Two trends are simultaneously occurring in the United States: 1) A significant portion of our youth, and therefore our adults, are experiencing markedly diminished behavioral development and impaired interpersonal communication skills, and; 2) Active threat incidents are becoming increasingly prevalent. While the two issues exist independently, the parallels in observed behavior between the two groups are both concerning and compelling, offering a glimpse into who we are, how we relate to one another, and where we may be headed.
The Paradox of Screen Time
A recent study published in the Journal of American Medical Association – Pediatrics highlights a disturbing trend in the social development of our youth, and its secondary impacts in adulthood. According to this study, nearly 98% of children ages 8 and younger have internet access at home, and regularly utilize electronic devices beyond the recommended 1-hour limit. Moreover, in a society that is becoming increasingly technologically advanced, the need to educate our children on technology is by necessity reinforced within our educational system, and “screen time” is a regular and critical part of many student’s school day, acquainting them early with the tools they will need to succeed in the workplace of tomorrow. The regular usage of electronic devices, social media, and electronic / online entertainment options only increases with age, and according to multiple studies, the impact is becoming apparent, even in the youngest children. As many as 1 in 4 children struggle with language, communication, motor skills and communication by the time they begin school. Screens are interfering with our ability to practice social skills and properly develop at an interpersonal level.
In today’s society, many of our social needs, workplace interactions, and even the acquisition of daily necessities like food, may be conveniently met by tools available online. Our phones, tablets, laptops, and other media devices are constant companions for many, and we interact with them in one way or another for a significant portion of our daily life. This technological drive is leading many to a psychological, social, and economic dependence on electronic media, be it surfing the internet, playing online games, watching a movie, texting, or using social media. The world of technology offers relative freedom from consequence, the ability to control one’s image and environment, and the opportunity to feel heroic or powerful, or have an artificial sense of accomplishment – elements uncommon in the “real world”.
According to psychologists, the increase in screen time has dramatic effects on the brain’s frontal lobe – the area which most controls personality. The more an individual, especially a child, hides behind a screen, the more socially awkward they can become. The underdevelopment of the ability to relate to others can cause a young person to develop psychological “walls” that keep them feeling safe. This trend makes it increasingly difficult for children and teens to make friends, and has documented negative impacts on parent-child relationships. This dynamic often leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of retreat from interpersonal interaction and a drive toward further media usage.
Cumulatively, these behavioral changes have been identified as “Electronic Screen Syndrome” (ESS). ESS is a condition in which the nervous system becomes irregularly and overly stimulated, detuned, and desynchronized due to technology usage. The condition leads to impaired mood, focus, and behavior. Individuals with ESS tend to exhibit characteristics which make interactions with others challenging. They exhibit poor eye contact, seem distracted or disengaged, struggle with impulsivity, have trouble making reciprocal conversation, have a shortened attention span, and generally passive body language. Emotionally, they exhibit detachment and a drastically reduced ability to relate to or empathize with the feelings of others. When forced to engage in activities with others, these individuals often exhibit impairment in fine and gross motor skills, low frustration tolerance that results in outbursts of anger, and poor sportsmanship. Additionally, they tend to blame others for difficulties, and often hold grudges or attribute hostile motives to others where there may be none. They have increased risk of depression, anxiety, externalized negative behaviors, and are more prone to suicide than their peers.
Young people with ESS are also more likely to be bullied or ostracized because of these behaviors, and are also more likely to exhibit bullying behavior toward others, especially online. A recent study of more than 2,000 middle-school and high-school-aged students found that 25% reported being both a cyberbully victim and engaging in cyberbullying themselves. Cyberbullying provides a degree of emotional separation not present with traditional bullying, because the bully cannot see the reactions of their victims. Studies have shown that cyberbullies tend to feel less remorse for their actions, despite the fact that 50% of cyberbullying victims report knowing their attacker. The attacks can be especially challenging because they are unrelenting. While traditional bullying tends to be limited to school, and home is therefore a relative safe haven, a cyberbullying event can occur at any time, victims can be reached anywhere, and the things said have almost unlimited distribution potential amongst witnesses – a fact made more devastating by the increased psychological importance of online popularity, online image control, and “friends”. Of note, a Canadian study revealed that cyberbully victims and those who engage in cyberbullying were both at increased risk for depression and suicide.
A Disturbing Parallel
Research into the pre-attack behavior and personality characteristics of active attackers conducted by analysts at Complete Threat Preparedness and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has identified a number of traits common amongst attackers. While the overwhelming majority (85-89%, depending on crime category) had no prior criminal convictions, all attackers had either in-person or online interaction with others on a regular basis, in which they exhibited concerning behavior mirroring the characteristics noted in the recent JAMA – Pediatrics study. These behavioral traits were especially notable in the following categories:
Of note, the majority of incidents of concerning behavior (56%) in active attackers were first noted 25+ months prior to the attack, and all attackers exhibited an average of 4-5 concerning behavior types over this time. These statistics underscore the fact that early recognition of growing and/or interrelated problems represents a significant opportunity to help mitigate the potential of violence occurring in the first place.
A Glimpse Into the Future
While the parallels between the behavioral characteristics associated with technology usage and those found in active attackers are remarkable, it should be noted that the link is not definitively causative, nor should technology itself be somehow demonized. Technology does not create active shooters. In fact, despite its potential pitfalls, the benefits of advanced technology are undeniably life-enhancing and even life-saving. Tech will drive the world of tomorrow, and many experts predict that the majority of careers that our children will one day hold do not yet even exist, and are radically technology-driven. Given this trajectory, we must increasingly educate our children in fields like Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics – all of which can involve heavy usage of technological tools – in order to properly equip them to be the creative inventors and architects of the technological base our advancing world will be built upon. Given this imperative, and the general trajectory of our advancing society, it is apparent that “screen time” and technology usage will increase throughout our children’s lifetimes. The accompanying challenge is this: At a humanistic and interpersonal development level it may also be reasonably predicted that delayed and impaired social development will also become more frequent, and this slow but observable shift in the way we relate to one another will eventually become more of a societal norm than an anomaly. Given this dynamic, it is incumbent upon us to help “fill in the gaps” in the interpersonal skill set of our children, and thereby the adults they will become.
What Can We Do?
Complete Threat Preparedness is calling for something one might not expect from a company dedicated to domestic counterterrorism consulting: Mandatory childhood education in communication, interpersonal development, empathy and empathic observation, beginning in Preschool and continuing through High School. Building these strengths throughout the educational experience of our children will help to:
The influence of technology on our daily interactions will continue to grow as we continue to advance. If we are to properly educate ourselves for a future increasingly filled with technology, we must as a society address the side effects that come with technology’s benefits.
Ben Kincaid is the founder and CEO of Complete Threat Preparedness – a counterterrorism and comprehensive emergency preparedness consulting firm.
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