What’s up with kids and eye contact today? Are kids becoming interpersonally 1. less comfortable and 2. less adept as a result of the computer age? Bruce Feiler (New York Times) raises some worrisome concerns in this recent piece. It should make all parents of growing children (and adolescents) sit up and take notice.
He starts out with the importance of eye contact, and how it seems to be harder for kids than it used to be. I will never forget an experience I had maybe ten years ago at the Verizon store getting a new cell phone. The twenty-something clerks barely looked at me during our transaction. It was weird and actually disturbing for me, but seemed like business-as-usual for them.
Eye Contact and Attachment
Children come into the world wired to look at human faces. We know this from research on the infant gaze: babies stare longer at drawings with eyes, nose and mouth in the expected places than at drawings in which the features are scrambled or upside down. They like to look at faces, and interaction begins very early. The cumulation of experience then determines whether involvement with people becomes familiar, rewarding, and sought-after. Or unfamiliar, unrewarding, and avoided.
This set of experiences, which begins very early and continues as humans develop, is of profound significance to the child’s life, health, and happiness. It forms the basis for relationships of all kinds—with parents, with siblings, with friends, with schoolmates and teammates—not to mention with romantic and work relationships. Virtually all relationships depend on it. We decide whether people are a source of satisfaction in life. And we develop an ability to read others—and ourselves—through our interactions with fellow human beings.
A clue that all is not well is a lack of animation in a young person coupled with a lack of interest in people around him. When a computer game interests a child more than people do, something is amiss. One of the most troubling signs in children today is a kind of blankness of expression and an unwillingness to communicate. And it is not uncommon.
We develop a capacity for enjoyment. For humor. For understanding. For empathy. Or we don’t. We all meet people in whom something is missing. The ability to attach to others can be severely impaired, or impaired in part. I always think of the saying, “The lights are on, but there’s nobody home” as deeply descriptive of this problem.
And even people who seem quite normal can have it upon closer examination. Ron Reagan Jr. once said very tellingly of his father that, while his dad was always glad to see him and spend time with him, he wasn’t sure if his dad thought about him when they were apart. Ronald Reagan could read people well, or he could never have achieved the level of career and marital success that he had. He seemed to have limitations with attachment.
Eye Contact and Interpersonal IQ
Some people have serious trouble reading people. This can result from the way the brain is wired from the beginning. Those on the autistic spectrum show impairment with this from a young age, and need help to develop some capacity to notice and translate what they see on people’s faces. Others are lucky to be born with this capacity intact, but it withers from lack of use. We are seeing youngsters who have impairment with both the understanding of social cues and with attachment.
As a psychologist and as a family therapist, I am not alone in my alarm about the effects of ubiquitous use of computers. It is bad enough with adults, but it is disastrous with kids. These are critical periods for children and adolescent to develop these capacities, and there is no do-over.
While thinking about this topic for today’s post, I came across an interesting piece on eye contact by dogs! It turns out that dogs can have a pretty amazing ability to seek and maintain eye contact with their owners, and that this is a powerful source of well-being for both. (They are not called man’s best friend for nothing.) And this is not just common knowledge. Oxytocin, a bonding neurochemical, has been found at increased levels with such dog and owner pairs. And this doesn’t happen with every dog. By our own actions, we actually train our dogs (as well as our kids) to want to look at us, or not!
Parent As Guides and Gatekeepers
I’ve always thought that a big risk factor for child well-being is lack of parent availability. Parents need to be on-site, at home, spending at least some time with their kids. And I’m not sure going to all their school and team events qualifies. Or enrolling them in so many lessons, sports, and activities.
In fact, maybe less time running around with and for kids might just restore busy parents with the energy to be more involved at home. There are lots of things parents think are required (ex. elaborate birthday parties) that are actually quite expendable. And other things that seem inconsequential that are not inconsequential at all.
One irony of this inverse finding between screen time and social adjustment is that children from more affluent families may be at higher risk. I bet that the larger the family income, the more likely kids are to have personal computers, games, and smart phones, and at younger ages.
The acquisition, use (and overuse) of these accoutrements may actually be impoverishing a child’s life and development! Such children are in reality poor little rich kids. Here’s the irony: they have parents who stop at nothing to give their child every advantage in life. We know that poor kids benefit from Head Start. Maybe rich kids also need the head start that comes from parents firmly saying No or Later to personal computers.
My hairdresser is an anomaly among her peers who are mothers. She will not let her children have cell phones of any kind until they are 14. That’s right: 14. And she has stuck to it. It has saved her both money and worry about her kids. It helps her know more about what they are doing and with whom. Now she has an unusual amount of backbone, and is not unnerved when her kids complain. Some parents compromise and get their kids basic cell phones but draw the line at smart phones. But parents who are unafraid of their kids are becoming more and more rare today—any therapist will tell you this.
There are people who are not concerned that much about this issue. They don’t see what the fuss is all about. Some of them say we can’t put the genie of technology back in the bottle, and of course they are right. It has benefitted us in untold ways. It is limiting screen time and the use of technology that I am advocating. While there may be a few kids who will curtail it themselves, in most situations it is up to the parents.
There are also those who will point out that some computer use by kids, like texting, is social in nature. And therefore just fine. The problem with texting is that many youngsters are relying on it as a primary vehicle for social communication. The far richer face-to-face contact, and also voice-to-voice, has sadly become secondary.
In my work as a therapist, I have always preferred voicemail for messages from current and potential patients to a message taken by a secretary or an email. Hearing a person’s voice gives me way more information. Ditto with face-to-face rather than screen; therapy by Skype has its limitations. But mark my word, in our fast-paced world, it will become more common. It already has.
Texting lends itself to short, factual communication and staying in touch. But it does a poor and sometimes confusing job of transmitting that which is important or emotional. So does email. Both can be opaque and subject to misunderstanding. They can leave people not quite knowing what is going on and where things stand. (Come to think of it, they may be the first choice of people with attachment problems!)
Kids need to get outside and out of their houses and with their own cohort, playing when they are young and horsing around or doing things together when they are older. They need to do their own thing without adults around all the time. They have to figure out the laws of the jungle and how people tick, and this is not something computers can teach them. It is face-to-face that they develop real social competence and facility. And the payoff is immeasurable, in their childhoods and in their later lives.