Parenting – why attention matters

The unhappiest generation is what therapists know as Generation Z, born from 1996 onwards. Accurate figures are hard to come by but they have increasing anxiety rates – some 28% according to the Mental Health Foundation; 80,000 have depression and suicide rates have seen a 2020 to 2021 increase of 33%, according to Young Minds


In November 2023, the NHS stated about 20% of 8 to 16-year-olds had a probable mental health disorder – in 2017 it was about 12%. The MH Foundation also states: 
“50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24.”

Whatever the current figures the increase is clear and stark across the developed world, but why? What has changed? I'll tell you something that I've seen change: attention to infants and children, or rather the lack of it.

How many times have you seen a toddler in a pram, clutching a phone or a tablet instead of a teddy bear? Sure, their parents feed them and change them but cuddles, talks, smiles, listening to their gurgles or attempts at speech? All too often, that is being brushed aside, in favour of the easy option: give them a colourful screen to distract them. It's what all good parents do, isn't it? Let's look into that, in two areas, bearing in mind the social media frenzy pumped into our youngsters is now considered so potentially harmful in 2022 that it was even debated in the House of Lords.

1) Object relations

A human's natural instinct is to need to relate to an external input. Traditionally it was a cuddly toy, which baby slowly grew out of and didn't need a constant gaze towards - so there was still observation of the world and interaction with others, through gestures, expressions, smiles, sounds and voices.

Teddy bears are not immersive devices so don't form a barrier between baby and parent or the world. Instead, they form an additional comfort, a soft association of peace and tranquillity. As a baby grows into a toddler and infant, this bear can not keep up with the growing input needs of the child so the child begins to explore the world and social interactions with others. This is a healthy developmental process.

Mobile devices are immersive devices, demanding attention and bombarding the growing brain with intense images, sounds, exposures and interactions bearing little relation to the real world. As the infant grows these devices and their apps get upgraded too - keep the child hooked and constantly reinforcing their relationship and bond with it. This continues and by their teenage years the bond has become so strong and so dependent it has become their world.

This is an unhealthy developmental process and it manifests itself in unrealistic expectations, such as becoming a famous, glamorous pop star by the age of 17 or life is a failure. All criticisms, put-downs, and non-fan comments stab at that need and, with no learnt coping mechanisms to deal with this, the child can go into the rampant depression, anxiety and, ultimately, suicide we see happening all too often.

2) Brain development

Yes, that's right. Brain development. Human brains are not born fully developed. They are not complete, miniature adult brains. They are newbies on the block. The parts of the brain that deal with social interaction - orbitofrontal cortex, for those interested - have not grown because there has been no social interaction to inspire them to do so. In fact, the entire higher-functioning areas of the brain, the areas that enable us to behave as adults not children, need stimulation to grow.

I'll give you a famous example, Chugani et al discovered that when infants were denied social interaction they literally had a hole in their brains where the orbitofrontal cortex would have grown. This was evidenced in the behaviour of Romanian orphans. Those adopted before the age of three and given love and attention managed to still develop this part of their brain and grow into balanced adults. For those adopted after the age of three, it was too late. The brain development stage was lost and no matter how much love they were then shown, the damage remained done. All because of missing social attention.

I didn't know any of this when my kids were growing up but, thankfully, due to my being against mobile devices for microwave concerns, they didn't get smartphones until they turned 16 - making do instead with SIM watches, still able to make emergency calls or send SMS. At home, they each had a relatively powerful computer so still learnt tech and could online chat and game with their friends - often beating them as their desktops were way more powerful. Despite the ridicule by some peers at the time, now adults they thank me for this - seeing many of their friends who grew up with mobiles psychologically dependent on them.

For example, a friend called Claire (not her real name) at 15 was dressing up in a short skirt and push-up bra, with make-up, to post raunchy pictures on social media. It was her way of seeking attention and validation - if she didn't get a mass of likes that same day she felt down and worthless. It doesn't take much imagination to extrapolate such things to the point of potential suicide if a bunch of toxic comments start coming in.

On a bus, I saw a teenager discover she had lost her phone. Oh my God, it was like she had just seen her best friend killed. The level of distress and tears that followed was both heart-breaking and pitiful; her mother just looking on relatively nonplussed and clueless about how to respond - beyond saying she should have been more careful with it. As luck had it, the phone wasn't lost but had just slipped onto the floor and was shortly discovered. The girl got it back, clutching her 'best friend' - eyes too tearful to do anything but hold it dearly.

Is this really how we want our children to be growing up?

For years there has been a split debate on crying infants: go to them or let them 'cry it out'. Think about that in terms of the above. What will a crying infant feel when no one comes to help with their distress? Fear, emptiness, abandonment, lack of self-worth and loneliness. In other words, nothing positive or good. When checking notes for this article I was really pleased to see the NSPCC make this point too:

“...When a baby cries, they release a hormone called cortisol in their body. Cortisol isn’t good for a baby’s developing nervous system. If babies are ignored when they cry, they might think no one is there for them....”

I couldn't agree more. What the NSPCC don't go on to say is how damaging high levels of cortisol can be. It can impact not just brain development but also the immune and entire endocrine system. It can also be a prime factor in the development of personality disorders; such as narcissistic, sociopathic and even psychopathic. 

Those growing up in neglectful or abusive environments all too often end up as addicts, abusers or victims of abusers. It is a cycle we see made more prevalent in Generation Zs because neglectful parenting, from a psychological point of view, includes leaving them dependent on electronic devices instead of getting real, human interaction.

Without attention and interaction, humans do not fully grow the brain areas related to it. Humans grow as they are fed, and if they are not fed the skills to engage with society, face failure with a smile and believe in themselves, how will they possibly cope with the real world they later need to live in? Some don't. Suicide rates, depression and anxiety are all at a high and unlikely to come down anytime soon. Great for the therapy business but, as with the Romanian orphans, for many a true fix may already be out of reach.

So the next time your young child reaches for an electronic device, why not give them a ball, a Lego set, a paintbrush, a nature walk, playtime in your garden or even playtime with you or other youngsters instead? They may not thank you for it at first but, when they're older and able to see how their peers struggle to cope with the world, they will be glad of it. Perhaps the greatest gift is not a new iPhone but tangible, loving, human attention.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK9
Written by Brad Stone, Integrative Therapist - Diploma, MBACP, MNCPS (Acc)
Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK9

Brad Stone (MBACP) is a holistic Integrative therapist and writer in private practice, based in Milton Keynes

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