'M3GAN' Challenges Parents To Consider Kids' Exposure to Technology

'M3GAN' is a horror film that might offer some surprising parenting advice for those struggling with screen time and tech toy attachment.

AI doll Megan reading a book to child


This article contains spoilers for the movie M3GAN.

I went into the showing of M3GAN looking for a good horror film. What I got was unexpected insight into an issue that I have been struggling with since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown: Adjusting screen time and attachment to gadgets and technology-based toys that depend on screens and tablets to function. M3GAN is such a toy—until she learns enough to take over everything and everyone. While I know that my kids' toys cannot come to life and try to murder us, the film did raise some real concerns worth exploring. In fact, the very premise begs the question: who needs parents when you've got tech taking over?

The Horror of Attaching to Technology

M3GAN introduces an artificial intelligence (AI) doll who, in time, takes over many of the tasks parents do each day. She is a toy meant to help a family, but turns quickly into a horrifying lesson in technology attachment. As the film moves along, M3GAN shows the audience and the family that owns her the detriments of relying on AI and other tech toys as surrogates for parenting and family bonding.

Screen time concerns and worries about unhealthy attachment to tech toys are nothing new. The Pew Research Center's April 2022 report found that 25 percent of the parents surveyed believed that their kids still spent way too much time staring at smartphone screens. Another 23 percent felt that their kids were spending too much time on video games, another screen time concern. So there is horror in kids becoming too attached to a toy like M3GAN, which is essentially a walking and talking embodiment of Siri or Alexa, interconnected to all of the tech in the house. The child in the house can't escape her if they wanted to, which they will eventually.

When Artificial Intelligence Starts To Replace Parenting

Concerns about screen time escalated during the pandemic, when kids and parents were dependent on screens to get through the harrowing difficulties of living and working during the pandemic. Kids used tablets and computers for schooling at home. Parents also found themselves extending screen time so kids were occupied while they worked from home. And I don't even want to reveal how much time my now 7- and 9-year-old kids spent on screens and playing with the AI toys they just got for Christmas. This includes a globe that interacts with a tablet to explore other countries and cultures. They even got action figures that come with QR codes that link to adventures online that kids can access with a tablet or smartphone.

While I know that my kids' toys cannot come to life and try to murder us, the film did raise some real concerns worth exploring.

That's why the movie hits so close to home—we're all just trying to get by, and we start with the best intentions. As a parent, I can identify with M3GAN's maker and owner Gemma, played by Allison Williams. Gemma is a scientist on a mission to build the best toy a kid could ever have. Around the same time, Gemma becomes guardian to her orphaned niece, 8-year-old Cady, played by Violet McGraw. Cady lost her parents in a car accident that she survived. This all happens as Gemma's other AI project nears a key deadline. She needs to manage Cady's needs while also getting her work done. Gemma is able to work in her at-home lab but still needs help. She powers up M3GAN, introduces her to Cady, and goes about her work. Things run smoothly until they don't. Then people begin to die.

I have to admit that, for a moment, I thought M3GAN the doll was a good idea, one that I could use in my home! She read bedtime stories and gave reminders to Cady on things from flushing the toilet to brushing her teeth and washing her hands before leaving the bathroom. M3GAN even answered those sometimes excruciating questions that kids ask about abstract topics. M3GAN seemed like a good idea. The murder doll part was a bit of a deterrent, however.

Technology Attachment Can Take Away From Human Connection

The killing part aside, this film offers some relevant commentary on the issues of attachment to tech toys, screen time, and also dependence on tech toys as surrogates for parents. All of these are actually issues that cause problems as the child forms an unhealthy attachment to the toys and screens. The movie illustrated this as well.

When Gemma took M3GAN away and powered her down, Cady reacted badly. She had attached herself to the doll as if she were a real friend. M3GAN had become Cady's AI security blanket, so she threw a tantrum that became dangerous, as Gemma was driving and almost lost control of the car. There's truth in this moment. I've seen my kids get extremely upset when I took away their beloved toys as well.

Parental dependence on tech is a real problem, too. It infiltrates every part of our lives. You can go on Amazon and find tech gadgets to remind kids to flush and wash their hands. There are toothbrushes that tell kids how long to brush. I recently allowed my kids to watch YouTube videos where they can get a bedtime story read by an author, a celebrity, a drag queen, or just a nice person who can "do all the voices," as my 7-year-old says. I can get so much more done and make the bedtime routine a lot shorter by using YouTube bedtime stories.

But M3GAN forced me to ask myself how much family bonding time I'm losing to what is essentially a technological surrogate parent. I never would have thought a horror movie about a murderous doll would make me reexamine my parenting choices, but it did. The horror elements exacerbate the issues so much that they force struggling parents to look inward.

As I walked out of the theater, I realized my reliance on the screens and tech toys was the first problem I needed to fix. Then I could focus on my kids' attachment to the devices.

M3GAN ultimately challenges parents who are already struggling with the growing number of screen-dependent tech toys. It urges parents to refocus and change their perspective of the problem and look at how their parenting has become dependent on AI—enabling the kids too. As Gemma showed the audience during her final showdown with M3GAN, parents must attack and eliminate the problem themselves before trying to heal the kids.

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