Screen or love?

by Moritz Nestor, psychologist and anthropologist

In the glamorous world of an airport, a well-dressed couple have taken their seats with a five-month-old toddler on an upholstered three-piece suite. The father is staring at his cell phone, headphones in his ears, tapping the keys continuously. From time to time he sips his cola. The mother, also with a Coke in front of her, is staring at the screen of a larger electronic device, constantly receiving and sending news. The child is sitting in a basket next to the table. There is an iPad in front of it. The loudspeakers in the hall fill the room with “socket music”. The kid’s small hands are slapping the screen. One silly bubble faces with stumpy legs and triangular arms, one after the other show up, red, blue, yellow, green, they laugh at the child and disappear. And the child laughs at the bubble faces, wants to hold them with its little fingers, but it does not yet understand what unreal images are – much like my dog, who is searching the barking dog that has appeared on the screen behind the TV set. Every now and then the child squeals. And every now and then, the mother bends down to him without a word, busying herself with her electronic device. Every now and then a piece of “information” is exchanged between the adults, a quick exchange of glances, then again the same picture. This lasts for almost two hours.
While I am reading my book, my eyes and my thoughts are straying to the couple and their child, time and again. They are together, but yet alone. What is going on there?
The child is well-fed, warmly dressed, the parents are obviously wealthy. One does not have the impression that the child is missing anything material. It sits there quietly and attentively and vividly “communicates” with its “social medium”, an “intelligent machine” – as the cybernetics, who set the tone in education today, call such machines. The child has everything, is mentally stimulated and emotionally addressed by the machine, you can see it on its vividly moving face. Isn’t this an early stimulation of figure and color vision and imagination? Does the child not exactly – and how early! – synchronize his hands and eyes? And all by himself! And does it not just go on a discovery trip, exploring independently the possibilities of the medium and its presentations? A perfect example of “self-directed learning”? So, you might think.
Or maybe not? Is there not anything missing, after all?
I recall an experiment by the US primate researcher Harry Harlow: In a cage, separated by a partition, there are two wire-dummies of chimpanzee mothers with big eyes. One of them is only wearing a soft fur coat. The other one does not wear a fur but two full milk bottles as artificial breasts, instead. A newborn monkey is placed in the middle between the two dummies. Harry Harlow wants to know: which of the two “mothers” the monkey will prefer? By common Freudian theory – which Harlow shared at the time – it would prefer the wire mother with the lactating breasts: Emotional attachment to the mother was believed to be created only by the satisfaction of needs, by feeding. But the little monkey swiftly moves to the fur dummy and clings to it. From time to time he whizzes over to drink the milk spent by the wire mother, but then quickly searches the fluffy fur mother, again whose warmth and security is preferable. Harlow reverses his original assumption and concludes: The first and most important need in life is not food, but motherly love, warmth and security. Now this monkey grows up with a fur coat as “mother”. When she is of childbearing age, the hitherto hidden tragedy is revealed. When a strange newborn monkey is set into her cage, the female who has grown up with a fur dummy of a mother flees from the newborn and anxiously hides in the corner of the cage. The newborn runs after her, looking for the security-giving mother; just like the now adult female had then done with her fur dummy. But the female chimpanzee who has grown up with the fur dummy slings the baby away when it comes too close looking for a mother’s love: She clearly reacts with fear towards the baby monkey, who is looking for a vivid to and fro, whereas its mother is not able to provide it, because she has not experienced it, herself.
The fur coat was just a poor substitute for real mother love. After all, it had been enough to survive. But the fur had not been able to answer the monkey’s need for love. And without having made the living experience of being loved, this chimpanzee female could not reciprocate love as an adult later on. She was not able to be a mother. She was unfit for a family! She could not help to reproduce the own species. A coat is just not a mother, is not a loving living being that accepts the other and pays attention – undivided attention.
Now I know all of a sudden what the little child in the airport hall is missing. The iPad cannot provide (just like the fur coat in Harry Harlow’s experiment for the small chimpanzee) any relationship, no undivided attention. Just like the fur which was indeed cuddly for the unfortunate monkey, but was not able to establish any reciprocal relationship, the device cannot respond to the child’ searching for attachment, and the child itself cannot have any experiences, which effects the expression of his emotions has on a living person. All the senses are stimulated, but the most important “sense” remains dead: the child’s search for a relationship is not answered. For relationship means to get an emotional echo, obtaining undivided attention, being loved. All this can a “smart” machine not do.
And the parents are far away, mentally. All three of them are “lonely together”. The adults hardly bother. But the child is still essentially dependent on the mother’s attention, on her emotional response.
Other families talk to each other, exchange feelings, are attached to each other, have an inner emotional bond and look into each other’s eyes. They connect mentally and emotionally to a common inner world – shaping their relationship. This procedure that is necessary for a toddler’s survival was missing here for two long hours. How will this deprivation affect the child? What consequences will this have? The resulting emotional and spiritual vacuum is filled with unspeakably primitive and unreal figures on the screen. What impact will that have? No real people, no real figures and objects, no real smells, nothing to touch, to sniff, to taste, nothing really hard or soft.
At the age of six months the child has already plunged into an unreal world on the screen. This happened right before any specific experience of reality has been constructed which is so necessary to cope with life. This child has indeed hardly had the chance to get to know the real world! And now the somewhat little real experience is already mixed up with an unreal one, without the child being able to distinguish between the two.
That way a dangerous pathis being prepared. Because if the child cannot distinguish between reality and fiction, it will not develop a stable ego. It will not develop a solid inner core, from which it can deal adequately with the world and judge it. The soil is being prepared for one or the other mental malformation without the parents wanting it. If the two parents in the airport hall knew that, they would stop immediately. Because they love their child. They would not care about all the false theories of “early promotion” by “intelligent” media, the talk of “self-directed learning” and the like, because they would rather sacrifice the device to the dustbin as their child to the device – and talk to their child and read books to their children and give them everything that a child needs to learn for life: human affection, guidance, instruction, correction, formation of conscience – in short: human relationship.     •