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January 08, 2015

We are digitally obese

A look at attachment and addiction in our digital age

Wellness Mindful Living
Family and Technology File Art /for PhillyVoice

Unlike our ancestors whose eyes took in the natural light of the sun, moon and stars, we are collectively and continually awash in the light of electronic technology.

Two Mothers 

It’s January 1973. An infant girl rests in her mother’s arms. She falls asleep breastfeeding and her tiny face reflects the transcendent, soft peace of newborn slumber. Time slows to a reverent pace. The mother alternates between admiring her daughter’s delicate features and witnessing the quiet hush of winter. 

In an hour, her husband will return from a late-night shift at a local restaurant. She decides to wait up for him. There are many updates to share. Her breasts are no longer so sore. Their daughter soiled four diapers. His sister called to check in. Then, there were the hours of wonder -- the simple, peaceful wonder -- of staring into their daughter’s new face. How to put that into words? 

She reaches for a novel borrowed from the library. As an avid reader, she knows what it’s like to lose herself in a book. But now she intermittently diverts her attention from reading to watch her sleeping daughter. What does life have in store for her? Who will she grow up to be? She turns the pages of her novel. Her daughter sleeps. She reads. Snow falls.

Now, fast-forward 41 years. 

Today, the daughter is a new mother. Like her mother, she finds herself breastfeeding a newborn during cold winter months. Like her mother, she loves to read. Yet no singularly crafted story sparks thoughtful reverie or captures her attention. Rather, a sleek, metal device rests in her left hand. 

“Just thinking of you,” her mother’s voice fills with emotion. “I remember breastfeeding you that first winter. Those were some of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Now, you hold your own son. Treasure this time. I know you are.”

The new mother can access millions of novels in a matter of seconds. However, it takes willpower to stay the course with a chosen book. Why? At any point and with a delicate sweep of the tip of her finger, she can transport her attention to her bank account, Twitter feed, posts from various breastfeeding support groups, personal email, work email, social media newsfeeds and an endless array of information selected from the day’s tsunami-sized volume of news, blogs and feature articles.  

She checks the status of her recent Facebook posts. Seventy-four people commented on the last photo of her baby. Ninety-six people liked her latest profile update. Steady, small bursts of dopamine create a positive feedback loop linking neural pathways to crave this affirmation again and again. She swipes, posts, visits and revisits the site dozens of times a day. 

Snow falls on pine trees. A beautiful infant boy sleeps. But no one notices. No one soaks this in. The mother’s eyes are glued to the light emitted from an index-card sized screen in her hand.

Suddenly, a green bar appears at the top of her iPhone. Her mother is calling. She lets it go to voicemail. Fifteen minutes later, after scanning through a collection of winter soup recipes, she touches a little red icon and listens to the message.

“Just thinking of you,” her mother’s voice fills with emotion. “I remember breastfeeding you that first winter. Those were some of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Now, you hold your own son. Treasure this time. I know you are.”

Digitally Obese 

In her article entitled “Technology” -- published by Juno, the hip magazine of choice for nature-minded moms of Great Britain -- UK-based author Abbe Opher describes herself as “digitally obese.”  

Opher and her husband, Eyal, rely on smartphones to operate an online retail business and “respond immediately and communicate effortlessly” to clients. While they remotely garner the income needed to sustain their household, the “constant interruption” is very challenging.


“And then there’s the children,” Opher laments.

When she considers allowing her children unfettered Internet access, her heart skips a beat. She fears they will be preyed upon, experience a shattering of innocence and become addicted to visual stimulation. Will they lose the ability to entertain themselves by consistently “side stepping boredom”? As Opher describes the strict limitations set to monitor her children’s screen time, she confesses to “gorging” herself on “emails, texts, posts, shares, clips, blogs and tweets” when her children are at school.

“I am a walking talking parenting contradiction,” she says.

When it comes to our culture, however, there is no contradiction. Whether we turn on the television for background noise or surf Pinterest, porn or Pandora, we collectively, wholeheartedly, and with clear abandon embrace our addiction to screens. 

Simply walk into any restaurant and rest assured that televisions stationed in every corner will provide entertainment should your dinner company prove insufficiently interesting. From dental offices to gas stations, from grocery stores to airplanes, it’s rare to experience a public space that doesn’t offer up a steady stream of commercially motivated visual stimulation. Unlike our ancestors whose eyes took in the natural light of the sun, moon and stars, we are collectively and continually awash in the light of electronic technology. 

In fact, during most of our waking hours, we are staring at screens. In their August 2013 analysis of media use, eMarketer.com estimates the average American spends 12 of every 24 hours in front of a screen. Yes, 12 hours in a single day. How? In any given 24-hour period, the average American watches five hours of television, spends two hours on the phone engaged with “non-voice mobile activities,” and spends an additional five hours online. We are digitally obese.

My husband and I don’t watch television. In fact, we don’t own one. We don’t use television to soothe, distract or entertain our nearly 3-year-old son. In particular, I oppose exposing our toddler to the vapid commercials or violent, action movie trailers that fund mainstream television broadcasting. This makes going out to dinner as a family challenging. So, we frequent television-free establishments or pack a picnic to head to a local park. We enjoy time outdoors, and connect through games, conversation and song. We prefer the company of each other. 

But we struggle. Like millions of Americans, we struggle with the fact that nearly all of our work-related tasks are instantly accessible on the phones we choose to carry practically everywhere. 

Limbic Dissonance  

“I have my phone near me all day, sadly. This topic distresses me.”

“My daughter whines at me when she can tell that my attention is so clearly not on her, but on a tiny device.”

“I know I check it a lot, like every few minutes throughout the day.”

Unique to mammals, the limbic areas of the brain constitute the seat of our emotional lives. Through the affective bonds nurtured in responsive and compassionate parenting  (biologically expressed through breastfeeding and mother-child attachment), babies learn how to regulate and differentiate feelings, read non-verbal cues, internalize a sense of security, and cultivate the capacity to love. 

Babies and children need plentiful time to engage in face-to-face and empathetic interaction with their primary caregivers. In their book, “A General Theory of Love,” University of California San Francisco professors Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon write: “A steady limbic connection with a resonant parent lays down emotional expertise.” Without such connection, the development of a healthy limbic system capable of empathizing with others is stunted, limbic dissonance results. 

The neural pathways that form a child’s basic attachment system primarily develop in utero through the toddler years. If we value the expression of human empathy and kindness, safeguarding the limbic well-being of the earliest years of human development is crucial. Yet we live in a country that does little to nurture the foundational development of its citizens.

Distinct from every other industrialized nation, the United States does not offer new mothers federally supported paid maternity leave. Hence, our breastfeeding rates are markedly lower than our peers. American babies are routinely placed in institutionalized day cares of various qualities, often at the tender age of 6 weeks. Despite multiple studies revealing the danger of ignoring a baby’s cries, too many American parents embrace a misguided “cry-it-out” approach to the challenges of nighttime parenting. Add to this unhealthy cocktail the fact that our children are being raised in a dissonant and addictive electronic haze and concerns about the limbic health of our nation are well founded. 

What do our children see when they turn to us for limbic regulation? Are we present? If not, chances are we are looking at a screen. What do we look like then? In his famous “Still Face” experiments, University of Massachusetts Boston professor Edward Tronick recorded the expressions of mothers engaged in screen time. Stoic, stale and bereft of affect, little ones see their parents emotionally disappear into a hypnotic-like trance.   

Last year, researchers at Princeton University reported that 40 percent of American infants have insecure attachment bonds with their parents. The negative life-long consequences of this are well documented. Living without a stable emotional center, orients people toward anxiety, depression, aggression and addiction. Lewis, Amini and Lannon write: “If the attachment fabric of a civilization frays, if people cannot get from their relationships the emotional regulation that these bonds were designed to furnish, they will commandeer whatever means of limbic modulation they can lay their hands on." 

Given the increasing rarity of human-to-human limbic regulation, is it any wonder that we’ve collectively turned to screens, and the products they sell, in order to assuage our emotional hunger? Although it certainly benefits the shareholders of today’s media conglomerates, such behavior only fuels our dysfunction. As we lose ourselves in screen time, we damage our capacity to read human cues, connect to real-time human faces, and accurately respond with empathy to emotion. Even the health of the most meaningful of all our non-verbal expressions, human eye contact, is at significant risk.

Recently, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles analyzed how two groups of sixth-graders were able to identify human emotion. Both groups were shown 50 images of human faces and asked to name the emotions present. The control group consisted of teens who had regular access to computers, phones and televisions. It was “life as usual,” as Juana Summers reported in her NPR piece entitled “Kids and Screen Time: What does The Research Say?” The other group participated in a five-day technology-free retreat and “were significantly better at reading human emotions” after having no access to screen time for five days.

If we want what is best for our children, we must summon the strength to limit our own screen time. For nothing predicts a child’s use of screen time than the frequency of a parent’s use. 

Patricia Greenfield, the main author of the study notes, “Our species evolved in an environment where there was only face-to face-interaction. … If we reduce face-to-face interaction drastically, it's not surprising that the social skills would also get reduced.” On our crowded, increasingly connected, globalized, and environmentally challenged planet, these are skills we can’t afford to lose.  

My Zen Master

“Mama, play!” my nearly 3-year-old son calls out to me. Like a relentlessly demanding Zen master, he tugs on my attention urging me to join him in the present moment.

“Mama, play!” he calls out again. 

Usually, my son’s invitation elicits joy. I love how he reaches out for my attention calling me to celebrate, for the umpteenth time, how his monster truck “crashes” an assembled line of boxcars. My son repeats words, actions and games over and over. This is how he learns. He soaks in the world with interest. Upon waking up, he looks out the bedroom window and declares, “Beautiful day!” His joyful enthusiasm evokes astonishingly deep reservoirs of maternal love and protection.  

Due to qualities cultivated from 20 years of yoga practice, I often succeed at providing the quality of mind needed in sustaining limbic resonance, but not always. I am acutely aware of how difficult this task becomes when I engage screen technology. During such times, I feel overwhelmed by the intensity of his desire for me to join him in the present moment. Having taught courses on Buddhism for years, a particular scene from a documentary chronicling life in a Japanese Rinzai Zen monastery comes to mind.  

Meditating students sit silently erect in their dark monastic robes. The teacher walks slowly by each one. In his hand is a kyosaku, a long, thin, flat wooden stick. Skillfully and swiftly the teacher administers a sharp blow to each shoulder of every student. The intention is not to harm, rather the practice is meant to shock and rapidly summon the presence of a deeply awake mind. 

A deeply awake and present mind isn’t nurtured through an addiction to screens. If we want what is best for our children, we must summon the strength to limit our own screen time. For nothing predicts a child’s use of screen time than the frequency of a parent’s use. According to a 2013 study headed by Dr. Amy Bleakley, senior research scientist in the Health Communication group at Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, the amount of time parents spend watching television is the singular most important factor when predicting their children’s use. As we turn to screens for limbic regulation, so will our children.  

When my son’s call for my attention strikes through my screen-time distractions with the force of a kyosaku, I take a deep breath and remind myself that I have a choice. 

Mindfulness 

Within the span of 40 years, our culture and our neurobiology have transformed. While our gluttonous use of screens present clear challenges, the benefits of rapid-fire, instant connection are multiple. The publishing, educational and retail industries have been altered fundamentally due to screen technology, unleashing a great deal of human creativity and potential. If we can consume this information mindfully and moderately, there is much to celebrate.

Mindful and moderate consumption isn’t only a present day challenge. Certainly, limbic dissonance, addiction and mental distraction existed before 1947, when Motorola manufactured the first cost-effective television set making screen technology available to millions of Americans. “My mother didn’t need an iPhone to be distracted,” a friend sadly reflects upon listening to me describe the research required for this piece.

Ancient Indian scriptures liken the quality of the everyday mind to that of a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion. Struggling with distraction isn’t a modern world problem; it’s a human one. As far as we know, we stand distinct from other animals in our ability to physically occupy one space and mentally project our attention into another. I may be washing dinner dishes, but my mind is ruminating over an argument I had with my husband two days prior.

The teachings of mindfulness boil down to cultivating the capacity to remain attentive to the unfolding present moment with patience and compassion. Mindfulness teachings are found in wisdom traditions worldwide. Whether we cultivate mindfulness through seated meditation practice, everyday breath awareness, or prayerful petitions to respond to life’s vicissitudes with grace and strength, we draw upon proven techniques of positively transforming our mindset and brain structure. 

Such mindful transformation is fundamental if we hope to preserve both public and private spaces that nurture our human need to connect, face to face, in real time. In order to break a 12-hour-a-day screen time addiction and re-establish the bonds of healthy attachment and limbic regulation, we must mindfully and significantly, reduce our exposure to screens.

Inspired by the emphasis placed on nurturing meaningful connections as we begin this new year, may we dedicate daily hours to purposeful screen-free time and spend quality face-to-face time with those we cherish.  May we turn off the television, put the cellphone away, close the laptop and notice the present beauty surrounding us.

“Treasure this time,” the wise grandmother in the opening scene reminds us. Upon these mindful actions, our collective well-being depends.