Olga Umansky, librarian of the Hanns Sachs Library at BPSI. Her remarks below originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2018 issue of the BPSI Bulletin, which can be read here.
“What is the right age to get a smartphone?”
“Can I take her phone away? It is my phone, after all!”
“What amount of screen time is OK? How do we know if their brains can handle it?”
“How can my child not use a phone in school? The homework assignments are actually on the computer!”
These were the questions addressed to the panel of child psychiatrists in the Newton-Wellesley Hospital auditorium after a screening of the award-winning documentary, Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, a film about the daily family struggles over screen use that has been shown to baffled parents and children across the United States. When the lights came back on in the auditorium, an elementary school kid cheered the room with a surprising remark: “When did it become OK to do something just because others do it?”
The experts did not give universal recipes, but our common frustration was clear. We are all in the same boat, children and adults. Somehow we will have to learn to navigate this new digital reality: it is not going anywhere. Though children were the focus, adult issues followed close behind. Adults—parents—are also becoming addicted to and distracted by their devices. Do we have the right to demand from children what we ourselves cannot master? When is the right age to allow phone privacy? While some panelists advised setting up strict home rules and devising “screen-time contracts,” others acknowledged the inevitability of technology and the pressing need for children to learn self-control at a younger age. When it comes to phone use, families don’t have to be democracies, but finding a working compromise without breaching trust will always be a challenge.
Screenagers showcases several families struggling over social media, video games, academics, and Internet addictions. In one family, that of the filmmaker, Delany Ruston, the parents are trying to negotiate with their 13-year-old daughter the purchase of her first smartphone. Ruston, a primary care physician, speaks about the teenage tendency to overshare and the pressure to be “liked” on social media. Other parents in the movie are worried about how their sons’ time and interests have been swallowed up by video games. We learn about the signs of clinical Internet addiction and about a one-of-a-kind Internet rehabilitation center near Seattle. Some of the concerns voiced in the film have recently been validated: the World Health Organization included a new mental health condition called “gaming disorder” in the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases. The latest science shows that our ability to concentrate and multitask is diminished while we stare at the screen. The dire need for off-line camps, phone-free classrooms, and a reinvigorated emphasis on physical activities has become evident. Among the brain scientists who provide commentary in the film is BPSI’s Affiliate Scholar Sherry Turkle, who has written a lot on the “subjective side” of people’s relationships with technology. Her latest book is Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, 2015). She is also the author of four other books about evolving relationships in digital culture: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011); The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (MIT, 1984); Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon and Schuster, 1995); and Simulation and Its Discontents (MIT, 2009). Turkle argues that conversation, in real time, has been lost to the seduction of digital gifts. This sense that we always have a platform, are never alone or bored, and can always edit our communications, affects our competence to engage in human, face-to face connection. In turn, our capacity for empathy is compromised. She promotes a rebooting of conversation as a cure to what she calls a “crisis in empathy”.
Recent shifts in school phone policies may fail to consider Turkle’s concerns. The days of locked-away phones seem to be long gone. Kids are getting their first smartphones at a younger age, while peer pressure to use them has intensified. The film reveals that a majority of U.S. middle schools now allow students to carry their cell phones throughout the school day. Given this trend, an initiative launched by Ruston, “Away for the Day,” is a welcome one, giving parents tools to advocate for school policy changes in their own communities. I hope to become involved in such an initiative and was relieved to meet local parents and mental health professionals who support additional policy changes.
Despite the stressful topic, the evening turned out to be comforting. As often happens, for many attendees the shared pain lessened our worries. The film highlights wonderful resources for parents and educators. The Screenagers website offers templates for screen-time contracts, which parents are encouraged to create and negotiate with their kids before they buy them their first phone. There is a library of thoroughly reviewed parenting apps for setting device limits and schedules, monitoring usage, and even earning points and coupons for off-line time. The filmmaker’s Tech Talk Tuesdays blog provides useful tips and family conversation starters on a variety of topics, from sexting to sleep deprivation. (As ironic as using a blog as a resource may sound in this context, the ideas published there come from the Ruston family’s dinner conversations, when everyone turns off their phone to talk about weekly frustrations caused by technology. My only suggestion would be to add some humorous stories to the medley.)
Many parents, both on and off-screen, admitted that they themselves had a problem with phones. Meanwhile, some teenagers in the audience found the narrative one-sided, and online reviews of Screenagers show that the film often leaves kids skeptical. Still, at our Newton screening the best observations came from kids. I witnessed the conversation suddenly turning around: children became our mentors and consultants. I was happy that my 13-year-old son was in the audience. On our way home, in place of our usual bickering over how long he would be allowed to play his video game, I was given a nice lecture on turning my Wi-Fi off for better concentration and how both of us should probably go back to paper books for a better night’s sleep.
The following day, I put my librarian hat on, and my mind drifted to the “psychoanalysis in the digital age” section of our library. It is no secret that our readers, for the most part, value paper over electronic books. My guess is that they also prefer face-to-face conversations to skyping. And yet, psychoanalytic literature on the topics of screens, teletherapy, gaming, and sexting is gaining popularity. BPSI catalogs all books about computers within the special 3.13 category, in which 3 represents Philosophy and 13 stands for Artificial Intelligence. I can’t help noticing now that the start of the screenage years lies on the right side of the decimal. Barely used a decade ago, section 3.13 has been expanding rapidly over the past three years. In addition to Sherry Turkle’s books, our members often consult Psychoanalysis Online, a three-volume Karnac publication on mental health, teletherapy, and training (2013); the impact of technology on development (2015); and the teleanalytic setting (2017), edited by Jill Savege Scharff. Our child therapists recently recommended Love in the Age of the Internet, edited by Linda Cundy (Routledge, 2015) and Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent, by Amy Adele Hasinoff (2015). The most recent additions to the 3.13 shelf are Alessandra Lemma’s The Digital Age on the Couch: Psychoanalytic Practice and New Media (Routledge, 2017), Andrea Marzi’s Psychoanalysis, Identity, and the Internet: Explorations into Cyberspace (Routledge, 2016), and Catherine Steiner-Adair’s The Big Disconnect (Karnac, 2016).
Psychoanalytic journals have started acknowledging the world of “electronic instruments that hold us hostage” as well (Gabbard, 2015). Glen Gabbard has written several important papers about professional boundaries, cyberpassion, privacy, and the “playful expansion of the self” in the era of the Internet. According to Gabbard, the paradox of cybercommunication is that it challenges our privacy but also “offers us a place to hide” (Gabbard, 2015). Siamak Movahedi and Nahaleh Moshtagh analyze a young college student’s fear of losing privacy and control to “the robotic” mind in a clinical vignette titled “Your Smartphone Is Watching You” (Movahedi & Moshtagh, 2016). A heated discussion of Danielle Knafo’s article “Guys and Dolls: Relational Life in the Technological Era” suggests that there is no clear consensus on how technology alters the dimensions of human relationships (Knafo, 2015). In his commentary on Knafo’s paper, “The Internet and Its Discontents—or Diamonds Are a Girl’s BFF,” Stephen Hartmann passionately argues that the claim that “technology has invaded our intimate lives” is wildly overstated (Hartmann, 2015). Todd Essig attempts to make a balanced clinical assessment of “screen relations” in his article “The Gains and Losses of Screen Relations: A Clinical Approach to Simulation Entrapment and Simulation Avoidance in a Case of Excessive Internet Pornography Use,” listing a lack of “descriptive terminology” among the obstacles to such an assessment (Essig, 2015). In his paper “The Player and the Game: Compulsion, Relation, and Potential Space in Video Games,” Alexander Kriss insists that video games often act as Winnicott-defined “potential space” that “allows players to engage with complex psychological material—such as compulsions, selfand-other relations, morality, and personal growth” (Kriss, 2016).
In 2017, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child devoted a section to “Development in the Digital Age,” featuring papers like “The Death of Childhood,” by Victor C. Strasburger; “Early Latency and the Impact of the Digital World: Exploring the Effect of Technological Games on Evolving Ego Capacities, Superego Development, and Peer Relationships,” by Pamela Meersand; and “The Transitional Phenomena Functions of Smartphones for Adolescents,” by Alan Sugarman. The same issue included a section on “Emerging Adulthood,” a phenomenon undoubtedly born in the Internet era. In his article “100 Years of Adolescence and Its Prehistory from Cave to Computer,” BPSI Member Monty Stambler concludes that the digital revolution has resulted in an elongation of adolescence and a postponement of adulthood. Dr. Stambler often recommends new child analysis titles for our library. He recently pointed out Marie Lenormand’s article “Winnicott’s Theory of Playing: A Reconsideration,” in which the author questions the old triad of play/playing/game as invariably therapeutic (2018). Lenormand highlights the part of “Playing and Reality” where Winnicott talks about “non-therapeutic” forms of play involving repetition and dissociation. He describes a woman who “could spend hours playing cards, in a split state, and … this game led to nothing.” Are the kids who play video games for hours engaged in a similar activity? And will those who do not remember a world without smartphones, tablets, and video consoles be fundamentally different from every generation before them? Let’s wait and see: we may not know for a while. I can only hope that their happiness will always find its way “from some curious adjustment to life” (Walpole, 2016).
Olga Umansky, M.L.I.S., is a librarian and archivist at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. She is a member of the History, Library and Archives Committee of the American Psychoanalytic Association, The Society of American Archivists (SAA), and New England Archivists (NEA). Olga’s previous careers included electronic publishing at Wolters Kluwer and radio journalism in Ukraine.
Away for the Day. Retrieved from https://www.awayfortheday.org/
Development in the Digital Age. (2017). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 70, 82–150.
Essig, T. (2015). The Gains and Losses of Screen Relations: A Clinical Approach to Simulation Entrapment and Simulation Avoidance in a Case of Excessive Internet Pornography Use. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 51(4), 680–703.
Gabbard, G. O. (2015). Privacy, the Self and Psychoanalytic Practice in the Era of the Internet. Rivista Psicoanalisi, 61(2), 529–542.
Hartman, S. (2015). The Internet and Its Discontents—or Diamonds Are a Girl’s BFF: Commentary on Danielle Knafo’s Paper “Guys and Dolls: Relational Life in the Technological Era.” Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 25(4), 516–523.
Knafo, D. (2015). Guys and Dolls: Relational Life in the Technological Era. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 25(4), 481– 502.
Kriss, A. (2016). The Player and the Game: Compulsion, Relation, and Potential Space in Video Games. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 33(4), 571–584.
Lenormand, M. (2018). Winnicott’s Theory of Playing: A Reconsideration. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 99(1), 82–102.
Movahedi, S., & Moshtagh, N. (2016). Your Smartphone Is Watching You: Evocative Objects of Influence and Fear of Breakdown. Psychoanalytic Review, 103(5), 643–668.
Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age. Retrieved from https://www.screenagersmovie.com/
Stambler, M. (2017). 100 Years of Adolescence and Its Prehistory from Cave to Computer. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 70, 22–39.
Walpole, H. (2016). The Captives: Happiness Comes from … Some Curious Adjustment to Life. [S.I.]: Horse’s Mouth.
The opinions or views expressed on the Boston Psychoanalytic Society & Institute (“BPSI”) social media platforms, including, but not limited to, blogs, Facebook posts and Twitter posts, represent the thoughts of individual contributors and are not necessarily those of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society & Institute or any of its directors, officers, employees, staff, board of directors, or members. All posts on BPSI social media platforms are for informational purposes only and should not be regarded as professional advice.
BPSI does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness or completeness of information contained in its contributors’ posts and/or blog entries, or found by following any linked websites. BPSI will not be liable for any damages from the display or use of information posted on its website or social media platforms. BPSI cannot and does not authorize the use of copyrighted materials contained in linked websites.