Our Friend, the Platypus*

Douglas A. Gentile, PhD
Iowa State University

You have probably seen parents give a screen device to children at restaurants to keep them from making a fuss. There is not much wrong with this in itself, but consider a bigger picture.

I was once sitting in LaGuardia Airport with an older couple sitting next to me eating lunch. The man said bitterly to the woman, “You’re making my life a living hell!” He paused for a minute to eat a bit and then continued, “Did you know that would happen?  You’re making my life a living hell!”  His wife sat there weeping silently into her salad as he drank his smoothie.  She asked, “Do you like the drink?” He finished his and replied that he liked it a lot. She asked if he’d like hers because it was too sweet for her, and she wished she had gotten a coffee. He took it happily, then a minute later growled again about how she was making his life a living hell.

I was struck by how he could quickly go from “living hell” to “mmm…this is a tasty drink!” and then back to his life being “a living hell.” He could not see that she was not the one doing this to him. He was happy to take her drink and then blame her for his negative emotions.  [I got up and brought her a coffee, to which he said I “didn’t need to do that” and at which she burst into tears. He did, however, stop complaining for the next 20 minutes.]

We easily get into a habit of complaining. We get into a cycle of blaming. One mark of maturity is the tremendous difference between “it fell” and “I broke it.” We need to learn to take responsibility for our emotions, and this is difficult.

The primary developmental task for young children is to learn how to regulate their behaviors and emotions, especially when things are frustrating. If we distract children with a screen when they are distressed, they do not get to experience, work through, and learn to use the wisdom of their emotions. Instead, they learn to see emotions as something to get away from.

One view of emotions is that every emotion has co-emergent properties of wisdom and confusion. For example, the wisdom of anger is that you can see clearly that something is wrong, unjust, or unfair. The confusion manifests in several ways. First, we often tell ourselves a story about what is going on, and this story is never the whole truth.  Second, we feel like we should DO something about it, and if our action comes from the story we are telling ourselves, it is likely not the wisest action. Finally, we often do something to reduce the difficult feeling of the emotion.

Many adults still haven’t learned how to work skillfully with their emotions. We blame others for our emotions. We say things like, “You hurt my feelings,” which makes it clear that we think that emotions are something that happens to us.

Another issue that is seen in the “living hell” example is that we easily confuse opinion for reality. A second mark of maturity is being able to distinguish clearly between “I don’t like it” and “It’s bad.” My teenage daughter routinely says that certain musicians are terrible or that orange cheese is “gross.” Neither of these is accurate. What she means is that they aren’t to her taste, but she takes her reaction as if it is an indication of Truth as if her reaction is an indication of the essence of the object.

When children are sad or angry, we may help them to label the emotion, which is useful for helping them to learn to talk about their feelings. But this labeling is not the same as the experiencing. Furthermore, if we hand them a device or let them watch television to calm down, we are keeping them from learning that there is nothing inherently wrong with experiencing a strong emotion. We are keeping them from learning the difference between “it fell” and “I broke it.” We are hindering them from learning the difference between “I don’t like it” and “it’s bad.”

What would be more useful for children’s emotional growth? One answer is play. Play gives children the space to learn to experience and work through emotions. I recall lurking outside my older daughter’s room when she was four, listening to her play with her Polly Pocket dolls. She had one of them saying to the other, “Your mommy’s dead, and your daddy’s dead, and you’re all alone.” As morbid as this sounds, this is the age at which children start understanding the concept of death. It’s scary.  How do children manage and work with that fear? Through self-directed play.  Lots of it.

When we attempt to help children with their emotions, we usually guide them from our confused position – where we see difficult emotions as something to be avoided and that their causes are external – rather than helping them to experience the inherent wisdom and richness of their emotions. Of course, we do this to ourselves, too. We use media to “cope.” When waiting in line at the doctor’s office, can you simply wait? There’s nothing wrong with waiting. But even that minor bit of discomfort is usually sufficient to make us pull out our phones and begin distracting ourselves.

When children are upset and crying, are we helping them from a position of what’s best for them, or are we just trying to make ourselves feel more comfortable? We could just as easily give them paper and crayons and ask them to draw a story about how they feel. But if we provide a distraction, are we helping them in a way that sacrifices learning to access the wisdom of emotions for short-term relief for them and convenience for us?

Consider what these children may be like as they enter romantic relationships. With a lifetime of practice avoiding difficult emotions and blaming the situation, how will they be able to negotiate the strong emotions that happen in relationships? When she feels let down, will she blame her partner? When he feels angry, will he feel he should find a different relationship? It is certainly possible that giving young children a device to look at when a painful feeling arises puts them at risk of long-term relationship problems. This is a hypothesis that we should figure out how to begin testing as children are given digital devices at younger and younger ages.

(*Author Note: It was a great title in third grade, and it’s still a great title!)

(Co-Editors’ Note: Douglas Gentile was a recipient of the 2021 Distinguished Lifetime Contributions to Media Psychology and Technology Award from the APA Society of Media Psychology and Technology)

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