When my oldest son was six or seven, I was newly divorced and trying to manage the unfamiliar logistics of joint custody. Family life was chaotic. Our daily routines were in flux. But my son found comfort in his Nintendo DS. Perhaps it’s because video games are predictable and the rules are always consistent. He clung to that device, throwing temper tantrums if we forgot it during the changeover between my house and his mother’s. Even when he wasn’t playing, he insisted that it always be within arm’s reach. It became his “transitional object.”
Pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott coined the term “transitional objects” in the mid-20th century. He recognized that young children often become attached to a special blanket, a teddy bear, or some other toy. Soon afterward, the term “security blanket” was popularized by the thumb-sucking Peanuts character, Linus van Pelt. A comic strip turned Winnicott’s theory into common knowledge. Parents accepted it; but that does not mean they were prepared for what it would become.
Today, my son is 13, and now his Android smartphone fills the transitional role. I suspect that on some level, just knowing that he can send text messages 24 hours a day helps to create the impression of a connection between two separate households — it bridges the gap exacerbated by divorce. Likewise, casual games give him a sense of control. That is why, when we’re on vacation, he never seems to stop playing.
On the touchscreen, his private ideas and emotions can take shape; they go from abstract to concrete.
“Hey buddy,” I say, imploring him to look out the rental car window during a recent trip out west. “You can chat on Discord at home in your bedroom, but how often do you get to see Utah’s snow-capped mountains?”
I forget that he is homesick, that the phone feels safe and reliable. I want him to be present on our adventure. But he is a kid; he is still trying to work out what it means to have a sense of self that is not connected to place — one that remains stable even when all his contextual landmarks are thousands of miles away. The phone helps. It plugs him into a familiar world. It connects him to his cohort. It gives him the impression that his friends are there with him.
It also feels deeply personal. On the touchscreen, his private ideas and emotions can take shape; they go from abstract to concrete. His internal dramas become explicit, like the menagerie of animals in a therapist’s consultation room. The smartphone lets him manipulate symbolic objects in three dimensions. It transitions him between real and imagined experiences, between internal and external narratives. He’s not ignoring the mountains; he is working hard to cope with them.
Still, I am annoyed. I planned this trip for weeks and I am excited to show him a new landscape. I want to expose him to something unfamiliar.
“What are you, addicted to that thing?” I ask.
“I’m sorry, Dad.” He looks down, embarrassed and ashamed. Reluctantly, he turns the screen off and slips it into his pocket. But he does not focus on what’s around him. Instead, he zones out, completely disengaged. He becomes lost in his own thoughts. He is hurt and angry.
Just think about what it must be like for kids to hear us refer to their transitional objects in the same language we use to describe cigarettes, cocaine, amphetamines, and opiates. It’s not helpful, nor is it a valid analogy. Yes, playing video games activates the brain’s dopamine pathways. If it didn’t, they’d be no fun. All pleasurable experiences raise our dopamine levels — running around outside, reading a good book, riding a roller coaster, eating a hot fudge sundae. But hard drugs raise dopamine levels by about 10 times as much. It’s a totally different thing. So much so that by stuffing digital devices and dangerous inebriants into the same linguistic container, grown-ups could be doing their kids a serious disservice.
Think about it this way: our children don’t need baseless shame and guilt, they need support and empathy. Puberty is a difficult time. Kids discover that their private sense of self is not necessarily aligned with the way others perceive them. What’s going on inside the tween-mind is not the same as what’s happening outside. Internal and external experiences are way out of sync. And the patterns my son establishes now — to deal with these incongruities — will impact the rest of his life. “The task of reality-acceptance is never completed,” Winnicott writes, “no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality.”
If I handle this moment poorly, if I use the wrong language, I could really screw things up. My resistance to technology could encourage precisely the kinds of social, emotional, and intimacy issues that I’m trying so hard to prevent. After all, according to Winnicott, it’s through transitional objects, used appropriately, that one develops the necessary skills to live confidently and compassionately in the adult world.
Think about the mother of a small toddler. She indulges Baby’s relationship with a teddy bear. She pretends to talk to it and calls it “Mr. Bear-Bear.” Maybe she gives Mr. Bear-Bear kisses goodnight. Perhaps she lets it join the family on the living-room sofa. Each time she accepts Mr. Bear-Bear, she is reinforcing habits of mind that will form the foundation of Baby’s grown-up capacity for resilient self-expression and confident relatedness. Through Mr. Bear-Bear, the mother helps Baby cultivate a healthy sense of self. Certainly, Baby knows Mr. Bear-Bear is not real. But when Mom plays along, she demonstrates that the inner, subjective fantasy has a value even if it is contradicted by the outer, objective reality.
Grown-ups tend to accept that stuffed toys function as transitional objects. But they panic when kids grow attached to electronic objects. Why? I guess they worry that digital devices will suck kids into immersive virtual fantasies that cannot be distinguished from reality. They believe that a tangible fantasy world constructed from physical objects — a tea party of dolls or an epic adventure of action figures on the family-room rug — is better aligned with the fundamentals of healthy child development. What they don’t realize is that Mr. Bear-Bear was the product of a particular economic and technological era.
All teddy bears are named after Theodore Roosevelt. During a hunting trip in Mississippi, he refused to shoot a black bear cub that was tied to a tree. Although Roosevelt was an avid hunter who killed thousands of animals during his lifetime, shooting a helpless baby bear did not seem like an enviable sportsman’s accomplishment. In response, a Washington Post political cartoon entitled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi” pictured the president wearing hunting khakis and a bandanna, rifle in hand, shunning the cuddly bear that is tied by the neck and looks terrified. That cartoon bear became the inspiration not only for teddy bears, but also for the entire stuffed animal industry.
Stuffed animals are a 20th-century invention. According to historian Steven Mintz, they reflect “new ideas about childhood and the emergence of a modern consumer economy.” They were originally sold as bedtime companions for terrified infants who were trying to fall asleep in the private bedrooms that had just recently become a part of the family home. In those days, it would have been radically progressive for parents to indulge children’s personal fears and anxieties; so, buying a teddy bear must have made parents feel evolved. At the time, it was also becoming fashionable for adults to embrace the individualistic frontier exceptionalism that the 26th President of the United States embodied. In other words, Mr. Bear-Bear helped initiate Baby into an industrial age-view of independent personhood. He helped Baby develop his own internal sense of determined entrepreneurship and persistent individuality. He prepared Baby for adulthood in the 20th century.
Most grown-ups think that the teddy bear is just a quintessential part of the childhood experience, something that must have existed since the beginning of time. But really, it is unique and well-suited to a specific social, cultural, and economic paradigm. What does that say about my son’s smartphone? Is his gaming avatar a modern-day Mr. Bear-Bear for connected preadolescents? Will it teach him healthy habits of mind? Will it help him foster strong character skills for a connected world? That depends on how he thinks about it.
If it is all about the about the screen’s bezel-less display, the superfast Snapdragon Processor, or the wide-angle selfie-cam, there is a problem. If he becomes obsessed with upgrades and accessories — with having the shiniest new object — something is out of sync. If he thinks that better specs will help him fit in, or feel like one of the cool kids, he is mistaken. He has confused social rank with social skill. And he is using the object to compensate for feelings of inferiority. I’ll need to teach him that, in the long run, this kind of fetishization will only intensify his sense of inadequacy. After all, tech companies will continue to make sure that we are always just about six months away from a new aspirational product. Advertising will encourage consumers to covet each new iteration. And marketers will exploit the deep emotional bonds we form with our smartphones; they will leverage our psychological dependency for profit.
We are, indeed, dependent. We are attached to our digital devices. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. It is possible to cultivate a healthy relationship with technology if we remember that life is always lived through the tools of the times. Smartphones can be a bridge between individual and common experiences. When used in positive ways, they ease the strain between inner and outer realities. They help us mediate our relationship with the world around us.
Therefore, my job, as parent, is not to regulate and restrict screen time. I don’t need to panic about my son’s age-appropriate single-minded obsessiveness. Instead, I need to teach him how to live well with the predominant tools of a connected world. I need to show him how digital devices can be used as instruments that enrich communities — encouraging and enabling civil participation, linking us with faraway people who share our most obscure interests, exposing us to diverse perspectives and multicultural ways of knowing, providing easy access to the information and data that helps us advocate for ourselves and for others.
I hope all grown-ups will soon recognize that we are not the gatekeepers of a digital ecosystem, but rather, the elders, the Sherpas, the mentors. It’s urgent that we raise a generation of kids who can leverage the power of connected tools to build and maintain a kind, compassionate, just, and ethical civilization.