Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

The Transitional Phenomena Functions of Smartphones for Adolescents

Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

The Transitional Phenomena Functions of Smartphones for Adolescents

Article excerpt

There is great concern among psychoanalytically oriented mental health professionals about the impact of technology on psychological development. The very inevitability of the "electrified mind" (Akhtar 2011) raises the hackles of the vast majority. In particular, the potentially deleterious effects of the numerous cyberinstruments on the growing child's object relations have been emphasized (Fisher 2011; Steiner-Adair 2013; Cundy 2015). Too often such discussions become unidimensional; authors speak as though all technology must have the same pathological effects on all children without considering the complexity of development, and the well-known fact that the developing child is an active agent in his or her interaction with the environment because he or she brings a more or less organized mind, already shaped by previous experiences and constitutional elements, to any new interaction or element in the environment. A blatant example is the "common wisdom" of mental health professionals, based on empirical findings (Huesmann 1986; Huesmann and Eron 1986; Singer and Singer 2005), that repeated exposure to violent television shows has a long-term deleterious impact on the child's ability to regulate his or her emotions and impulses.

Such overgeneralization flies in the face of contemporary psychoanalytic developmental thinking. Today we believe that every child's mind at any moment is "a complex product of his or her endowment, developmental history, current circumstances, and relationships with key figures" (Gilmore and Meersand 2014, 1) as well as the current context in which his or her mind is operating. Prescriptive linear understandings based on psychosexual stages have been replaced by a nonlinear dynamic systems approach that stresses the hierarchical organization of multiple mental systems that interact and become transformed throughout the developmental process (Jaffe 2000; Galatzer-Levy 2002; Harris 2005; Seligman 2005; Kieffer 2007). This view of interacting developmental systems rejects assigning decisive importance to any one system (Gilmore and Meersand 2014). Neither nature nor nurture alone can determine any single mental phenomena. From this perspective, no single environmental experience can possibly have the same meaning or effect on every child.

Thus, I have been struck by the failure of those who condemn all violent television shows as detrimental to children to consider the simple issue of the child's capacity to distinguish fantasy from reality. Children who possess this capacity (and most do by the ages of four to six) can grasp that the Road Runner's sequential destruction of Wile E. Coyote is "just pretend." They will not emulate it or believe that killing someone "for real" does not have a permanent effect, so long as they also possess an age-appropriate capacity to modulate their aggression, and enough superego internalization to manage their impulses. These latter capacities, as well as the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, are shaped by their previous constitutional givens interacting with the specifics of their families, culture, and unique experiences, including trauma. Consequently, as a child analyst I find myself often recommending to parents that they allow their young children to watch such cartoons to help to obviate the child's excessive, and symptomatic, anxiety about aggressive impulses and fantasies. Too often, children who are not allowed such exposure seem unable to regulate their aggression, alternating between poorly modulated tantrums and anxious, phobic symptoms. Being allowed to watch such violence and experience it as "just pretend" is a helpful step toward mature mentalization, a crucial mental function for affect regulation.

A similar caution must be used when considering the developmental impact on children and adolescents of living in a world affected by cyberspace. The contemporary psychoanalytic perspective would ask questions about the nature of the cyberspace, the age of the child, his or her constitutional strengths and limitations, his or her previous developmental experiences, organizations, and dynamic conflicts; and his or her family and social structure. …

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