent “symptoms” and struggles as the inevitable by-products and coping strategies of attachment trauma. However, I am concerned that a newer version of attachment trauma has invaded even the most “loving” families. Our reliance on, and, in some cases addiction to, digital gadgets and technology has hijacked the face-to-face parent-child interactions that are necessary for consistent, sustained and secure attachment.
Is this scenario familiar? After standing in line at the post office for fifteen minutes – a somewhat inherently traumatic experience in and of itself – I witnessed a two-year-old having a complete meltdown. Her mother’s immediate response was to hand her an iPad. In her wisdom, the child initially rejected it. In a soothing yet frustrated tone, the mother said “Use your iPad! Do you want to look at pictures? Play a game?” The child was not appeased and continued to wail. As the woman bent towards the stroller, I felt a sense of relief, assuming she was about to pick up her dysregulated child. Instead, she turned on the tablet and said with greater agitation, “look at the pictures on your screen!” After several more minutes of crying, the child realized that what she wanted and needed-to be comforted by her mother, not an inanimate object-was not going to happen. I watched as she went into collapse, emotionally shutting down and compliantly staring at the screen.
Believing her baby was now soothed allowed the embarrassed mother to comfort herself with a cellphone, tapping and swiping until it was her turn to buy stamps. In essence, they were two strangers in line together. I have seen similar scenarios countless times: in airports, malls, restaurants, and my waiting room. Preoccupied parents entranced as they stare at their iPhone, seemingly oblivious to their child’s needs. They are content to use digital gadgets as pacifiers and babysitters. They are not only modeling the excessive use of cellphones, tablets, video games, and laptops, they are actually encouraging their children to be just as hypnotized, and potentially, addicted.
At the risk of sounding old fashioned and judgmental, I believe this phenomenon is worrisome. Eye gaze, appropriate loving touch, and soothing words are the hallmark features of secure attachment. In families where there is abuse or neglect, these experiences get weaponized. Eye contact becomes a vehicle for threat or intimidation, or the neglecting parent avoids eye gaze, leaving the child feeling demeaned or invisible. Touch is either physically abusive, sexually inappropriate, or unavailable to the child. Words are bullying, shaming, hypercritical or lacking in love or support. This is why caretaker perpetration is such a betrayal and profound breach of trust.
But those three critical resources for attunement are also lost when a child is offered a screen rather than the loving and grounding experience of an available parent, which makes them feel safe, calm and connected to others. It may seem unfair to associate abuse or neglect with the disconnect that happens when a child is comforted, distracted, or cajoled by a digital appliance. But what is the long-term toll it takes on healthy attachment, affect regulation, and socialization skills? Mental health researchers and therapists alike need to assess for and explore that impact, as digital technology is not going away. Questions to consider:
- Are kids with excessive exposure to digital gadgets less comfortable with face to face interactions and more likely to struggle socially?
- Is it harder for them to read and accurately interpret nuanced facial expressions and body language?
- Do these kids have a healthy ability to regulate their fluctuating or overwhelming emotional states?
- Are these kids less likely to use relationships for soothing and comfort, and more likely to numb with endeavors that are hypnotic or dissociative?
- Despite growing up in families that are well-meaning and financially secure, are these kids actually experiencing avoidant or insecure attachment?
- And if they are, will they struggle with the same emotional fall-out and symptomatology as abused or neglected kids?
Since technology has made our lives much easier and resources more accessible, stakeholders may be reticent about tackling this issue head-on. I believe it is our ethical responsibility to address these dynamics with the families we treat. We must empower parents to set much stricter limits on screen time and to reconnect with the relational, face-to-face-benefits of parent-child time and family time. Many kids and teenagers need to be weaned from their overuse of digital gadgets-a kind of digital detoxification-so that they can reconnect with peers and re-access their own imaginations.
For traumatized clients, the reparative experience of secure attachment often happens within the therapeutic relationship. Therapists may need to be more mindful of addressing this issue with kids who have been overexposed to digital gadgets as a resource for comfort and soothing. They should keep technology out of the therapy room and model attunement, eye gaze and appropriate words and touch so that kids and parents alike can rediscover the power of relationship. Otherwise, the next generation risks losing the ability and the desire to be fully present with others and fully engaged in the world.