Interview with the psychoanalyst and child neuropsychiatrist
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
“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
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
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
when you consider children. What advice would you give parents and
“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
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
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
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. ”