Dimitri Christakis MD MPH, is a pediatrician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He is a graduate of Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He is currently the George Adkins Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington, and the Director of the Center for Child Health Behavior and Development at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. His research has focused on how to optimize young children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. Funding for his research has come from a number of federal agencies as well as foundations. His work has been featured on the Today show, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, as well as all major international print magazine and newspapers. Dr. Christakis regularly gives talks to national and international audiences of parents, physicians, and educators.

1. Tell us something about yourself: your early life, schooling, and college life?

I was born in the US when both of my parents who were Greek were in graduate school. Right after I was born, they returned to Greece for my father to serve in the military. I spent the first 4 years of my life in Athens before returning to the US where I went to primary and secondary school in Washington DC. Greek was my first language and what we spoke at home but, as is typical in immigrant households, over time I got my parents to speak English. After High School I went to Yale University where I was a pre-medical student but my major was in literature. Afterwards, I went o the University of Pennsylvania school of Medicine for my doctorate.

2. How much is the generation gap noticeable at the present? We often hear from the older generations that childhood meant something different before, it was crucial for developing our social skills. Are today’s children alienated from each other, are they at a bigger risk of becoming anti-social and lonely, considering the fact that most children would rather play with their iPods than with other children at a playground?

There is no doubt that we have technologized childhood tremendously in the past 10 years. Today’s children are born into a digital world. I refer to them as digital natives whereas the rest of us our digital immigrants. Accordingly, how they connect with each other, being “social”, has likewise changed. In some ways, they are more connected with each other via social media and texting etc. But in other ways, they are less connected as live one on one interactions are less common. When I see adolescents and young adults out for coffee with each other and they are all on their smart phones, I feel that the process of being authentically present – really attending to someone and listening intently—is being threatened.

3. Because of the modern way of life, most parents hardly find the time to play with their children, filling that void by buying them new technology. More and more children are exposed to negative scenes on television and in games. What is your advice to those parents, how should they spend the little time they have with their children in a constructive way?

There is NOTHING more important—and indeed there is no substitute—for live human interaction. Parents are children’s first and most important teachers. Meaningful loving interactions with them are vital to their cognitive, social, and emotional development. Being a parent is hard—there is no harder job but there also is no more important one.

4. Are today’s shows, cartoons, movies, advertisements and other media aimed at children, among other negative things, sexualizing them?. We can notice the female characters in cartoons wearing obscene and provocative clothes, are young girls imitating them? Does it later lead to objectification of women by men?

Yes, too many cartoon characters are highly sexualized and send the wrong message to young girls. Think of the little mermaid who is a young teen and highly sexualized and lies to her father to be with her “boyfriend.” You are correct that this also reinforces the notion in boys that girls are to be primarily valued for their attractiveness.

5. Once children were exposed to negative stimulations at the critical time in their brain development, can the negative consequences later be repaired?

No

6. Today’s children can’t even recognize depression; is the social life of children crucial for the development of their social skills, as well as becoming physically and mentally healthy adults? What role does the playground and interacting with other children have in their development?

Play is a child’s work! It is vital not only for their social and emotional development but for their cognitive development as well.

7. After watching scenes from the television, children unconsciously imitate them in their lives. The amount of negative stimulation children are exposed to is at an all-time high, but are there stimulations that can be positive for children?

I frequently say that all television is educational, the real question is what is it teaching? Children imitate what they see both good and bad. In fact, we recently did a study in preschool children where we modified their viewing by having them substitute educational programming for violent programming and we saw improvements in their behavior 6 months and a year later.

8. What is your advice to parents regarding the well-being of their children?

Spend time with them. Listen to them. Support them. Love them.

9. Can you tell us something about Family Friendly Workplace Initiative?

Excellence in Paediatrics is delighted to have launched this in Dubai. The purpose of it is to put women and children first in the workplace by helping new mothers transition to a life that balances work and family. FFW has two components. The first is making workplaces baby friendly by helping them to support breastfeeding mothers continue to nurse their children on their return to work. We have a comprehensive workplace assessment we do as well as consultations on breastfeeding rooms, breastfeeding toolkits etc. The second component is to provide new parents with educational materials to help them meet their child’s needs at each stage of development. These materials, both written and streamed deliver the best practices as they relate to common parental questions (e.g. sleep, language development, toilet training).

10. Your future plans?

I will be in Sharjah on May 12th delivering a talk to parents about early brain development. Come see me there! We also will have our first Women and Children’s congress on December 6th alongside the Excellence in Paediatrics 2014 Conference (http://2014.excellence-in-paediatrics.org/. This event will be open to the public and will bring some of the world’s experts on women and children’s health to Dubai to answer your questions

11. Message to our readers?

I look forward to seeing you  all in Dubai at the 1st Women and Child Health Conference on December 6th.

Interviewed by Irma Velić