Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

Early Latency and the Impact of the Digital World: Exploring the Effect of Technological Games on Evolving Ego Capacities, Superego Development, and Peer Relationships

Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

Early Latency and the Impact of the Digital World: Exploring the Effect of Technological Games on Evolving Ego Capacities, Superego Development, and Peer Relationships

Article excerpt

The latency years are renowned as the age of autonomy and industry; this period of development is universally defined by the relative quieting of oedipal pressures, the child's vastly increased capacity for emotional and behavioral self-control, and an unprecedented availability to environments beyond the family, most notably the classroom (Erikson 1950; Sarnoff 1976; Shapiro 1976). An underlying cognitive revolution is marked by advances in logical reasoning, attention and memory, integration of intellectual processes, absorption of information, and visual-motor coordination (P. Anderson 2002; Piaget and Inhelder 1969). These various mental reorganizations and transformations, and the child's concomitant social and emotional achievements, are considered foundational for later developmental outcome (Blos 1958; Bemporad 1984; Pedersen, Barber, and Borge 2007). At the same time, the latency child's newfound independence and fledgling self-management, coupled with significantly augmented societal expectations, create a unique set of vulnerabilities; these include a painful sense of separateness and increasing distance from the parents; mounting desire for inclusion in the society of peers and sensitivity toward peer rejection; feelings of exposure in light of relentless teacher assessments and peer comparisons in the classroom; a tendency toward concrete, categorical thinking about complex constructs and social situations; and difficulty tolerating internal discomforts, most notably recently acquired feelings of guilt (Bornstein 1951; Knight 2005; Gilmore and Meersand 2015).

The unique confluence of competencies, desires, and vulnerabilities motivates latency children toward the digital world; not only are they now in possession of the requisite technological proficiency and coordination, but media-based games are perceived as potential sources of relative autonomy, escape from school-based pressures and expectations, quick gratification, and virtual community. Not surprising, rates of use for digital devices surge between ages five and eight, the years corresponding with entry into the early latency phase (Common Sense Media 2011). Typical games, which are increasingly targeted at younger children, enable them to create avatars (based on animals or familiar cultural characters) and personalize their living environments, accrue points toward gaining accessories, and socialize with other avatars in virtual neighborhoods; many contain a social media component that permits children to engage in limited online conversations with peers (Bauman and Tatum 2009; Marsh 2010).

Exposure to and enthusiasm for virtual worlds arrives at a time when the child's ability to self-monitor, discern the distinction between virtual reality and fantasy, and infer the intentions of others remains shaky. In the nonvirtual world, young latency children are newly subject to relationships and influences beyond the intimate bonds of family: Complex social events are navigated outside the purview of parental oversight and involvement, creating a novel breach of the parents' previously ongoing supervisory and auxiliary ego support. Although Internet activity is often distally regulated by adults, the child's immediate technological experience falls into this breach, offering uniquely engrossing environments that provide a temporary sense of control and competence (design your own avatar, decorate your milieu, win extra accoutrements), a promise of peer connection (meet up with your avatar friends at a virtual party or neighborhood hangout, engage in an online conversation), and a type of play that appears to offer both imaginary and rule-bound elements. These meanings and functions are unique to the latency phase, and distinct from adolescents' use of technology as a way to escape bodily pressures and an experimental space for key aspects of identity (e.g., sexuality; Lemma 2010; Subrahmanyam 2013).

Early latency development and encounters with the virtual world

Contemporary psychoanalytic developmental theory envisions the superego as an open system in which the child's emerging cognitive and relational capacities continuously interface with external experience; educational environments, encounters with nonparental figures, peer connections, and cultural pursuits, including digital technology, leave their mark on the ongoing development of moral standards, fantasies and feelings about the self, and regulatory capacities (Hartmann and Lowenstein 1962; Novick and Novick 2004). …

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