Before he became known as the “mediatrician,” Dr. Michael Rich was a filmmaker and screenwriter for 12 years. He even got to work with Akira Kurosawa in Japan. But frustrated with the impersonal way film was done in what he called “Hollyweird,” he had an early midlife crisis that led him to go to Harvard Medical School and train as a pediatrician.
His film background led him to develop a research center to find out what happens when children are exposed to screens. Rich established the Digital Wellness Lab and the Center on Media and Child Health to advocate for the responsible use of screens and digital technology.
He earned his moniker because patients were being brought to him with media-specific cases. Rich would get invited to talks and made to argue with tech companies, which he described as “intellectual cage fighting.”
At the Screen Time and Mental Health Summit 2023, Rich explored the connection between screen use and mental health in children. Debbie Steinberg Kuntz, licensed family therapist and founder of Bright and Quirky, led the discussion. Rich tackled how to approach problematic internet use and what to do if your child has excessive screen use and a co-occurring condition.
“You gotta stop talking about internet safety. It presumes the internet is unsafe. It means we enter into it with a defensive stance, protecting ourselves from it instead of talking about internet mastery,” said Rich.
He noted that any powerful tool that we introduce to a child, be it a car or a chainsaw, we don’t give them until they need it, until we believe they can handle it responsibly and with respect for themselves and others.
“We get in the front seat with them and teach them how to use it. That’s how we should approach the internet. We shouldn’t be glib about it like it’s just a toy. We’re introducing a digital ecosystem where they’re gonna spend probably the majority of their waking hours in the future.”
Talking to the head of global safety of Facebook, he suggested including their team into product development so that upon rollout into the market, it’s already a kinder, safer place for kids. That group became the Boston Children’s Digital Wellness Lab, which is loosely modeled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, where industry, academia and healthcare work together.
Necessary life skill
“Childhood has changed. We have to work with and accept it instead of fighting it. It includes gaming and information binging,” stated Rich. He differentiated these from addiction because the solution to addiction is abstinence, which you can do with alcohol, tobacco or drugs; with interactive media, you can’t.
Since navigating screens is a necessary life skill for school, work and relationships, Rich offered that screen dependence is more akin to binge eating disorder, which is the overuse of a critical resource driven by psychological conditions and trying to be soothed by it.
He explained that these overusers tend to be kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and anxiety who come to the interactive space to self-soothe. “When we can identify and treat the underlying reason for that behavior, it sometimes disappears because they get bored with it, when they realize how it is impairing their lives, academically or socially.”
Children he’s seeing who have problematic internet use generally have some co-occurring condition that may be unnoticed outside the interactive media environment. Rich observed that these kids relate to machines more than humans and are usually better at video games than typically developing children.
“Folks working in artificial intelligence (AI) are now seeking folks who are on the spectrum because they are better at AI concepts than neurotypical folks. They do machine thinking and learning,” said Rich. He added that even if they may succeed at a job as a software engineer, the products they’ll be making will be for humans, so they still need to understand human needs.
Because so much information is now available to us instantly, today’s kids may say, “I don’t need to learn photosynthesis or memorize a poem because I can Google it” or “Chat GPT can do it for me.” While AI can simulate many things, what it can’t bring to the table is empathy and human connection. Rich stressed that if we are to serve ourselves and each other well, we need the human touch.
“I think we get in trouble when we forget that the other is human and has struggles, too, and wants to be cared about as much as we do,” he observed. —CONTRIBUTED