« Each being is and becomes what it contemplates » Plotinus

ENTRETIEN AVEC SABINE DUFLO

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You are a clinical psychologist, not a theorist, and it is from your observations that you come to assert the harmfulness of all types of screens on the mental, cognitive, emotional and physical development of young people. What are the main symptoms encountered? And what is/are the diagnosis(es)?

First of all, the distinction between clinician and theorist is in my opinion a source of misunderstanding. The clinician is the physician who studies diseases by direct examination of patients. By extension, the clinical psychologist is the one who studies mental illness by listening to the patient and claims to treat him or her in the process. Our object of study, for us clinical psychologists, is man in general, that is to say in a sense ourselves. I therefore do not believe in purely theoretical approaches to psychological problems. The diagnosis in psychiatry is always based on direct observation of a set of symptoms present in the patient. Today, I observe in a majority of young people particular symptoms (lack of attention, difficulty in memorizing and therefore difficulty in learning, communication problems, lack of sleep, etc.) which are often linked to prolonged exposure to screens, whether or not combined with unsuitable content. These symptoms are similar to those seen in the most common diagnoses: autism, ADHD, borderline states, etc.

Screens capture children’s attention excessively and prevent them from learning to concentrate. By what mechanisms? With what consequences?

Anything that shines, moves, produces sound naturally captures our attention. It is a reflex behavior. At the restaurant, if I place a TV behind my guest’s head, I look at it much more frequently than my guest. The objective of a children’s TV program or an internet platform is not to educate the child, but to keep him longer than the competing platform. To do this, audiovisual productions use very effective formal mechanisms to capture attention: very rapid sequencing of shots, zooming, stroboscopic effects, contrasting colors, pulsating sounds, all combined with emotionally charged content (fights, violence, hypersexualization). The child in front of this kind of program is literally glued to the screen and unable to understand the story or to critically look at what he/she sees. However, understanding or making a judgment calls for another type of attention that we call voluntary attention or concentration, which requires ignoring external stimuli in order to concentrate on a more neutral stimulus: a sequence of letters for reading, notes for deciphering music, numbers and equations for a mathematical problem, etc. Unlike reflexive attention, this process is not innate, it is acquired. The more our reflexive attention is stimulated, the less we are capable of voluntary attention. And the consequences are important: without attention, no memorization is possible, and without memorization, no learning is possible.

Contrary to many other practitioners who are committed to genetics, you put forward environmental causes to explain these pathologies…

In fact, there are not many geneticists left to affirm that our behaviors are the pure result of genetic coding without environmental influence. But in France, we tend to believe that advances in mental health will come from the discovery of new treatments, i.e. new chemical molecules. For 30 years it has been said that we will find « the » gene of schizophrenia, and consequently « the » treatment capable of curing it. The same goes for depression or anorexia nervosa. Nothing has ever been found and nothing will be found. Drug treatments, at best, provide some relief from overly intrusive symptoms, at worst — and worst is most often — reduce the patient to a squashy state. Treatments in adult psychiatry knock out the subject, cut short any disturbing manifestation of his symptoms, but in the long run produce serious and non-reversible side effects. And above all, they do not change the reasons for his suffering, which is why he perceives the world in a distorted way. If we take the time to listen to a child, teenager or adult with a mental health problem and to meet with his or her family, we always find a traumatic past in relation to which the subject has built himself or herself in order to suffer as little as possible, even if it means exhibiting socially inappropriate behaviour.

Why does the notion of « virtual autism », more than any other, seem to arouse so much rejection and anger among some parents?

For two reasons. First of all, these terms are a clumsy translation from an article by the Romanian psychologist Marius Zemfir, the first to have hypothesized a link between autistic-like symptoms and the development of the young child in a mainly digital environment. The title of his article « The consumption of virtual environment than 4 hours / day in the children between 0–3 years old, can cause a syndrome similar with the autism spectrum disorder » summarizes well the hypothesis of its author. The exact translation would be « autism-like syndrome due to a digital environment »… but that’s a bit long. Some parents of autistic children, warmed up by the media, which is more interested in conflict than in truth, have understood « virtual autism » to mean « false autism ». However, the disorders from which their child suffers are very real and painful for those around them, hence their justified anger. Other parents felt responsible for their child’s illness by this term. However, Zemfir’s text and the articles that followed, published in referenced journals, all affirm the same thing: it is the digital environment that is at fault, and consequently the lack of human stimulation that can lead to autistic-like symptoms. We are in a society where the digital injunction is everywhere. Parents are promised smarter, more competent children as soon as they use this object, and as soon as possible. Many have been tricked. However, everyone understands that a child between 0 and 3 years old put in front of a screen for more than half of his time may not be able to develop the skills that come from social exchanges: verbal and non-verbal communication, language, interest in the world around him. Autism is a syndrome in which these three components are involved: delay and disorder of verbal and non-verbal communication, delay and oddity of language, exclusive interest in certain objects (like screens nowadays), i.e. absence of exploratory behavior or curiosity.

For you, the violence and pornography present on the Web and in video games inevitably rub off on IRL(in real life) behaviors…

A Platonic philosopher, Plotinus (205–270) said:  » Each being is and becomes what it contemplates « . By this he meant that the identity of the subject is constructed in connection with what he desires and what he aspires to unite with. The more I aspire to Truth, Beauty and Goodness, the more these concepts will impact my thinking, but also my life. Conversely, the more I become dizzy in consumption, in the excitement produced by the contemplation of the obscene, of excess, the more I resemble that towards which I turn my gaze unceasingly. I work in a psychiatric emergency department for adolescents aged 12 to 18. The pace of entries has accelerated in recent years. To put it simply, on the one hand, we have girls (more than two thirds of the admissions) who come for suicidal gestures, repeated scarifications; on the other hand, boys who come for clastic crises. The screens are 9 times out of 10 the triggers of the crisis (attempt to remove the laptop by parents, cyber harassment via social networks for girls, attempt to wean from video games by parents for boys). When I talk to these kids about their school and family environments, they often describe chaotic family worlds, but when I take the time to watch what they watch (via their cell phones) at a rate of 6 to 8 hours a day — many of whom have been out of school for a few months already — I am appalled. Via the net, children are brutally projected into a world where male/female relationships are shown in situations of alienation (via porn), where violence and barbarism are a feast (via video games or horror films). No one can emerge unscathed from the contemplation of these shows, especially when they « occupy » you 5 hours a day.

I have long argued that parenting is weakening in late modernity. If screens are not the only ones responsible, don’t they play a determining role, nonetheless?

Yes. Screens take away the role of parents. The transmission of values, ideals, political and religious opinions was, until 20 years ago, through the parents. Adolescents were constructing their identity in relation to or against this family culture. Today, this transmission is no longer done, simply because the time devoted to screens has nibbled away at all other activities, especially those shared with parents.

Has the digital industry tried to corrupt you?

Yes. At first I had a few offers to « collaborate » on educational programs on tablets, but in my approach to the subject I often drew parallels with tobacco and alcohol. I have described the particular role played by the « merchants of doubt », i.e. experts who are hired by the tobacco or wine industry to minimize the toxic effects of the substances sold. We find this type of « experts » for digital. They occupy 80% of the air time on TV or radio when a program claims to deal with this subject. I am not selling doubt, I am trying to inform parents and children of the purely mercantile logic that lurks behind the Net, depriving parents of their role as educators and children of their free will.

Until the beginning of the year 2020, the thesis of the harmfulness of screens was beginning to percolate in the collective consciousness. Then, unfortunately, the epidemic brought water to the mill of the numericolâtres adepts of the « contactless », in particular in education. Are years of awareness-raising efforts being wiped out? What are the prospects of fighting to reverse the trend?

You are right to describe a health situation that accentuates a movement of digitization of society already well underway. When something in a group is not working, sometimes you have to wait for it to really change. With digital technology, signs of fatigue are appearing: the most fragile, young children and teenagers, are the most affected; increase in serious mental pathologies in children due to lack of human stimulation; learning disorders due to over-stimulation of reflex attention; behavioural disorders in teenagers due to mimicry of violent and obscene audiovisual content; dropping out of school and truancy due to addiction to screens Parents are increasingly making the connection between their child’s symptoms and their compulsive connection to screens. But they don’t have enough support to set rules and boundaries. Everywhere — school, health, administration — people are being isolated by being asked to heal, learn and solve their problems via an interface with a machine and not a human being.

Interviewed virtually by Bernard Legros, January 2021.

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