5 ways to create a Healthy Relationship with Technology
Part of this post includes an excerpt from an interview I did with Yitzi Weiner in October 2018, published in Thrive Global. To read the full original article, please click here.
The Covid-19 global pandemic has forced us to reassess many aspects of our life, one of the most important being our relationships. Our relationships with friends and family, our relationship with ourselves and - one I am particularly grateful for - our technology.
As a psychologist keenly interested in digital wellness, the last 6 months have been fascinating to observe, as our devices and the platforms housed within them have become our lifeline. For me, it's been like observing a great big social experiment as it's happening (something we psychologists cherish doing), an experiment investigating what happens when we have no other option but to cling to one of the most controversial phenomena of modern-day society.
And what do the early results tell us?
Well... People are Zoomed-out, they are engaging in Doomscrolling, virtual learning is proving to be more of a problem than a solution, and we have spent so much time on our screens at this point that all screen-based activities are starting to feel the same: exhausting.
An interesting (and somewhat provocative) question many of us in the field of digital wellness have been asked since the beginning of quarantine is: "Has your view of technology changed?" The expectation, of course, has been an answer along the lines of: "Oh yes, I've completely changed my mind and I now see that there should be no limits placed on our creation and consumption of digital content and also, present-day technology is the greatest thing since sliced bread."
This, of course, is not where I stand and this is not how I approach my work around helping people improve their relationship with technology. And in fact, looking back at an interview I gave in October of 2018 reaffirmed my belief that now is the most important time to be mindful of our technology use and to make conscious, purposeful choices around how, when and why we use the different types of technology we have at our disposal.
"... now is the most important time to be mindful of our technology use and to make conscious, purposeful choices around how, when and why we use the different types of technology we have at our disposal."
Following is a part of that interview; as you read it, do keep in mind that it was conducted well before Covid-19 disrupted our lives in ways we could never have imagined, but also remember that the psycho-emotional impact of excessive and/or unhealthy technology use remains the same.
Between work and personal life, the average adult spends nearly 11 hours looking at a screen per day. How does our increasing screen time affect our mental, physical, and emotional health?
That is an excessive amount of time to spend doing any 1 thing, especially if that thing is staring at a screen. Yes, some of that time is spent being truly engaged, but so much of it is what is called ‘passive screen time’ and what I call ‘compulsive screen time.’ One of the biggest issues I have with the way we talk about excessive tech-use nowadays is that aspects of it are glorified with the use of the term “binge.” I’m not sure how that term, associated with destructive and mentally-unhealthy behavior, got awarded a positive connotation. We don’t take pride in bingeing on food or alcohol, and I don’t think bingeing on online content is very different. To be clear, certain aspects of screen-based devices bring us great benefits — I for one am incredibly grateful for Facebook, because as a 3rd culture kid, I really didn’t have any other way of easily communicating with my friends from around the world. However, I did get to a point where I felt a strong need to very intentionally manage my time spent on Facebook; I was trying to balance spending quality time with my friends in-person and remain in touch with friends in different countries. I simply had to accept that this was impossible and that I just had to deal with the FOMO I felt as a result of that. Ultimately, if we don’t approach our devices and social media with high levels of intentionality, they will begin to run our lives. And this is not by accident — the fields of neurotechnology and neuromarketing, as well as places like the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, combined with the desire of the biggest tech companies to infiltrate every hour of our day, are rendering us completely powerless in relinquishing our tech-dependency. We are fast becoming tech zombies, and even the teenagers among us are noticing this, according to recent polls. Excessive time spent staring at screens can, in the first instance, cause head and eye aches and make us irritable, but then furthermore, if the content we are exposing ourselves to is not truly beneficial it can lead us down the path of serious psycho-emotional problems such as anxiety, inattentiveness and depression, among others.
Can you share your top five ways people can improve mental wellness and create a healthy relationship with technology?
Purpose — what is the purpose of your use of technology? Define the beginning and the end of that purpose and be cut-throat about it if you need to be, when it comes to your daily-usage but on a more macro level too. For example, if you installed Pinterest while you were planning your wedding so that you could find ideas for your bouquet, once you are done with that — uninstall the app. Be mindful about starting to use it as a time-filler or an anti-anxiety treatment; you still have the same 24h in your day that you had before you started using Pinterest.
Emotional Savviness — I teach and coach on emotional intelligence because it is a skill that is essential to every person, young and old, in order to live a truly full, meaningful and intentional life. The ubiquity of technology makes this skill all the more vital. It’s important to say that there is nothing necessarily wrong with technology itself, but the issue is that, as is the case with sugar, alcohol, cigarettes and heroin, technology is fertile ground for escapism and addition. Get to know yourself as best as you can so that you can recognize when you are using technology to merely alleviate boredom or anxiety — all that does is provide a brief fix. Shift towards using technology in an intentional way, and towards dealing with your psycho-emotional difficulties in ways that will actually help resolve them and better the quality of your life.
Social connection — lots of young people today are struggling to find the balance, between being with friends in-person and being with them in-virtuo. The generation that has been born into technology simply has no idea where that balance lies, because ‘device-in-hand’ is the norm for them. And when I use the term ‘balance,’ what I really mean is a dis-balance that favors face-to-face connection. The scales need to tip towards spending more time with people in-person because our brains can only fully develop while being directly connected to other brains.
Distraction — it is hardly uncommon to see a group of friends or a family having a meal together, with one or more members checking their device frequently. And being absent. Presence is the place where joy resides, and this is not just a phrase you will hear from holy men and women, because neuroscientific research has also shown this to be the case. Train yourself (yes, it unfortunately does require actual training) to be present and attentive when you are with your friends and family and keep your device(s) tucked away so that you can’t reach out to check it(them) every few minutes.
Resist the Pressure — the limitless nature of social media imposes on us this sense that we must be ever-present on it (here comes that FOMO again!). How many of us have felt that pang of anxiety after skipping even just one day of posting content online? I find it incredibly important to switch my detectors on for this sensation, be very mindful when it arises, and take intentional action to counter it. Breathe through it, remind yourself that there is no such thing as “having to” post anything, and go on with your day.
Between social media distractions, messaging apps, and the fact that Americans receive 45.9 push notifications each day, Americans check their phones 80 times per day. How can people, especially younger generations, create a healthier relationship with social media?
The exciting thing is that they seem to be tuned-in to this issue far more than we give them credit for. Recent research has shown that almost 50% of teenagers are aware of the fact that they are hooked on their phones, and many have even taken steps to address this. The most recent report from Common Sense Media (“Social Media, Social Life”) has given us a wealth of encouraging information, such as that almost a fifth of teenagers actually don’t use any social media at all. This is perhaps the most extreme way (and shown to have a negative impact in some cases), but it is certainly a legitimate way of avoiding the unhealthy aspects of social media use altogether. What I find to be somewhat discouraging is that the same report has shown that the preference for in-person interaction has gone down from 49% in 2012 to 32% in 2018; however, what is crucial here is the skill of emotional savviness I mentioned earlier. It is crucial to teach children how to recognize different emotions in themselves so that they can recognize that tipping point of excessive tech use so that they can step out and spend face-to-face time with their friends and family instead. So, those are perhaps the two most important ways young people can create a healthier relationship with their tech: learn to recognize and label their emotions and when they no longer feel good due to excessive tech use, seek out a face-to-face interaction with another person.
80% of smartphone users check their phones before they brush their teeth in the morning. What effect does starting the day this way have on people? Is there a better morning routine you suggest?
Well, there you have a habit that certainly doesn’t encourage presence. If you start your day with this kind of mental absence you are likely to feel tension and anxiety first thing in the morning, which then sets that precedent for the rest of your day. Especially given the fact that people do this with a certain expectation — when they pick up their phone they are waiting for that work e-mail, a reply from a friend, or to read the overnight news. There are many better ways to start your day: if you are so inclined you can do some journaling, a brief meditation, you can explore feelings of gratitude and intention-setting for the day, or if you are more inclined to high-energy activities you can go work out or go for a walk first thing in the morning. You can also speak to your partner or child, take a shower, or simply lay in bed and stretch for the first few minutes after you wake up. Leave your phone out of reach for at least the first 30min of your day.
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