What the “Rat Park” Experiment Might Teach us about Screen Time

Screen time is a highly controversial parenting issue of our day. As busy (or “lazy”) parents can’t tend to the needs of their children, or so the narrative goes, children are given screens just to entertain themselves. While many psychologists encourage us to not see screens as “bad,” but just in need of some reasonable management, the ubiquitous accusation in everyday culture, as can easily be found on social media, is that lazy parents are failing to properly engage / educate / discipline their children by “resorting” to screen time.

I’d like to use the “Rat Park” experiment to put forward a new way of looking at screen time.

Before the “Rat Park” experiment, rats in some studies were offered plain water or water laced with cocaine. These rats, in a cage, alone, preferred the water with cocaine, to the point of dehydration and death.

Very often, I see this study mentioned in books as proof that our inner whims–our mammalian or lizard brain–is apt to going out of control and thus needs the rational brain to override and dominate it. You can see such a sentiment in the book Never Binge Again. This book cites such studies as reasoning for the author’s system of management over your food cravings: yell at them as something only an “inner pig” would want.

However, when scientist Dr. Bruce Alexander did this experiment but put the rats in a more comfortable environment, the rats did not want the water laced with cocaine. This is the famous “Rat Park” experiment. Rat Park had the things an adult mammal needs: an ability to roam, play, socialize, and have sex.

In my opinion, this clearly illustrates most parenting battles we have today, period, beyond just screen time. Putting children in isolation, like caged rats, yet still performing well, is what we expect of children. We expect them to have no comforts in life–no mentorship from adults, no engaging play, no ability to roam, no picture books, etc.–and expect them to perform, having strict discipline over themselves.

This type of thinking dominated the twentieth century. The twentieth century thinking was that people are born with a “blank slate.” Their inner world can be and in fact needs to be “programmed.” People thus need good thoughts, values, and strict disciplining to do right. Like the caged rats, they have to override their instincts with their rational brain to pick water instead of cocaine. This type of rugged individualist thinking absolutely dominates our ethical framework. I take this thinking to task in my book Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics.

We’re not born tabula rasa!

But a lonely caged environment is not the environment we do best in. We humans, mammals, do best when we can rest and play. We don’t need to be harsh about education–or life. We are already designed to prosper and thrive. We can do it in a fun, happy, benevolent environment. We can easily launch children into adulthood as thriving individuals if we were supportive, comforting, and caring towards them in childhood. It can be a sort of “whistle while you work” environment–all of life can be. That is one of my main arguments in Towards Liberalism. Life is not “purposeful struggle.” We humans are more like playful monkeys that do well when we can rest in the knowledge of the abundance around us and in each other’s care. Basically, in “Rat Park.”

We’re playful monkeys!

What kills me is that the Rat Park experiment was done in the late 1970s, but was rejected by scientific magazines of the time. That is, in my opinion, how entrenched the idea of “rugged individualism without spoiling people” is in our ethical thinking. I talk about how moral judgment is in the way of scientific advancement in Towards Liberalism.

I propose that when it comes to screen time, you can think of the screens as the cocaine-laced water. And this is exactly how parents react to it: it’s as if they see a child with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth when they see a child with a screen. It probably is, in a way. But our children are turning to them because we haven’t been able to satisfy their “Rat Park” needs. And I’m not blaming parents here. Our society is not set up for proper child care in any way whatsoever. People long for the days when they could just sit on their driveway and play with the chunked up concrete there or ride their bike down to the playground, but the fact is we don’t live in that world anymore. I can’t let my children even in our front yard. Cars blare their horn if my child is riding their bike in the driveway. You can forget sending them to the playground alone, at nearly any age. I watched a neighbor shoo high school children away from a pond once. Children, an offensive sight to many, have been sanitized out of adult life.

I fully concede at this point that I cannot give my children all of their needs. I know they would like to be around other children more often. How can I make that happen? I really can’t. I can’t have them meet up with other children unless I drive them somewhere at a preplanned time. I can’t just open my door and let them go. It’s not safe with cars going by at 40 mph. We all have fences. There are no back alleys. This world plain does not exist anymore! Hence, I’m sort of OK with letting them have screens.

I’m asking for systemic change to this problem. Social structures need a redesign. Maybe we could set up more parenting villages. Most of all what I want is educational freedom such that we can try out other educational paradigms than lecture/test/repeat.

Instead of villainizing screens, we should look at them as to why children like them so much. Screens are rich and engaging. There are LOTS of pictures and moving parts. It challenges them more and more and more. If they want to do it, they can. If they want to put it away, they can. There are some problems with it. I take my children’s screens away at a certain time of day to prevent neck and eye strain. I am worried about online predators. Sometimes the stimulations seems to cause aggression. But I am not biased against the fun and the challenge that screens provide. My children also spend quite a bit of time on YouTube learning all about science and history, at their own choosing. I let them binge and indulge on whatever videos they want, and they just plain often choose educational ones.

See my Misbehavior is Growth series and Towards Liberalism in the “Books!”section above. Follow me, The Observant Mom, on Facebook and Instagram.

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