TIME Parenting

Parents, Calm Down About Infant Screen Time

KNUTSFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 29: In this photograph illustration a ten-year-old boy uses an Apple Ipad tablet computer on November 29, 2011 in Knutsford, United Kingdom. Tablet computers have become the most wanted Christmas present for children between the ages of 6-11 years. Many parents are having to share their tablet computers with their children as software companies release hundredes of educational and fun applications each month. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Christopher Furlong—etty Images

Christopher J. Ferguson is associate professor and department chair of psychology at Stetson University

Too much of the wrong kind of media can hurt infants, but that doesn't mean you need to practice total abstinence

Parents of infants face hard choices about how to raise their children, and sometimes misleading information can get in the way of their decisions. Take screen time: readers of the Guardian were recently treated to the claim that allowing toddlers to play with iPads or other small screens could damage their brains. It turned out, however, that the story (since corrected) was not based on an actual research study, but a press release regarding a commentary in the journal Pediatrics. The story was one in a series of claims in recent years that tablet use hurts infants’ development—scary headlines that too often mislead readers about research that is much less clear or consistent than claimed.

Both journalists and scholars are responsible for needlessly scaring parents. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long called for complete avoidance of screen time in infancy. Yet a number of scholars and commenters have criticized the AAP for being both unrealistic and ignoring data that doesn’t fit their scarier message. One of the top experts in this area, Deborah Linebarger has said that the AAP should present all data on screen time rather than ignoring data that suggest positive benefits of media while sensationalizing flawed studies that find negative relations. So what does the research really say on screen time for infants?

Well, it’s complicated. First, claims that exposure to screens (including television) is associated with reduced cognitive development in childhood are controversial. In one of my own recent studies with coauthor M. Brent Donnellan, we found that total abstinence, that is to say families following the AAP’s recommendations, was actually associated with lower cognitive development, not higher. But this doesn’t mean that anything goes—no one is suggesting that we sit baby down for a Terminator marathon.

The non-profit group Zero to Three recently released screen time recommendations for infants. As they note, it really is not so simple as to say that screens are or aren’t good for infants. Nor is abstinence the answer. It’s more about using screens in a quality way, as when caregivers engage with infants while they watch and explain what they are seeing. Screens such as iPads or smartphones can actually be used in ways that promote babies’ cognitive and social development. But as they write, moderation is key: “the need for limits is still important because research clearly shows that it is active exploration of the real, 3-D world with loving, trusting caregivers that is most critical for healthy early development.”

In another recent study, presented by Deborah Linebarger at the American Psychological Association conference in 2014, researchers found that parent-toddler interactions around media were most crucial for toddlers’ language development and that media that shows real characters in real situations is associated with better language development. Too often newspaper headlines and the AAP present media and parenting as a kind of zero-sum game. But media can be intelligently incorporated into smart parenting.

Who the media was designed for in the first place is important too. One 2010 study by Rachel Barr and colleagues found that infant exposure to adult-oriented media was associated with less cognitive development, but exposure to child-oriented media was not associated with any cognitive outcome.

So, given that the data is often complex and contradictory and even scholars debate these issues, what should parents do? Is it ok to let the little ones have a bit of screen time? Probably, so long as it’s not replacing interactions with parents and it’s using media that is educational or geared toward children and shows real characters in real situations. Don’t think of media as an either/or but something you can use with children and talk to them about. Sure, if you’re letting your infant watch CNN alone for hours on end, you’ve probably got media wrong. But total abstinence for toddlers isn’t necessary. Pressuring parents with total media abstinence, particularly with nonsense claims of damaged brains isn’t good science. It’s just frightening and shaming parents.

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5 Things We Must Teach Young Boys About Rape, Right Now

George Will
J. Scott Applewhite—AP George Will, at his office in Washington's Georgetown district, April 22, 2008.

It's time to end the ambiguity on "ambiguous" encounters—we need better sex education for our young men

George Will has added to the litany of facepalm-worthy statements by men about rape, implying that, due to university policies, victim status is “privileged” and “coveted.” In his June 6 column—which has gotten him fired from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—he recounts a story from Swarthmore College in which a woman experienced date rape. The woman had been “hooking up” with a guy but then decided to just be platonic friends, a decision she thought was mutual. One night he fell asleep in her bed and she put on her pajamas and climbed in as well, thinking nothing of it. However, he began to pull off her clothes. She said no, but he persisted and she relented and let him do his thing. Six weeks later she filed rape charges.

Will seems to offer this case as an ambiguous scenario in which the woman is partly to blame for a) hooking up with the guy in the past and b) saying no only once. If we actually think this scenario is ambiguous—as apparently many young men do—then we need better sex education for boys.

According to one study in the journal Sex Education, coverage of rape and dating violence in many school districts remains spotty. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an initiative to promote rape-prevention programs, including in educational settings. A plethora of dating and sexual-violence programs exist, although the Office for Justice Programs notes that research on their effectiveness remains lacking. Outcome assessments tend to focus on knowledge gained rather than behavioral change.

We need to end the ambiguity of “ambiguous” scenarios. Every young man should know exactly what rape is. And there are some critical issues that need to be reinforced in sex-education programs to help get there:

1. Start early. Teaching general respect for women and girls should start in elementary school, with discussions about dating violence and rape taking place by middle school at the latest. This needs to happen in formative adolescence, before boys start dating.

2. “No” means no, and indecision means “no,” and silence means “no”—not “Keep trying until I say, ‘Fine’.”

3. Programs need to keep focus. Some wander off into moralization about rap music and pop culture. Let’s stay focused on real-world relationships and real problems.

4. Being bystanders to harassment or violence toward girls and women is not acceptable. Intervening when a girl is being harassed or expressing displeasure at sexist jokes or language, even when only in the company of other males, can help change the culture one person at a time.

5. Teach young men how to handle rejection respectfully. What should a young man do when a female says no? How should he handle the end of a romantic relationship constructively? How does he manage a series of rejections? The emphasis here should be on constructive responses that remain respectful of women, even ones who reject them.

That males might not clearly see certain behavior as rape when in fact it is is obviously worth emphasizing. Yet people tend to respond better overall to positive persuasion rather than alarmism. Rather than teaching boys that they are all teetering on the edge of violence, emphasizing the benefits of romantic and sexual relationships founded on open communication, honesty and mutual respect may provide more positive outcomes.


Ferguson is associate professor and department chair of psychology at Stetson University. He has published numerous scientific articles on the topic of video games and mental health and recently served as guest editor for an American Psychological Association’s special journal issue on the topic. Ferguson is also the editor of Violent Crime: Clinical and Social Implications and the author of The Suicide Kings.

TIME Crime

Misogyny Didn’t Turn Elliot Rodger Into a Killer

Yes, Elliot Rodger was a misogynist — but blaming a cultural hatred for women for his actions loses sight of the real reason why isolated, mentally ill young men turn to mass murder

The recent shooting-stabbing in California follows a familiar pattern: a socially isolated male, with chronic anger and mental-health problems, lashes out against a society he feels has wronged him. Both a video, complete with cliché maniacal laughter, and a 140-page manifesto have been published online which, if confirmed as Elliot Rodger’s, detail a young man consumed with rage over his inability to connect with women. Family members had apparently contacted police in the weeks prior to the violent assault but, unlike in some other cases, attempts to warn authorities did not divert this horrific crime.

Initial reports note that Rodger stabbed to death three roommates before beginning his shooting spree, but his anger appears to have been particularly directed at women. This has led some to speculate that cultural misogyny has contributed to this shooting. For instance, Jessica Valenti, writing in the Guardian, states that “Rodger, like most young American men, was taught that he was entitled to sex and female attention.” And Valenti isn’t the only writer to see cultural misogyny at the core of this shooting. Some reports suggest Rodger may have associated with “men’s rights” groups that view women as hostile.

Misogyny, in all forms, remains a significant problem for society. Women still don’t enjoy pay equity with men, and are underrepresented in core positions of power in business and politics. Violence toward women has thankfully dropped over the previous two decades, but remains intolerably high. The last election cycle brought us odd comments about “legitimate rape” and fights over women’s rights to contraception medical coverage. It’s not difficult to understand why women would perceive the deck being culturally stacked against them. That misogyny can, and certain does, spill over into violence in the case of (one hopes) a small percentage of men whose anger toward women is beyond control.

Linking cultural misogyny to a specific mass shooting is more difficult, however. Although I understand Valenti’s point, I suspect cultural messages on the interaction between men and women are more complex than merely saying that men are taught to feel “entitled” to women’s attention. And although Rodger appears to have been particularly angry at women (and men who were successful with women as he was not), there’s little common thread among mass-homicide perpetrators to target women. Mass-homicide perpetrators often target groups they particularly feel have wronged them, whether their own families, their work colleagues or society as a whole. Marginalized groups are sometimes targeted such as the recent shooting by a 73-year-old man outside a Jewish center. But often mass-homicide perpetrators basically target everyone, every member of a society that the perpetrator thinks has left them high and dry.

The very isolation that mass-homicide perpetrators feel makes them unlikely candidates to respond to societal trends. Rodger appears to have indeed been a misogynist, but this misogyny appears to have raged from within, a product of his anger, sexual frustrations and despondency rather than anything “taught” to him by society. Had he not been so focused on his own sexual inadequacies, his focus might simply have moved to mall-goers rather than sorority sisters.

We have an unfortunate trend when mass shootings occur to focus on idiosyncratic elements as potential causes. That is to say, we look for something unique about the shooter to explain why they may have done what they did. The January 2011 Tucson shooting by Jared Loughner was initially (and incorrectly) blamed by some on right-wing political demagoguery. A rare 2010 shooting by a woman, college professor Amy Bishop, led some to speculate on the traumatic experience of tenure denial. Video games are conveniently blamed when the shooter is young, then ignored when a shooter is older.

All of this serves to distract us from the commonalities between such shooters. With few exceptions, they are angry, resentful, mentally ill individuals. Certainly, we are right to worry about the stigmatization of the mentally ill, the vast majority of whom are nonviolent. But pretending no link exists at all with these crimes, if anything, prevents us from considering an overhaul to our mental-health system that could service all individuals in need, whether at any risk for violence or not.

Talking about a little of this as a cause of one crime and blaming a little of that for another prevent us from considering real comprehensive reform for our nearly nonexistent system for addressing chronic mental-health issues.

Ferguson is associate professor and department chair of psychology at Stetson University. He has published numerous scientific articles on the topic of video games and mental health and recently served as guest editor for an American Psychological Association’s special journal issue on the topic. Ferguson is also the editor of Violent Crime: Clinical and Social Implications and the author of The Suicide Kings.


The See Something, Say Something Seesaw

Commuting to Manhattan
Fabio Cremasco—flickr Editorial/Getty Images If you see something say something.

Reporting suspicious activity can prevent attacks and save lives, but it shouldn't come at the cost of unfairly profiling individuals.

Last week a woman spotted a 17-year-old boy engaged in suspicious activity at a storage facility in Waseca, Minnesota, and called the police. When they arrived, they discovered the youth was storing bomb-making materials and allege he confessed to plotting to kill his family and bomb his school. The woman’s prescient actions in calling the police undoubtedly saved many lives, and she deserves great credit for taking responsible action.

Although it reached national headlines, Shellhas’ case is not unique. Last December, Attorney General Eric Holder stated the FBI had prevented nearly 150 potential cases of violent assaults, including mass shootings. In most cases, people reached out to law enforcement, school administrators, clergy or mental health professionals with concerns about a person acting in a threatening manner. In most cases, these suspicious individuals were then diverted to mental health services. That number, 150, may seem daunting, and perhaps most of these threats never would have come to fruition. However, conscientious citizens reporting suspicious activity does seem to be an essential part of preventing mass assaults and other violence. A 2002 report by the U.S. Secret Service on school shooters found that many shooters told or warned someone of an impending attack.

However, the difficulty is in deciding when to report and when not to. It’s easy to tell people to report suspicious behavior, but people tend to worry about being wrong and making fools of themselves. It’s essential that, as part of the message, we let people know that being wrong, so long as it is in good faith, is okay. People may also have difficulty reporting someone they know for suspicious behavior. Imagine a close friend or relative is having difficulties at work and makes off-the-cuff comments about blowing the place up. At what point does it become possible to believe that this person’s comments indicate a real threat, particularly if this is someone you love?

The other issue regards the potential for profiling people to descend into an Orwellian type regime in which innocent people who don’t fit social norms are unfairly targeted. Most shooters are male but, as indicated by last month’s shooting at a Jewish community and retirement center by a 73-year-old man, they can be of any age or background.

The 2002 Secret Service report found that mass shooters tend to exhibit three traits: namely, chronic mental health issues, a history of anger, rage or anti-social tendencies and a tendency to blame others for their problems. Most mass homicide perpetrators do not “snap” but, as with the bombing prevented last week, are planned out over weeks, months or longer. The good news is that’s a lot of time for someone to notice something’s amiss and report it.

However, it’s not a stretch to think that the number of people who fit the profile of having mental health issues, chronic rage and resentment toward others could number in the hundreds of thousands, if not more. Mental health advocates are right to worry about potential stigmatizing of people for things they have not done.

Although most shooters are adult males, the problem can become more pronounced when discussing young shooters, when issues of juvenoia or general fear of youth, can make “profiles” even more broad and useless. It’s not uncommon to see entire swaths of youth portrayed as imminent threats, whether minority youth, kids from fringe social groups such as Goths or others who like to write stories or listen to music with darker themes. After Sandy Hook, most attention was uselessly diverted toward youth culture, such as playing violent video games. But the official investigation ultimately found that the Sandy Hook shooter was more interested in non-violent games like Dance, Dance Revolution. Such issues highlight the challenges in avoiding “profiles” that unfairly target innocent and harmless individuals because they are different.

Thus, it is our challenge to balance the need to report suspicious activity while avoiding witch-hunts of “different” individuals, particularly when based on misinformation of faulty profiles. How to productively divert potentially threatening individuals to appropriate mental health services while protecting the rights of those who are different but non-threatening will continue to be a major challenge for the foreseeable future.

TIME Teens

What’s Really Wrong With Young People Today: Juvenoia

High school senior Rachel Canning, 18, appears in Morris County Superior Court in Morristown, N.J., on March 4, 2014.
Bob Karp—Daily Record/AP High school senior Rachel Canning, 18, appears in Morris County Superior Court in Morristown, N.J., on March 4, 2014.

Every generation believes that the generation before was too rigid and conservative—and the generation after too wild and out-of-control.

The perplexing case of Rachel Canning, an 18-year old New Jersey teen who is suing her estranged parents for private high school and college tuition and living expenses has achieved national attention. The case is a heartbreaking example of a family in which communication has collapsed and animosity has tragically replaced the warmth we should all expect from our families. It also seems, on the surface, to be a private matter. So why then has it gotten such national attention? The answer, I suspect, lies in the widespread aversion many older adults feel toward juveniles and how “entitled” youth appear to be, at least in the eyes of the old.

I suspect that this case and the attention it has garnered is another example of juvenoia. Juvenoia, a term usually credited to sociologist David Finkelhor, refers to the fear of juveniles by older adults. Juvenoia is manifest in a multitude of ways, including the belief that today’s youth are worse behaved than ever before, despite much evidence to the contrary. Many older adults continue to think that youth violence is the worst ever, for instance, despite the fact that it stands now at only about 12% of what it was just two decades before. But in the current case, many comments have focused on how “entitled” Rachel Canning is, implying that this is part of a greater trend in the current generation of youth.

Like many adults I’m not a big fan of the “everyone gets a trophy” movement over the past few decades. Honest feedback, discipline and structure are good for children, as is competition in the spirit of good sportsmanship. Giving them everything they want when they want it certainly isn’t. But the idea that youth today are any more entitled than in the past is, at best, debatable. Although some psychologists have claimed there is a “narcissism epidemic” among today’s youth, other psychologists have countered that the evidence for this is weak.

Indeed, comments by older adults that today’s youth are more entitled than previous generations go back at least to the ancient Greeks. My read of the data is closer to the skeptical view: most such claims are more indicative of the griping of older adults than anything “new” about today’s teens. Sure, some teens feel entitled, but that’s always been the case. But stories such as Rachel Canning’s lawsuit fit into those narratives and provide more fuel for juvenoia. What should be a private family matter becomes fodder for the perennial intergenerational squabbling.

Juvenoia also exerts itself in a variety of moral panics focused on youth. We constantly hear about how teens are up to new forms of mischief our older generations would never have thought of. Most of these tales end up being false. Recent examples include the “rainbow party” in which teen girls supposedly provided oral sex to multiple boys and the “knockout king” game in which young (usually minority) males supposedly target random people for assaults. Certainly in a country of over 300 million, some teens do dangerous and risky things (as do some adults), but evidence for any new mass trends in teen sex or violence is absent. These tales of wayward youth are the stuff of urban legend, not fact.

Juvenoia also manifests in the routine disparagement of youth culture. From Elvis Presley to rap music to video games, older adults are quick to blame youth culture for perceived social problems, often forgetting that the media valued in their own youth was similarly disparaged. I call this the “Goldilocks Effect” — every generation’s belief that the generation before was too rigid and conservative, and the generation after too wild and out-of-control. Each generation thinks it got culture “just right.”

Even science can get in on the juvenioa. Most recent have been the brain imaging findings that note our brains continue to develop through adolescence and into adulthood…and until we’re dead, really. Some research suggests that these differences are quite adaptive, but, nonetheless much of the narrative on this has been misused to portray teens as zombified hedonistic fools unable to restrain their least impulse.

Teens and young adults remain one group of people that can be publicly disparaged with almost no condemnation. Some of the anti-youth rhetoric gets wrapped up in language about “protecting” our youth. But a vein of true loathing runs through much of the discussion. And until we’re honest about that it will continue to produce urban legends and junk science.

Christopher J. Ferguson is associate professor and department chair of psychology at Stetson University.

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