Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Amorality of Donald Trump - Part 2: Charlottesville

I previously wrote in a post that Donald Trump will do and say anything he feels he needs to in order to get what he wants.  He has no morality or ethics.  It’s all transactional.  The end definitely justifies the means for him.

The New York Times pointed out several days ago that the one group that Trump cannot afford to lose the support of, the one group he cannot offend or criticize, is the alt-right, be they religious conservatives or white supremacists.  Because it is the only group that he can count on for unequivocal support … so long as he doesn’t go against them.  And so he bends over backwards to stroke them.

Thus we witnessed yesterday his disappointingly weak response to the white supremacists’ marching in Charlottesville, shouting neo-Nazi slogans, and the resulting violence between them and the counter protesters, including driving a truck into a group of protestors, killing one.  He said not ONE word against the vileness of the white supremacists.   He did not mentioned them at all.

Instead, he equated both sides by condemning the violence on both sides and saying that we must come together.  Even some Republicans could not stomach the President’s lack of leadership and morality one this one, calling the marchers’ words and action “evil” and “domestic terrorism.”

In my previous post, I said that the President’s words and actions bring to mind Joseph Welch’s question to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the McCarthy hearings in the early 50s, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”  

It is a sad day for our country.  We have had so many sad days since the inauguration.  Actually since his nomination.  I only pray and hope that masses of whites, people of all colors, will join together in public protest and say, “No, this hatred is not my America.  My America believes in the equality of all men.”  See www.americansolidarity.org.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Increase in Social Media and Autism - Coincidence or Causal?

Over the last 4 decades, the number of children diagnosed with autism and related disorders has grown at an astonishing rate.  In the 1970s and 1980s, about one out of every 2,000 children was estimated to have autism.  In the year 2,000, with a broader definition and better diagnosis, the CDC estimated that one in 150 8-year-olds in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.  

Since that time, prevalence rates have increased 10 - 17% annually.  By 2012, the ASD estimate had risen to 1 in 68 8-year-olds.  “There is no established explanation for this increase.” 

Autism/ASD is mental disorder caused by variations in the brain’s development.  These disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communications, and repetitive behaviors.  More specifically, children with autism demonstrate either “deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors, and deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.”

I became interested in this issue because a close friend of mine has custody of a grandchild who has ASD.  Recently my friend asked me, because I had written the book, Raising a Happy Child, if I had any ideas on what might help his interactions with the child.  Knowing very little about the disorder, I did some quick research which uncovered the information conveyed above.

What do we know about the cause of autism/ASD?  Prior to the 70s, autism was thought to be caused by bad parenting, “unloving mothers.”  That theory has been thoroughly debunked. 

Instead, research has shown that a number of genes are connected with autism.  Further, a number of environmental factors before and during birth, that influence early brain development and thus increase the risk, have been identified.  They include advanced parental age, maternal illness, extreme prematurity, very low birth weight, and certain difficulties during birth involving periods of oxygen deprivation.  Also, mothers exposed to high levels of pesticides and air pollution may be at greater risk of having an autistic child.

Clearly, the factors identified by science to-date could not even begin to explain this rapid increase in the rate of autism/ASD.  In looking briefly at several recent symposia on the subject, no new ideas were identified.  There was just hope in identifying “modifiable risk factors” as we better understand why the prevalence of ASD has increased.

When I first read the definition of autism noted above, I had a “duh” moment.  The definition, with the possible exception of repetitive behaviors, almost exactly tracks what researchers are finding is the negative result of compulsive use of modern technology … the internet, computer games, smart phones, social media.  

We’ve all seen the phenomenon.   Whether on the subway, in the theater, on the street … people of all ages, not just the young but older Americans as well, seem unable or unwilling to be disconnected from their technology tool, their new umbilical cord, for an unnecessary moment.  It has become an addictive behavior. 

I knew from research I had done when writing my book that “stress in the womb can affect a baby's temperament and neurobehavioral development. ‘Who you are and what you’re like when you are pregnant will affect who that baby is,’ says Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University. ‘Women's psychological functioning during pregnancy – their anxiety level, stress, personality -- ultimately affects the temperament of their babies. It has to ... the baby is awash in all the chemicals produced by the mom.’” Source: http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=51730&page=3.  So it certainly seemed possible that an obsessive compulsive social media addiction would have an impact.

After I had done my initial research, I responded to my friend and indicated my hunch that the appearance of the new technology and its compulsive use during pregnancy probably has a strong correlation with the increase in ASD prevalence.  He responded by telling me that, interestingly, the ASD boy’s mother had been a compulsive computer gamer, including during pregnancy, and also didn’t take very good care of herself.  The boy is also a compulsive gamer.

With that single confirmation, I decided to delve deeper into the existing research.  The new definition and diagnostic criteria for ASD was developed in the early 1990s.  It’s probably reasonable to assume that the difference between the estimated prevalence prior to the broadened criteria for ASD diagnosis and post are mostly due to the new criteria as well as greater awareness.

However, in the period since ASD was defined, the criteria has been constant and the awareness consistently high.  So what accounts for the rapid increase since that time?

If one looks more closely at the CDC prevalence estimates, one sees a pretty stable figure prior to 1996 births, 1 in 150.  This finding is almost identical with a British study done during the early 90s.  Between 1996 and 2004 births, however, the prevalence increased to 1 in 68 children.  

More recent CDC data are not available (the report on 8-year-olds in 2012, thus born in 2004, was issued in 2016).  However a report from a 2015 government survey of parents found that 1 in 45 children, age 3  - 17, have been diagnosed with ASD.  Since the source of the data is different, though, one can’t conclude that the prevalence has increased further.  It may indicate an increase or it may indicate that the CDC data source is not as accurate and that the earlier prevalence rates were actually higher.  Either way, it’s not good.

During this period of rapid ASD prevalence growth, commercial internet and social media use took off (in the late 1990s) and grew exponentially.  A Pew Research study found that between 2005 and 2013, the use of social media by adults increased from 7% to 62%.  Since then the increase has leveled off and the last reading was 65% in 2015.  This survey, however, did not measure frequency or duration of use, which from observation appears to have increased significantly.

While the Pew data start where the CDC data leave off, we nevertheless know from it that between the late 1990s when social media started to 2005, the usage rose from 0 - 7%.  A huge percentage increase.  If I’m on the right track, the scary question is what the set of CDC data will look like from children born after 2010.

And there’s one more point.  The current research assumes that all factors impacting ASD development cease the moment one is born.  It considers no post-birth environmental factors.  Yet research has shown that a child’s brain continues significant structural development at least until age 3, with further development continuing until adolescence.  

It’s a very common sight these days to see even 2-3 year-olds staring at their little screens, watching a program or game while in their strollers, accompanying their parents at a restaurant, or elsewhere.  It’s becoming the new pacifier.  I cannot but think that it will have an impact on autism prevalence.

I cannot go any further with this line of reasoning from the available data.  However, I think that the connection, being both evident and sufficiently strong, points to the need for the CDC, or other appropriate federal agency, to gather information on the computer/social media habits of mothers during pregnancy.  And that data needs to include not just how many sites she visits (as was the case with the Pew data), but the frequency and duration of her visits.  Since it does not appear that such data would be able to be retrieved through the CDC’s ADDM data gathering system, a survey would most likely have to be employed.  Data on toddlers’/young children’s exposure to computer games/programs also need to be gathered.

Testing my hypothesis is of upmost importance.  I would even say urgent, given the ubiquitous nature of obsessive social media use prevalent today in our society.  If indeed more children are being born with ASD due to this risk factor, then every pregnant woman needs to be given a health advisory to stay off social media during her pregnancy.  This should be treated no differently than advice given to pregnant women to avoid other harmful behavior, whether it’s smoking, taking drugs, or eating fish from contaminated rivers.  And the use of devices by toddlers should be restricted.

If my hypothesis is correct but left unaddressed, this development could have more impact on the future health and vitality of our country than almost any problem we are currently facing.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Senator Murkowski as Role Model

Last week, after being harangued and bashed by President Trump, Senator Murkowski (R-AK) said what all Republican Senators should say and what should govern their actions. “With all due respect, Mr. President,” she reportedly told him, “I didn’t come here to represent the Republican Party. I am representing my constituents and the state of Alaska.”

This is the duty that all Congressmen and Senators have … to represent the best interests of their constituents and state.  That is their responsibility as elected officials.  If those interests go against the desires of Party leadership, so be it. 

We would not be in the partisan predicament we’ve been witnessing in Congress if all members acted on that responsibility of office.  Sure, some are truly far-right conservatives and know that’s why they were elected.  But many who have toed the line of Senate majority-leader McConnell on numerous issues are not hard-line conservatives.  Their fealty to the Party is misplaced and goes against the best interests of their constituents.

Some Republicans might try to argue that their sworn oath “to support the constitution” overrides the interests of constituents.  That may be true when a matter truly contravenes the constitution in letter or principle, but the types of things that Congress has been debating, and regarding which Senator McConnell has repeatedly enforced party discipline, do not rise to that level of import. 

Which raises the question.  Who are the “constituents” when that phrase is used?  Is it the people who voted for President Trump or a particular Representative or Senator?  Or is it all the people in their respective jurisdictions?

Presidents often say in their inaugural speech that they promise to be the President for all Americans.  Even Trump made such a statement.  He said he would restore the promise of America "for all our people. " And that is indeed as it should be.  The President is not elected just to promote the interests of those who voted for him.  He is the President of the entire country.  Yes, he campaigned on certain themes and made certain promises, and he should live up to those, in general.  But once elected, those campaign themes need to be tempered by the best interests of the country as a whole.

Such tempering is not an example of a President selling out, any more than is the change in tone and position from the primaries, when the combat is between members of the same party and the audience are members of that party, to that of the general election when the audience is the entire country.  The same change can be often be seen in those who are appointed to the Supreme Court.  Many a President has been dismayed that the person they appointed because of his politics, legal and otherwise, has turned out once on the bench to change his respective because of the role he has assumed.  Perhaps the most famous example of this was Justice Earl Warren.

Each and every Representative and Senator should keep Senator Murkowski’s words before them when they debate a matter and feel pressure from Party leadership to vote in a way which is contrary to the interests of their constituents.  Often that pressure is nothing short of blackmail, as it was when Senator Murkowski was threatened with Alaska’s losing a variety of significant benefits from the Federal government.  She still stood her ground, as was her duty.