A Matter of Trust

The past few weeks have been immensely stimulating, as discussions on resilience in Brussels, and excessive use of technology in adolescents all gave way to a truly thought provoking day on the development of identity in the 21st Century at the Tavistock Centre (http://tinyurl.com/j3gsoml).

Core to the discussion was a consideration of how fluid or plastic our identity is today, and perhaps what happens to our identity when we live out our lives online, with multiple profiles meeting a multiplicity of influences as we navigate social media. This was no more keenly explored than in relation to the processes of radicalisation.

A solid sense of one’s unique identity was thought to be key to mental and emotional well-being, as was understanding what might be best called your true self, which is only partly shaped by external influences, yet could still develop with experience. Yet a stable, unique identity could be problematic if it jarred with your family, poverty, class, race, culture, religion or country etc; then the appeal of personal reinvention, or transformation would hold much appeal. But could one reinvent oneself today, through social media without side-effects?

The life and work of the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson was astonishingly helpful in this respect. Many will know of Erikson’s model of human development, outlined in his influential book ‘Childhood and Society’, first published in 1950. Erikson had taken Freud’s biological model of development, and repurposed it in a social and anthropological form, at a time when countries were rebuilding themselves after the Second World War. What may be easily forgotten is that this time of great change, of modernity, of plastics, and great developments in technology, was a time of confusion for many young people, some of whom had grown up without the father they had lost during the war. This disruption of family life on a massive scale, plus the turbulence of the time, lent considerable force to Erikson’s concept of the ‘identity crisis’; a painful state of uncertainty, often associated with adolescent breakdown. Erikson himself knew all about this crisis of identity from the inside, and we can learn much about his struggle with the problem which perhaps followed him throughout his life.

Erikson’s mother, Karla Abrahamsen, came from a prominent Jewish family in Copenhagen that had traced its genealogy back to the 17th Century and the north of Germany. (http://tinyurl.com/zbtaj8m). She was married to Jewish stockbroker Valdemar Isidor Salomonsen, but had been estranged from him for several months at the time Erik was conceived.

According to the New York Times (http://tinyurl.com/3327xbw)

“The common story was that his mother and father had separated before his birth, but the closely guarded fact was that he was his mother’s child from an extramarital union.”

Little is known about Erik’s biological father except that he was thought to be a Danish gentile. On discovering her pregnancy, Karla escaped to Frankfurt in Germany where Erik was born on June 15, 1902

“He never saw his birth father or his mother’s first husband. When he was 3, his mother was married to his pediatrician, Dr. Theodore Homburger, and throughout his youth he was known as Erik Homburger. He did not learn about his parentage until his teen-age years, “and it was a secret my mother and I shared.” To add to the confusion, his adoptive father was Jewish and his mother’s heritage was Lutheran.

He was reared as a Jew, because his mother and her new husband agreed to treat him as their son. He was also led to think of himself as a German, and his anti-Semitic schoolmates taunted him, while at the synagogue his Jewish friends rejected him because of his Nordic features. As a consequence of compounded identity confusions, he said, he developed “a morbid sensitivity” and often escaped into a fantasy world.

After graduating from high school in Karlsruhe, he became an itinerant bohemian, scratching out a living by sketching children. In the process he read eclectically on his own, mostly about art and history.”

Erikson’s daughter later wrote that her father’s “real psychoanalytic identity” was not established until he “replaced his stepfather’s surname [Homburger] with a name of his own invention [Erikson]. She further described her father as plagued by “lifelong feelings of personal inadequacy.“ He thought that by combining resources with his wife, he could “achieve the recognition” that might produce a feeling of adequacy.

What is now perhaps the most striking of aspect of this account of Erikson’s early life is how at the time of his conception and birth it is likely that his mother’s life was fraught with anxiety and perhaps shame. We can only speculate as to how available she was for him psychologically in those early days and months of his life. In his own theory of development, those first moments with a mother or other carer should establish something of a fundamental foundation in the personality, which takes the form of a basic trust, or belief in the goodness of the world, and of yourself as a loved and essentially good child. When good care is absent or diminished, such trust and hope is replaced with fearfulness. We might then presume that the contradictory tensions between Erikson’s appearance and his religion merely amplified the anxieties about his existence that would have been present earlier.

At a moment in history when paediatricians suggest that we outsource the emotional labour of child care to robots (http://tinyurl.com/zmwzvee), we do need to reflect on the cost of this to the healthy development of identity in infants. The establishment of basic trust is not so easily created later in life; beginnings matter. But perhaps this account of Erikson’s journey through life raises other questions. Social media can provide an outstanding opportunity for young people to explore identity and find others that seem to be a close match to themselves; hugely important for isolated minority groups who may not so easily find like minds. This can be hugely positive in lifting confidence and self-esteem. But if the goal is to reinvent yourself through social media, to escape the uncertainties or agonies of a past, as Erikson did earlier, does this give rise now to a new form of ‘identity crisis’ that may feel all the more devastating because it is so public? And would this suggest that a person’s relationship to such a ‘reinvented’ profile may also be more desperate or fragile than to anything offline, because it is both necessary and precious in terms of their well-being?

It is too soon to be certain and precise about this, but the possibility haunts and demands further consideration.

In that sense I remain grateful to Erikson for providing us with a template of development in the 20th Century, so as to better help us explore it in the digital age.

Consumption: The Cinderella of Digital Well-being

From Content to Consumption; Helping Parents To Get The Balance Right

January has become a busy time of year for me. In addition to our New Year resolutions, and the resetting of our expectations and relationships with food, exercise, spending and alcohol, the personal use of technology is now increasingly part of that list of behaviours that we all want to manage better. January becomes not just a dry month, a return to the gym, and plates of kale and broccoli, but the month in which a trial separation from the smartphone may be on the to-do list. We are now in the age of the digital detox.

Of course it is entirely possible that this trend is also a product of the winter holiday for families, which brings with it a strange conjunction of increased time together and the giving of gifts, many of which will be a tablet, smartphone, game or games console. The increased time with family, partners or friends over Christmas is then disrupted by those exciting new entrants into the fold. The likelihood that a new device or game will soon draw time and attention away from shared activities seems inevitable, and we increasingly foster solitary interactions with the device. What is perhaps most astonishing is that even for families who are lucky enough to go away for Christmas, to wonderful mountainous or warm locations, the lure of connection and interaction with a device dwarfs any pleasure in such an escape. So come the beginning of January, the calls begin, and parents ask for help in finding their lost child, as if their child had followed the Pied Piper into the mountainside, once that box were opened.

Whilst this is not a universal picture of a family Christmas, at least not yet, adult anxieties about their own use of devices underpins some of the concerns. But most adults still have memories and experience of a life before mobile devices, and of happy, immersive experiences, at a concert, a party or on a walk, where the full range of senses could take in the magnitude of the experience, without fear trying to capture the experience with a device to ‘share’.

But more and more I hear from parents and schools that they are worried not just about the impact of new technologies on the development of young people, but about the very issue of how to get them to switch off, or even put the smartphone down. The recent survey from Action for Children (https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/news-and-opinion/latest-news/2016/january/unplugging-from-technology/) suggests that parents struggle to manage their children’s screen time more than they do trying to get them to eat healthily, go to bed or do homework. Almost a quarter of parents struggle with managing screen time, though I suspect this is quite an underestimation of the struggles of many families. Of course it also means that 75% feel they can manage their children’s use of devices, and one message that often fails to emerge is how some parents manage this issue more confidently; what can we learn from those families where this is less of a problem? But as tablets get cheaper and cheaper, and home broadband a utility no different from electricity or water, do we need to make it easier for parents to feel more confident in managing the use of devices and consumption of digital media, well before it becomes unmanageable?

I was reminded how little we support parents in this area recently, when a parent described how they had set the timer on the home router to switch off the WiFi at 10.30pm. This simple, digital ‘lights out’ time had became a standard part of home life. Yet I have never seen clear advice on how to do this, nor could instruct a parent myself how to do so. Whilst mobile connections were still possible for the young people in that home, the lack of bandwidth seriously restricted their pleasure in using their devices late at night, and the bitter pill that it was time to sleep became a little easier to swallow.

Yet how many routers that are provided by ISPs make it easy for a parent so to set such a time limit? How many tablets have easy to use apps that allow parents to set a time limit for their use? It is far easier for a parent to record television programmes than to control access to the internet.

There has been progress in recent years in helping parents limit children’s accidental or intentional access to disturbing or adult content online. The move to having filters for such content, switched on by default by the ISPs, such that any family could feel better protected without needing high level technical skills, may well protect the more vulnerable families. But for too long now the fascination with content and conduct in e-safety circles has marginalised the challenges of use and consumption. The recent survey from Action for Children does echo clinical experience which suggest a gap here, and that this is an area where parents really want more support. And even more strikingly, the recent Ofcom research on Children’s Media Literacy suggest that young people themselves also want help in managing their use of social media and games (for another time). What we need are technical solutions as well as educational supports that enable parents to easily manage their children’s use, when they wish to, so that they do not feel deskilled or incapable of managing this aspect of every child’s life today.

And the technical skills required should be no greater than those needed when using a microwave oven or recording a television programme. Some innovation needed here, and soon.