Smartphones Are the New Security Blanket for Kids
Screen time can provide a sense of emotional stability
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…