Interview with the psychoanalyst and child neuropsychiatrist Caterina Saccà

Whether it is the keyboard of a personal computer, a video game or a cell phone, the important thing is to be connected.

This is the generation of "digital natives", young and children born in the Internet age, from the early to mid-90's. These young people have grown up in an environment dominated by new technologies, with which they have learned to interact with natural immediacy since their early childhood, thereby developing original relational and cognitive styles. Techno-agers know all about smartphones, social networks and Playstation. All these devices and applications have entered their lexicon in everyday practice. Meanwhile, "digital immigrants” who grew up on bread in the traditional analogical universe with radio, TV and newspapers, are still only beginning to grasp this revolutionary world, which remains largely unknown to them. What are the effects of new media on children? What opportunities and risks are presented to them? What should be done in the case of dysfunctional behavior? What educational approach should be taken? For responses on these topics, we interviewed the psychoanalyst and child neuropsychiatrist Caterina Saccà, expert in family counseling, particularly for the teen years.

Whether you are a technophile or technophobe, optimistic or pessimistic, the invasion of electronic media in the home and work environment raises concern and triggers controversy. Do you tend to associate yourself with the apocalyptic crowd or the integrated group?

“The diffusion of these means raises many concerns, including legitimate and justified ones. As for me, I often reminds myself that the ‘new’ is always a source of mistrust rather than a fascination. One calls to mind the fear regarding the effects of the written language expressed by Plato in Phaedrus, and before him, by Socrates.”

Interesting, but isn’t it a bit unbalanced?

"Rather tan taking sides, I try to use common sense and exercise moderation. I am convinced that any technological means is in itself neither good nor bad and that everything depends on how it is used. I also recognize that this is a good starting point for addressing critical issues in some obvious and serious cases. That being said, the digital media have a unique potential that undoubtedly deserve special consideration. "

Recent studies in neuroscience show that the use of these devices greatly influences cognitive abilities. Could you comment on this?

"A highly stimulating and dynamic environment has the power to influence our cognitive structure. Today, with the help of functional neuroimaging techniques, we know that in the presence of stimuli related to the acquisition of skills activates new connections between nerve cells. It is a destiny embedded into our evolutionary history that is repeating itself, even for the neural networks of the digital natives. "

Are our children that different from how we were at their age?

"Look, we do not know what kind of long-term effects the growing use of the new media will have on our children. However, we are already able to grasp some aspects of novelty. Various studies show clear signals in this trend direction."

There is much talk about multi-tasking.

"The ability to engage in various tasks simultaneously, “multi-tasking”, is frequent among the digital natives, but it is certainly not their only characteristic. It is accompanied by other elements of interest, such as the strong visual-spatial intelligence. On the other hand, kids today seem to be less reflective, due to a more superficial reworking of cognitive ability. They are more prone to attention deficit and hyperactivity, with excessive impulsiveness and a diminished capacity to concentrate. "

Some neurobiologists put all of this in relation to the growing dissatisfaction for traditional reading, which would generate in children a decreased symbolic attitude and greater perceptive inclination, unlike us who grew up on bread and books and developed a good imagination.

"There is truth in that observation because it suggests that there are risks at hand. However, it should be noted that these are phenomena in-the-making and therefore require further investigation. If it is true that traditional linear reading, which requires an in-depth examination, is a practice that stimulates the capacity for reflection, then it is also true that, with the faster and more seductive modes of hyper awareness, we have entered an intensive cognitive phase. We should educate children therefore to maintain and develop these important mental skills. "

The television, also known as the bad teacher or the “magic box”, thanks to digital technology, continues to be a central part of our lives, sometimes even too central when you consider children. What advice would you give parents and educators?

"Do not to demonize it, because that would be useless. It continues to be a very useful means of information and entertainment. We should help our children to become competent and savvy, sharpening their critical thinking skills through use of the accompanying forms. Let’s reduce the excessive number of screens in our homes; let’s bring the TV into the living room so as to avoid the often inappropriate private use. Finally, we should identify when and how to avoid abuse by over-exposure which, especially in children, makes them vulnerable to long-term health problems like obesity, the result of bad eating habits frequently induced by advertisements. "

In other words, a pedagogical approach that should not be reduced to the simple exercise of control?

"Absolutely. It is very important to promote the growth of independent and responsible young people and to encourage forms of dialogue and sharing. But let me add one more thing: we should pay more attention to our children. Listlessness, anxiety, hot tempers, and sleep disturbances are signs that should catch out attention and perhaps lead us to ask for advice from a specialist, if these attitudes are accompanied by drastic reduction of social activities and healthy fun alternatives. "

The leap from the TV remote control to multi-touch screen smartphone and the equally seductive PC and video games is very short. News broadcasted on the television and printed in the papers is giving more space to the dependence on electronic media. Are these technologies really to be feared?

"We are dealing with devices that have changed the everyday practices of all of us by accelerating and enriching the ways we relate and communicate with one another. Activating a profile on social networks, using SMS, posting videos on YouTube, creating content for blogs can be creative ways to relate to reality and to interact with others. "

Is this especially true for young people?

"Well, sure. They are naturally driven to use these means to consolidate and expand their emotional horizon. They experience a global and immediate sense of the place and of the relationship. This is coupled with the various dimensions of one’s own self, which all work to build up and form one’s own identity. This happens when they are less conditioned by social stereotypes. The other side of the coin, however, should be considered…”

This other side being not so reassuring?

"Exactly. In clinical practice, it is becoming more frequent to meet youth who have a panic attack if they do not have their cell phone; or who develop aggression or psychomotor restlessness when they do not receive a response to their text messages; or those who become glued to the screen for hours of PC and Playstation and end up neglecting everything else. The advent of these revolutionary technologies, by transforming our cognitive and emotional structures, has also produced a series of favorable conditions for the emergence of behavior problems and addictions."

Are we talking about new diseases?

"The technological dependencies are a subset of New Addictions or Drug-Free Addictions, behavioral dependencies associated with socially accepted activity. It’s a controversial issue in the international scientific community. They present sets of symptoms and disease progressions that partially overlap with the classical forms induced by psychoactive substances such as drugs and alcohol. They are characterized, in addition, by multifactorial etiology, having elements of socio-cultural origin, but also those of neurobiological, psychological and psychiatric origin. "

The frequency and intensity with which we use these resources suggests that we are all a bit dependent.

“It is not exactly like that. The diagnostic classification is not easy, either because the addictive phenomenon is too complex, or because suitable assessment tools and a disease appendix do not exist. These problems will hopefully be resolved before the next edition of DSM, thanks to the valuable contribution of Italian colleagues, from La Barbera, Cantelmi to Caretti, who have dealt with these matters for years. Just because we can speak of a dependence does not mean that the use of devises is extensive and intensive. You need something else…

What else? Don’t keep us in suspense.

To put it plainly, it is necessary that the suspicious behavior significantly impedes real life and generates clinically detectable distress. The compulsive use of the media by these situations manifests itself as a persistent, recurring negative behavior. It is so compelling that the person refuses to compromise it. All other aspects of his life develop heterogeneous physical disturbances, similar to those of drug addicts experiencing abstinence syndrome, along with mood swings and social isolation. Is it more peaceful now? ".

I would say yes ... But what makes these behaviors obsessive?

"The pathological addiction, especially during adolescence, tends to constitute a non-adaptive defense, useful for avoiding problematic nuclei of the ordinary reality. The dissociative defenses, if transitional, are an important individual resource. Everything changes however when the escape from distressed states and difficulties are excessively repeated, because it pushes the individual to lose vital contact with reality. The phenomenon is extremely complex in any case due to its multifactorial nature. "

What are the main predisposing factors?

"The acquisitions derived from research and clinical observations tell us that at the origin of the phenomenon, there are various elements that do not always coexist. Personality traits, socio-cultural conditions, psychopathological mixed forms of multiple psychiatric disorders and addictions, but also factors related to the characteristics of the medium. "

Characteristics of the medium? Can you give an example?

"Think of the narcissistic sense of omnipotence that can arise from, but also by the mere possession of, cell phones, which over the years has become a sort of natural extension for us all and for some a real idol technology."

What can be done in terms of general care and prevention, particularly for children and adolescents?

"In the absence of official criteria to classify diseases, we proceed on the basis of treatment protocols with non-standardized forms of intervention based on psychotherapeutic treatment and when needed, psychopharmacology. For prevention, certain useful forms of control and accountability are designed to encourage healthy and adaptive use of these resources that establishes realistic boundaries. These controls can be designed to also avoid dangerous traps such as pedophilia. But let us not be satisfied: just as parents and educators alike, we should also strive to develop open-mindedness and competence toward these technologies in order to bring us closer to our children, with less prejudice and more ability to decode their life experiences. "

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