M3GAN and Attachment Theory – Christ and Pop Culture

Meet PurRpetual Petz! A brand-new animatronic toy that looks like a mix between a Furby and demonic gardening gnome, and they’re all the rage this season. Did your dog die? Don’t worry—your kid will love PurRpetual Pet even more. They’re better than real pets because they’re always there, they’ll even “live longer than you do!” Each PurRpetual Pet pairs with your child’s device to let them know whenever they’re hungry, feeling happy, or need to use the bathroom. Their AI is so advanced that it can detect and fill in any conversational lull with witty banter to make sure you’ll never have to bond with your child again.

Above is a paraphrase of the advertisement that plays as the cold open of the new science fiction/horror/black comedy film M3GAN. The film—which had its genesis as a story idea from horror icon James Wan—is a meditation on the worst case what ifs? of the toys your kids want for Christmas. It’s chock full of cutting satire, and cut it does. When it comes to raising the next generation of digital natives, it’d be hard to overstate the significance of its message.

As our kids’ technology continues progressing, our relationships with them inch further and further away, until we live under the same roof yet occupy different realities.

At the start of the film, a family of three traverses through a whiteout on a snowy mountain ridge, blizzard covering everything over the dashboard. Up front, the parents argue over their safety and bicker about their child’s screen time. In the back, seven-year-old Cady sits next to her PurRpetual Pet and mindlessly plays on her tablet. Pulling over to the roadside to restrategize, the car is suddenly overrun by an oncoming snow truck.

Meanwhile, caricature-of-a-too-busy-for-a-social-life-career-woman Gemma is finishing up designs on a new life-size AI doll, equipped with learning capabilities and emotional cognition. After a rough test trial, the AI doll malfunctions, and her boss tells her to give up and work on a remodel of PurRpetual Petz in time for Christmas.

Then, her phone rings; she rushes to the hospital to find her sister and brother-in-law dead, quickly making the decision to become Cady’s legal guardian. The problem is, she has what appears to be no maternal instincts whatsoever. Busy with work deadlines, she decides to fast track the finishing touches on her four-foot AI doll M3GAN (acronym for Model 3 Generative Android) so that Cady can have a friend (babysitter) to keep her entertained. M3GAN is so impressive that Gemma’s company decides to green light a mass Christmas release. As you might guess, the whole M3GAN-being-Cady’s-caretaker shtick works for a time but quickly goes south. M3GAN gets too protective of Cady and starts mimicking animal kingdom kill-or-be-killed-style parenting, eliminating anything that threatens Cady. All the glorious horror clichés that comprise modern American folklore unfold: a dog that bothered Cady goes missing, a bully mysteriously dies, and M3GAN takes to staring lifelessly out their windows all night.

When Gemma starts to notice what M3GAN’s doing, it’s too late to sever the ties between the two; since Gemma never bothered to be a parent to Cady, Cady formed attachments to M3GAN instead. This pithy ethical dilemma comprises the third act: Gemma must choose between releasing a product that would earn her all sorts of money and prestige—but could destroy the parent-child relationship—or sacrifice her career for the sake of preserving society’s familial attachments. 

M3GAN is a movie that’s a little on the nose at times in terms of its teleology: at one point, a psychologist monologues about the ramifications of AI technology on early childhood attachments that felt like someone left-click copied a spec article from Psychology Today and pasted it into the screenplay. But the bluntness of the message plays to the film’s benefit. Maybe the movie’s warning—that you actually have to, you know, hang out with your kids, not just flip on a tablet every time they get fussy—is superimposed because everyone in the theater already realizes consciously that their kids are spending too much time on screens. The viewers aren’t afforded the luxury of subtlety.

The message for followers of Jesus is critical. In terms of tech addiction, Western Christians don’t fall too far from the secular tree. We’re just as susceptible to the neurological manipulation from iPhones, tablets, and smart toys served up by Silicon Valley à la carte as the heathens next door. M3GAN’s procedural killings and requisite spook tropes are just a framing device for the real fear: that we’ve already been lured into the efficiency trap provided by big tech and there’s a good chance our kids’ neural pathways have already been discipled beyond the point of no return.

This brings us to M3GAN’s points about “attachment theory.” Here’s a crash course: starting in infancy, the human brain latches on to other people—usually parents or caregivers—creating what neurologists and psychologists “attachments.”1 What many of us call “love” is basically just “attachment”—and as we learn to give and receive love, our attachments grow in tandem. One scholar thinks that what the science community labels “attachment love” is basically the equivalent of Biblical agape. The human brain has a kind of stickiness, and when we experience connection with someone, we glue on to them, which causes us to feel affection, empathy, and a desire that they stay in our social circles.

When psychologists discuss how children form attachments, they’ll usually use terms like “secure” or “insecure.”2 This dichotomy is super important: according to the theory, the way children attach to their parents from a young age constructs the way in which they’ll develop relationally for the rest of their lives. If a parent is present, using a variety of love languages, a child will develop “secure” attachments—meaning that because they felt known and loved from an early age, their limbic system is trained to anticipate and reciprocate that kind of loving relationality in adulthood. On the other hand, if a parent is rarely present, avoids physical contact, and often flakes, the child’s attachment patterns will drift into “insecure, anxious, or avoidant” territory. From that point onward, the child will struggle to form healthy and committed relationships even into adulthood.

But our attachments can be a little more malleable than we might like. Early studies on primitive tech with faux sentience (like the Tamagotchi or My Real Baby) found that kids might be forming actual attachments with these robots. When a Tamagotchi died, kids felt actual pain; when they left their My Real Baby at home, they felt actual concern; and when asked why they didn’t just replace the “dead” toys, they responded by saying that even an exact replica of their toy wouldn’t be the same—they ascribed personality to their smart toys. Humans can apparently form quasi-attachments with things that aren’t human. One teen girl in Japan even hanged herself after her Tamagotchi died while she’d been grounded by her parents. These attachments might seem ridiculous to parents, but they’re just as real as anything to kids. Unsurprisingly, various sources have already reported that early-life screen time or smart toy engagement led to a poor ability to regulate emotions, a decrease in the brain’s white matter, and a disruption to social and linguistic skills.

This fear is what M3GAN pulls off best. As our kids’ technology continues progressing, our relationships with them inch further and further away, until we live under the same roof yet occupy different realities. Sure, the scenes where M3GAN hides in a shed and terrorizes their neighbor with a pressure washer were creepy, but I genuinely found Gemma’s pitch video way more unsettling. The video follows Gemma around their house, explaining how loathsome it is to have to remind Cady to wash her hands after using the bathroom or put a coaster under her cup. The video then offers the “solution,” cutting to clips of M3GAN reminding Cady about post-bathroom hygiene and how a coaster protects tables from condensation, interspliced with footage of M3GAN acting out basically every parental role you could think of. To me, that’s what’s scary.

Every time technology progresses, it promises to cut out busywork. In the case of the vacuum cleaner or dishwasher, I’m all for it. In the case of AI taking care of all the parental routines that let a child know they’re loved, I’m horrified by it. Technology is pushing us to cut out everything that doesn’t fit the framework of productivity or efficiency—the little-g gods of the West. It will be no wonder if our kids start attaching to their smart toys more than parents when parents implicitly send their children the daily message that economic efficiency is more important than they are. Like adolescents who lose attachment to parents after getting initiated into adulthood via tribal ceremonies, our kids run the risk of being severed from flesh and blood families, inaugurating themselves into a new tribe of AI friends.

What M3GAN teaches is that the fight is less against technology itself than letting tech automate the parts of life that make it most worth living: the goofiness of a toddler who can’t wipe his own face, the playful redundancy of reading the same exact storybook before bed, the joy of watching some behavior you’ve been teaching click for the first time. Automating these “lesser” tasks for the sake of productivity might gain the world, but, as will always be the case, we forfeit our souls in the process. This cult of efficiency has conditioned us from a young age to assume that whatever helps us be more productive is always the highest “good.” And the rest of our yearly, weekly, hourly experience, from womb to tomb, bears witness. But easiness is not “moral.” Productivity is not synonymous with virtue. Deathbed regrets will not include the time you didn’t distract your child with a shiny AI friend so you could finish balancing spreadsheets or bingeing The Last of Us.

The greatest crisis in losing our attachments isn’t raising a generation too insecure to interact with other humans; the greatest crisis is the entropy, the deterioration, of the Christian faith itself. Faith has been passed down generation to generation, through children who attach to their faithful parents, on and on down the line, for the past two millennia. Barna Research even pinpointed familial discipleship as the primary way faith has progressed in the late modern West, backed up by multiple studies.3 Even Tom Holland, in his book Dominion, a sprawling 500-page book about the history of Christianity, dedicated the final chapter to the fact that the Christian faith is kept alive through one generation of caregivers bestowing belief onto the next. Jesus is the antibody to human condition, and His Kingdom spreads through His imagers as they form one attachment after the next with the rest humankind. All this to say, attachment could very well be the number one-way faith is spread from person to person. And AI threatens to destroy our capacity for attachments altogether. We don’t have to become Amish, and we don’t have to throw away all our kid’s toys. We also don’t need to assume that every new bit of AI is laying bricks for Skynet. But as followers of Jesus, we not only need to cultivate healthy, secure attachments with the next generation, we also need a maintain them. This happens through millions of micro-decisions that are the opposite of flashy. No phones at the dinner table; no screens before or after sunset; make sure your kids know they’re valued more than your job; use long car rides for makeshift therapy sessions rather than karaoke; go on nature walks; and just repeat and repeat again. Technology is not going to decrease, only our addiction to it can. The next milieu might very well find tech as the top deterrent to resilient faith, and Christians can continue the work laid by the past two millennia of saints and revivalists by being attentive enough to form healthy attachments with fellow imagers God’s placed in our lives.

1. When you hear “attachment theory” you’ll usually hear the names John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth as the two psychologists bolstering the theory. Their work has been cited in countless books and articles, and remain figureheads in the realm of attachment theory studies.

2. This is an oversimplified representation of the spectrum of attachment styles. The one I use here is more akin to the attachment style shorthand employed in Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, Coddling of the American Mind.

3. This research can be found in Faith for Exiles by David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, The Intentional Father by Jon Tyson, The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch, and various reports on the Barna Research website.

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