Harriet At Forty-Eight

If you never read the novel Harriet the Spy, I hope you will ASAP.    My hope is that most children, parents and therapists have had a chance to read it already, because it has a lot to teach us about digital citizenship.  You can get it on Amazon here.

Harriet spends a lot of time writing down things in her notebook.  Truthful things.  Unflattering things.  And one day the notebook falls into the hands of her classmates, who read these things, and respond to her with anger.  What I find interesting is the way Harriet’s friends, teachers, and parents respond.  Their initial response is to take, or try to take, Harriet’s notebook.  Of course Harriet gets another one.  That’s not the problem.

Harriet the Spy was published in 1964.  According to Wikipedia, at least one variation of the technology of the notebook had been around since 1888, and there are examples of its common usage in the early 1900s.  This technology was prevalent long before the 1960s.  No one says to Harriet that she has a “notebook addiction,” although her usage of it becomes problematic.  In fact, her redemption in the book also comes from the same technology of the written word.

One of my favorite moments in Harriet the Spy comes in Chapter 14, when Harriet has her initial appointment with a psychiatrist.  As they settle down to play a game, the psychiatrist takes out his analytic pad:

Harriet stared at the notebook.  “What’s that?”

“A notebook.”

“I KNOW that,” she shouted.

I just take a few notes now and then.  You don’t mind, do you?”

“Depends on what they are.”

“What do you mean?”

“Are they mean, nasty notes, or just ordinary notes?”


“Well, I just thought I’d warn you.  Nasty ones are pretty hard to get by these days.”

“Oh I see what you mean.  Thank you for the advice.  No, they’re quite ordinary notes.”

“Nobody ever takes it away from you, I bet, do they?”


This vignette illustrates how the clinician is not above or apart from technology.  Harriet’s psychiatrist uses it himself.  And his response to her struggle and worry about using technology is an approach I’ve come to see as key:  He doesn’t try to restrict her from using the technology, he engages her around its use and thinking about its use.  He actually gives her a notebook, and then respects her usage of it when he lets her leave the office without taking it back or asking to see it.

He then recommends that her parents talk to the school about allowing her to use technology to amplify her thoughts and expression there, via the school newspaper.  He also suggests that they use technology in the form of a letter written by Harriet’s old nanny to give her some advice and connection.  Many will say that Ole Golly’s letter is the pivot point for Harriet in the story, but I’d suggest that the pivotal moment comes when the mental health practitioner doesn’t demonize technology (the notebook) or pathologize its usage, but rather leans on technology as an avenue into the patient’s forward edge transference.

Technology, as Howard Rheingold reminds us, is a mind amplifier.  It can be used to amplify our memory in the form of notes, for example.  It can also be a voice amplifier, for better or for worse.

If Harriet was around today, I imagine she would be on LiveJournal, perhaps with her settings on private, but on LiveJournal nevertheless.  In fact, her LiveJournal notebook would probably be more secure than a notebook carried around on her person without encryption.  But maybe she’d also be on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.  And unless she had parents or teachers who talked to her about digital literacy, she might not know or care about privacy settings or mindful use of technology.

Every day, on Facebook or Twitter or other social media, people young and old post, and “drop their notebook” to be read by hundreds or thousands of people, who can amplify the notebook even further by liking, pasting, sharing or tweeting it.  By comparison, Harriet’s class of 10-15 students seems paltry.  When an adolescent complains about her ADHD medication on her status, or when a parent tweets how proud he is of his Asperger’s child, these nuggets of information, of expression, of identity formation are sent out into the world and amplified.  Our work as therapists needs to be to help our patients understand the significance of what they are about to do to themselves and others when that happens.  And to do that we need to understand the technology ourselves.

Few of us would consider giving Harriet a notebook as “feeding her addiction,” or giving her a hair of the dog that bit her.  Yet, we level such technophobic claims on the social media and technology of our time, trying to focus on technology as an addictive substance rather than as a tool, and pathologizing its use far too quickly and easily.  And we often join technophobia with adultism, when we try to intrude or control the use of technology by children and adolescents (note that I said “often,” not “always”)

When you look at some of the stories Harriet prints in the school newspaper, you have to marvel at the bravery of the educators in that school!  How many of school administrators would allow entries like “JACK PETERS (LAURA PETER’S FATHER) WAS STONED OUT OF HIS MIND AT THE PETERS’ PARTY LAST SATURDAY NIGHT.  MILLY ANDREWS (CARRIE ANDREWS’ MOTHER) JUST SMILED AT HIM LIKE AN IDIOT.”  Can you imagine the parental phone calls, even though the parents were both the behavioral and quoted source for this story?  Can you imagine kids being allowed to experience communication and learning with this minimal form of adult curation?  But also, can you imagine parents saying that the problem is allowing access to the technology of writing a newspaper, and that the idea of a school paper should be abolished?

When you think about it, we live in an amazing era of the amplification of human thought and expression.  Our children will need to learn how to manage that amplification in a way we still struggle to understand ourselves.  I remember one notebook I dropped, when I was managing a staff of guidance counselors.  I was very frustrated with the response of one of them to something, and wanted to share that with my supervisor.  I thought it would be important to share my emotional response to this with someone I understood to have the role of helping me sort this stuff out, and I was being impulsive and cranky.  I ended up sending the email to the staff instead.  Boy, did that torpedo those relationships.  But I did learn a lot about how to pay more attention to the power of technology, and that part of being a good digital citizen requires thoughtful use of ampliying your words and ideas!

Most of us probably have a notebook-we-dropped story we’d rather forget, but we need to remember them and share those stories with the up and coming generations as cautionary tales, and examples of good and poor digital citizenship.  Ole Golly tells us, “Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends.”  Writing, a technology we have come to understand a bit better since Gutenberg, can be used for good or ill; but we don’t ban it.  Now we are all learning, albeit uncomfortably at times, how to handle the newer technologies of social media, digital communication, and video games.  It may be a bit utopian to suggest that texting/tweeting/gaming/Facebook/blogging is to put love in the world.  But the alternative seems to be that while some of us ignore, avoid or fear it, other people, governments and corporations will learn how to use it against our friends.

Embedded in Harriet the Spy is a quote from Lewis Carroll, which aptly describes where we find ourselves in the 21st century of social media: “‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,/’To talk of many things:”  Indeed, the chatter can be deafening, impulsive, hurtful and confusing.  But the solution is to choose our words carefully, not to stop talking altogether.

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Attention, Distraction & Creepers, Oh My!


Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.

Digital Citizenship and the Forward Edge Transference

Recently I had an opportunity to visit a school for a daylong workshop, where I got to meet with the kids during the day, and their parents at night.  I love it when this happens because I can then ask the children what they struggle most about with their parents regarding technology.  So during the course of the morning I asked over 425 5th, 6th, and 7th graders what I should help their parent understand about technology.  I got lots of great answers from them all, and my favorite one came when one 7th grader raised his hand and said, “can you please explain to my parents that multiplayer video games have no save?”

There are several reasons why that request is actually brilliant, but the one I want to focus on is how this statement, and a person’s frustration at being asked to log off in the midst of a multiplayer video game may be a forward edge transference.

The term “forward edge transference” comes from Marian Elson’s work in self-psychology.  She has described the forward edge transference as being akin to what Kohut was talking with his interns about when he described leading edge transference.  Forward edge transferences, according to Tolpin, are tendrils of psychological growth in the patient, often hard to see, if not completely overlooked, by the therapist because they don’t look like growth.  Often we consider “psychological growth” as in the eye of the beholder, whether it be therapist, parent, teacher or someone else other than the patient.  One of the example’s Tolpin uses is that of a patient who cuts to be able to “feel,” and to bleed.  The forward edge transference there in Tolpin’s estimation, is the self’s still healthy yearning for kinship, to “bleed like everyone else.”

I use this example because it very powerfully demonstrates how even an easily pathologized concern such as cutting, could indicate a tendril of healthy growth, easily overlooked.  The behavior forward edge transference travels concealed within is glaringly “obvious” to us, and because of that forward edge transferences may be misunderstood, and the striving for psychological health get stymied.

So what does this have to do with Massively Multiplayer Online Games?

As I mention in my book MMOs are a form of social media, and collaborative play, where the player is often cooperating with a group of others in a raid or guild to achieve something that could not be accomplished individually.  Whether it be downing a dragon in World of Warcraft, unlocking guild achievements, or building a city overnight in Minecraft, the player is part of a larger group.  They matter to the larger group.

Embedded in the comment “multiplayer has no save” is the forward transference for a sense of kinship, and more specifically the dawning of a concept of being a digital citizen.  Here is an adolescent saying that they understand their behavior has an impact on others, that they want to collaborate online, and that they feel responsible to the larger group.  Saying in fact what all the adults around them have been trumpeting for over a decade of their lives in most cases.

A digital citizen is defined in Wikipedia as “a person utilizing information technology (IT) in order to engage in society, politics, and government participation.”  To be a digital citizen requires “extensive skills, knowledge, and access of using the internet through computers, mobile phones, and web-ready devices to interact…”  And the elements of digital citizenship per digitalcitizenship.net include:

  • Digital Access:full electronic participation in society.
  • Digital Commerce:electronic buying and selling of goods.
  • Digital Communication:  electronic exchange of information.
  • Digital Literacy:process of teaching and learning about technology and the use of technology.
  • Digital Etiquette: electronic standards of conduct or procedure.
  • Digital Law:electronic responsibility for actions and deeds
  • Digital Rights & Responsibilities: those freedoms extended to everyone in a digital world.
  • Digital Health & Wellness:physical and psychological well-being in a digital technology world.
  • Digital Security (self-protection):electronic precautions to guarantee safety.

Here’s the rub:  If you look at those elements, many of the adults charged with caring for and educating the young aren’t necessarily competent digital citizens themselves.  I can tell you for a fact that I have participated over the past decade with professionals and peers on listservs and bulletin boards, and have seen appalling standards for conduct and procedure.  It rivals anything I’ve seen adolescents do to each other.

We live in interesting times, when we are entrusted to educate youth about a technology when we often don’t know how to use socially and effectively ourselves.  We tell them not to interrupt, then answer our cell-phones in the middle of them telling us about their day.  We tell them to pay attention to us even as we’re checking our emails on the Blackberry.  We stalk them on Facebook to censor them in one browser window, and post embarrasing pictures and comments of them in another.  And we pull the plug on them while they’re playing an MMO even as we tell them that they’ve been inconsiderate of their younger sibling who wants a “turn.”

Part of the problem here is our neophyte digital citizenship.  People from older generations tend to think of video games as this:

when they’re actually more like this:

When was the last time you showed up at your daughter’s basketball game in the 3rd quarter and told her, “you’ve been on the court long enough, you’re coming home?”  And yet, we do this to kids online all the time, and foil their attempts to be team players and group contributors.

There’s a lot at stake here:  Multiplayer has no save.  10-30 people, often from all over the world have come together to try to overcome an obstacle.  When you pull the plug, you’re pulling it on all of them.  It is great that our kids know this and care about it!

Most of us have wanted to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to create something together, even if it is just one moment or memory with others.  We need to look at video games without the Pong Goggles, and see it as a form of society and an opportunity for digital citizenship.

To recognize the forward edge of a transference is never an easy thing.  It is small, fragile, the newest shoot of growth.  In a sense, all of us on this planet are in the midst of such a tendril of growth when it comes to technology.  But the time when digital literacy was optional has passed, and we need to do a better job with the next generation of digital citizens than we are doing.


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When They Hate You.

Many therapists I work with dream of expanding their practice to being a consultant and presenter. In our initial appointments they ask me with a lot of excitement about my experience doing these things. And I am usually very positive and optimistic about it. But although I am “living the dream,” there are many rude awakenings along the way.

One such awakening came this week when I received my evaluations back from a recent talk. Out of the 760 people who attended, 566 of them did evaluations. It isn’t often that I have a chance to get feedback from 566 colleagues at once. What struck me is how I tended to react to them and how I had to fight the urge to focus on the negative. If 535 people rated me as good or excellent, my eye was drawn more often to the 2 “poor” ones. No matter that .35% is a really small percentage, that fraction of a percent that delivered a poor rating was hard to overlook.

The comments were even more challenging, as I noticed that my eyes flew over comment after comment describing me as interesting, great, edgy, fresh, thought-provoking, relevant, a gem, and passionate. But boy did they stop when I read this: “His bias towards media enraged me,” or this: “Seems like he has a chip on his shoulder, perhaps because he was told he had poor social skills.”


Would-be presenters please take heed. When you put yourself out there, people will take shots at you. This will hurt, even when it is a fraction of a percent. Part of what hurts is the asynchronous and anonymous nature of these comments, because you have little recourse to respond, correct an error you may have made, or just plain defend your point of view. But if you want to do public speaking, you’ll need to get a thick skin.

Part of why you need a thick skin is to allow for the accurate appraisal of your work. Here’s how I do it:

I divide the critical comments into one of three categories: Absolutely Useful, Fair Enough, and No ROI.

  1. Absolutely Useful: These comments are ones that don’t make me defensive, where I can imagine myself saying to the person, “absolutely.” An example of this kind is “it was somewhat difficult to follow along in the booklet because he seems to have changed the order of slides.” This comment was extremely useful, as I can put more emphasis in my prep to not change my slides at the last minute. This is an easy fix, and will benefit the audience.
  2. Fair Enough: These comments do make me a little defensive, but there is some benefit in spending time to acknowledge or address them. I can imagine myself saying “your point is well taken, however…” For example the comment “limited research” is fair enough. Your point is well taken, however I was only allowed 45 minutes to present, and needed to choose from my copious slides only 60. Another commentator expressed that they wished I had spoken more about the impact of violent video games and how they are a problem. This is fair enough, however there are plenty of places people can get that information or misinformation, and few places that they can get my take. What I can take from these comments are points to consider weaving in or addressing when there is more time.
  3. No ROI. These are the comments that are clearly ad hominem arguments. A good clue is if they hurt my feelings or make me feel extremely defensive. “Seems like he has a chip on his shoulder, perhaps because he was told he had poor social skills” is an example of this sort. There is little return on investment of time or energy I should expend on this. Who knows why a person would think that comment would help anyone, but more importantly, how would it help make a presentation’s argument more effective? These need to be set aside ASAP to focus on more helpful comments.

The irony is that the most useful comments are usually not the ones that are extremely validating or invalidating, but matter of fact, like the slide order comment. The job of a presenter is to become a better presenter. Whether you like the information and opinions I present is none of my business really, my job is to present it.

In my opinion, part of what makes a person an effective speaker is also bound to make them hated: namely, their passion and conviction. Of course I am biased, of course I think that my point of view is important. Would you really want me up there talking about things I don’t feel or think strongly about? At an old internship of mine a colleague once asked me, “have you ever been hated by somebody?” At the time I thought I hadn’t, and said so. “That’s too bad,” she replied, “It’s very defining.”

Since then I have come to realize that I, like most of us, have in fact been hated. Merriam Webster defines the noun hate as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.” People are hated because they are black, or white; LGBT or straight; rich or poor; Nazi or Jew. In everyday affairs we like to pretend this is not true, and when we do so it is crazy-making. It is often a bittersweet relief to a patient when we say, “you weren’t crazy, you really were experiencing hatred.” Finally, someone told the truth.

When I present about technology and video games, I speak out explicitly or implicitly about adultism. This comes across when I challenge people around the concept of screen time. One very prescient member of my audience stated that my message seemed to be focused on changing adult behavior, not child behavior. Bingo.

When it comes to gaming, technology, and education, we need to take a good hard look at how adultism is implicit in many of our practices. We think we know better than our youth, and we think we know better than they how they should spend their time. Back in grade school, well-meaning adults decided that my time would be better spent memorizing multiplication tables, drilling them into my mind, giving me A’s for knowing them. Yet, now I live in a world where I am never more than few feet away from my phone, laptop, or dedicated calculator, and I have to question whether that time couldn’t have been spent better learning other things. What we are taught as important is bound by the history and culture of the adults in power at the time, and it isn’t always a good thing. In retrospect, I’d have been more prepared for life if I’d learned about the subjugation of indigenous people in school rather than drawing hand turkeys.

So if you are passionate about something, it will give you the passion to devote time and energy to it, go above and beyond the workaday life that we often lead. But it will put you out in front of people who don’t agree with you, see you as a threat to what they believe as good and true. You will be hated. You will get tired and hurt and frustrated. And when that happens I recommend that you take some solace from loved ones and friends, and then get back to work.

Some posts, like this one, are written for me as much as for my colleagues and consultees. We all get discouraged and need to be reminded that we are choosing to strike a blow for freedom in whatever path we choose. But I want to give the last word to one of my commentators, who said exactly what I need to hear when I have moments of flagging confidence and doubt: “Mike’s presentation changed my outlook on technology in my professional and parenting roles. Thank you so much, from a FORMER technophobe!!”

Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.