Podcast: The Perks of Powering Down

Jenn talks to Dr. Lisa W. Coyne. Lisa discusses how we can work our way back from digital burnout, shares signs of screen fatigue, and explains the impact of too much screen time.

Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School, and a senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute (OCDI Jr.) at McLean Hospital. She is the author of “The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years,” a book for parents of young children.

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Episode Transcript

Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.

The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.

So, hi folks, thanks so much for joining today. And I hope wherever you are joining us from the world you are doing well. So, I’d like to introduce myself, when we are officially starting. I’m Jenn Kearney, and I’m a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital.

And today’s session is all about technology, how we’re using it, when we’re using it, and why it’s really powerful to unplug it, power down from it, so to speak.

And I know I’m going to grab my phone for this from my personal experience. I don’t always know where all of my time goes in the day. And when I sit back and I go, hmm, where is all this time going?

Lisa: Pretty amazing.

Jenn: I’m going to thumb back a little bit to right around Christmas, and I spent 30 hours in one week on my phone. That’s horrifying for somebody who is generally, like, I like to think of myself as being pretty self-aware of how I’m using my time and where it’s going.

And I spent over a full day on my actual phone and that’s like a really sobering ice bucket of water style wake up call for how my time is going.

Lisa: It’s almost a full-time job, Jenn, being on your phone. Almost.

Jenn: I’m just letting everybody know there’s nothin’…

Lisa: I’m scared to look at mine, actually.

Jenn: There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re in really similar habits because I’m calling myself out on it right here right now.

Lisa: There you go.

Jenn: So, during this session, this is not going to be my therapy session, but during the session Dr. Coyne and I are going to talk all about tech habits.

Why they’re habit forming, what to look for when we’re trying to cut back on usage or trying to understand why it’s actually so habit-forming anyway, ways that we can overcome this hook, how it all ties into better mental health and more.

So, if you are unfamiliar with Lisa you are in for a real treat. Dr. Coyne is a psychologist and senior clinical consultant for the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute at McLean Hospital.

Otherwise known as OCDI Jr, and recent co-author of the book “Stop Avoiding Stuff,” which is still on my nightstand, and I’m still chipping away at it. So small changes, big results, that’s what I like to think of.

So, Lisa, I’m super excited to do this because as much as somebody who wants to cut back on their habits I’m having a real hard time doing it.

Lisa: Yeah, you and me both, Jenn.

Jenn: I’m going to ask this question in the first person but know that it’s for everybody that’s joining us. Why am I so hooked on my phone?

Lisa: Well, and I am also, and I think that the reason for that is that phones were made to hook us. They were made the way that they were made to keep us engaged because we are consumers, you see. And so, our attention has been commodified.

And the way that they do this is really, really simple. It’s complex AI, of course, but simple principles. And that is when we click, look, scroll, pause, observe, you know, a page, listen to it, click, look at a video, whatever it is, we get something, right.

And when we get that thing, if that increases our engagement, the AI figures out how to send us more of that kind of thing in our feed, and I don’t know like a good example of this, I don’t know if you have seen this this morning, but at the inauguration yesterday, everybody’s posting the Bernie memes with Bernie and the gloves.

And if you haven’t seen this, if you’re watching, they are hysterical. He’s sitting like a grumpy, old guy, love Bernie, but you know, sitting there with his really kind of crunchy mittens.

And the first thing that popped up on my Amazon this morning was the sale of a coat that looked just like Bernie’s coat. Meanwhile, memes are flying all around you know, the virtual world about people are screenshotting or they’re, you know, putting Bernie in all these different situations.

It’s really funny and engaging, but that’s a good example.

Jenn: Someone sent to Scott this morning of J-Lo in her 50’s and me and my 20’s, and it was Bernie.

Lisa: There you go. So, it’s a way of, and here’s really the thing, right? So, like, there’s definitely, there’s many things that can reinforce us about screen use, but one of them is you feel like you’re part of something.

There’s a big in-joke about Bernie Sanders, sorry, Bernie, we love you, but you know, and everyone’s a part of it. And it’s a chance to kind of connect with someone, it’s got low social costs, you know, hey, ha, ha, ha, ha, here’s a little joke.

I don’t have to have a serious conversation with you, blah, blah, blah. And this is one of the things that’s commodified and for kids it’s gaming, right? There’s a lot of gaming.

There’s a lot of TikToking, creating things, one upping your friends, there’s opportunities to connect with your friends when you cannot connect with them in your life now in more physical, actual ways, right?

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes that’s an incredibly good thing for us, right? But all of these things converge to make us on our screens more and more and more.

And the sad counterpart to that is that we are less in our lives, our actual lives, because we’re spending more time in this virtual world. And so, there’s a cost. There’s a downside.

For a lot of us, you know, if you’ve looked at, and I look at the data, data geek a little bit of nerd, but you know, during COVID everyone is reporting much increased screen time and there are good reasons for that, school, et cetera.

But with that has come things like increases in depression, increases in stress, decreases in physical activity, right, Which contributes to both of those, disruptions in sleep, et cetera. All of those things are happening because we’re more sedentary and we’re sitting around.

Not only are we locked in our house, but we’re maybe strapped to a seat. And I know I start to get antsy because my work is meetings every day, all day. And so, I have to remind myself to get up and move around and thank God I have three, Jenn has seen these dogs, but I have three very unruly Portuguese Water Dogs and the youngest one, the puppy.

So, I start scrolling. The alarm goes off at 6:30 in the morning and I’m like New York Times. This is my like little half an hour of I get to read the newspaper or check Facebook or whatever it is, Twitter, you know, and the dog, God love her, has learned to, she’ll get up and be like pawing at the phone to get it out of my hand. Well-trained dog, but she’s got right idea.

Jenn: Very smart breed.

Lisa: Very smart breed. She’s like, this is what interferes with my breakfast happening. This, this is not okay, Mama. So those are the reasons that we get wrapped in.

And there are costs to our getting wrapped in even though there are benefits too, especially during COVID.

Jenn: So, can you talk a little bit, I know that we have touched upon this before, but can you talk a little bit about the addictive habits of social media and why like auto scroll is something that is so habit forming too?

Lisa: Oh, sure, yeah. It gives your brain a little burst of dopamine. If you’re scrolling and you’re looking for that thing, right, that’s going to make you feel warm and fuzzy or connected or excited or happy.

You know, if you get that, you’re going to be more likely to scroll some more. But, what happens is we find that inconsistently and sometimes we’re outraged.

I think that you may have noticed this this past year that sometimes social media capitalizes on outrage and more and more extreme things which is a problem, especially in American culture, right?

Creating this divisiveness that we’ve all been experiencing, seeing the news, which is really hard, right? So, whatever it is, it gives you that burst, you know, this is something that’s going to strengthen that behavior.

But the other thing that strengthens the behavior is getting that reinforcement on an inconsistent basis. So once in a while, just like a slot machine and guess what but that scroll behavior was designed, you know, based on the slot machine idea.

I’m going to keep scrolling until I get that thing that’s interesting to me, right, and so that’s another example of how it’s built functionally to pull us in and keep us doing those things.

Jenn: So, I know that there’s been a couple articles recently that talk about that kids are going to go through a really big tech withdrawal.

Can you talk a little bit about what tech withdrawal might actually be like depending on the person, do you know anything about it?

Lisa: So, you know, as a psychologist, this is a really new situation for a whole culture, right, this is what’s unique about it.

I mean, certainly kids who... parents and families, when they perceive their child to be overusing screens and they pull them off, they’re going to have withdrawal, but every kid is going to be experiencing this that has a screen of some kind or that’s going to school on the screen.

So, I’m anticipating a couple of things happening. I’m anticipating that families are going to need a lot of support at helping kids re-engage, at setting limits, at withstanding the inevitable tantrums and upset that’s going to happen when kids are pulled out of this, you know.

And so, I think they’re going to need support in terms of how to do that, how to reinforce re-engagement in the world, rather than punishing screen use, that’s going to be a big one.

I think that for a certain proportion of kids it’s going to be really hard and there’s going to be an increase in reports of social anxiety, things like that with kids kind of going back to their environment when this is all over.

And I do realize that lots of kids are sort of hybrid. I think that more have gone on screen now, just because we’re in the middle of this huge burst of COVID. I think that we’re going to see an increase in stress and depression in kids as well.

I think for some of them, they’ll be excited to go back, you know, ‘cause it’s been really hard to be isolated. I have, for example, a teenager at home who’s really missing soccer with his buddies and being outside.

And we’ve restricted that because he’s getting emails from the school every single day that there are cases and it’s just not safe. It’s just not safe. We have elderly folks that we interact with that live in our house and we need to keep them safe.

So, we need to have a higher threshold you know, for risk. I mean, we have to be very careful. And so, I think for some kids they’re going to be excited to go back. I know I cannot wait to get out of the house.

That will be lovely and thank God the vaccine is on the way. And I really hope that it continues to get rolled out quickly, as quickly as we can get it. But I do think that families are going to need support and guidance.

Jenn: What are some warning signs that we should look out for if we feel like we are in an addictive pattern with using our phones or just screens in general?

Lisa: So, I’ll talk generally, and then we can, you know, I don’t know if it’ll be useful to kind of break it down into kids and adults because I think we’re going to see the same things.

Just, you know, across the board. One thing to really notice is mood. Has your mood decreased? Are you feeling more anxious? Are you feeling more isolated and disconnected, right? Are you feeling unmoored from your life?

That’s a sign that things are wrong, right? Is your sleep disrupted? Lots of times if people are using screens late at night that is something that absolutely disrupts sleep. And that’s a huge problem right.

Now, if they also are contributing to you being less active that’s something that’s gotten quite a lot of discussion, both in kids and adults, because not only does that contribute to your decreased mood, increased anxiety, but it also really contributes to poor physical health, and that’s something that you really want to think about.

So, it’s not so much, like you shouldn’t, I wouldn’t think about just length of screen time in a vacuum, you want to think about how is it impairing your ability to function? How is it taking you out of the things that you care about, that are important to you in your life?

And what’s getting in the way of you pulling out, right? ‘Cause don’t forget, we don’t do stuff that doesn’t make sense, right, as we kind of wrote about in “Stop Avoiding Stuff,” right, you do, you get. Every behavior has a function or purpose even if we’re not clear exactly what that is.

So, we’re getting something from all that scrolling, from all that screen time. So, I think thinking about how’s it impacting you? Is it impacting you negatively?

If it is, that’s time to look at it, right, and time to think about making some small changes, even now, to help you transition back to what life will be like post-pandemic.

Jenn: So, what can we do to keep ourselves busy if face-to-face socializing isn’t totally an option because, you know, a lot of what we do seems to involve a screen.

I’ve got friends who’ve said things like I use a coloring app because it’s been hard to get school supplies, you know. what can we do to keep ourselves occupied?

Lisa: So, I think that’s a great question, and it kind of hints at something that’s really, really important. That lots of times when we are on screens it’s an avoidance behavior for something else, for some state we’d rather not experience like, in this example, being bored, right.

I need to fill my time. What can I do? Can I do something, right? And so, it’s great if you’re really good at thinking of stuff to do, but, unfortunately, because we are all being sort of trained to be very passive consumers of screens that’s an underused muscle these days, isn’t it, right?

Like not to date myself, but like when I was little a cardboard box, a stick, a ball, a string, you know, those were all like the best toys ‘cause you could do whatever you wanted with those and a blanket, you got a fort, there you go, right.

But that’s not how kids are growing up now. We’re not so good at that. And because of that schedule of reinforcement from our scrolling, we’re expecting that burst of dopamine, and we’re pretty unhappy if we don’t get it on a semi-regular basis.

So, I would say in addition to finding other things to do, one of the things to do is to increase your awareness of how are you feeling right before you go on that screen, right. Here’s a little practice you can do.

You can practice trying to do something different. So, when you go for your phone, right, go for something else or don’t pick it up and just pause and notice what does that emotion I’m having, noticing that urge, right, to, I want to check my phone. I want to see what’s on it, right.

And pause and see if you can make a space to allow that because it’s in that space where you’re learning again to make friends with being maybe a little uncomfortable, you know, maybe feeling that absence, that’s where you’re going to start to break the habit, right, and that urge, that kind of uncomfortable state is almost always a trigger for these habitual behaviors, our go-to behaviors.

Jenn: So, what do we do when we’re using our phones and technology and stuff to take care of ourselves?

And I guess like a personal example for me would be I use Headspace and I use the Peloton app so I can work out at home and everything, but it’s also contributing to my screen time because I’m actively using these.

I guess the question is like how do you kind of justify some of your screen usage and not the others?

Lisa: And that’s a great question. I’m very excited to hear about your Peloton app, and I am excited because I have the app on my NordicTrack. It was like very cool walking on a beach in Fiji or wherever it was. And I thought, gosh, this is just what we need right now.

Jenn: And to be clear, it’s like, I don’t have the bike or anything, I have the actual small screen, can stream it to something for $12 a month.

Lisa: That’s fantastic, fantastic, that’s a great idea. And see, so there are some guidelines for this, right? So, if you’re going to use your screens, and we are, right, ‘cause we’re not all or none about this, we can’t be especially not during the pandemic.

We kind of have to give ourselves a pass. You want to think about what you’re using your screens for. And so here are some good things that you can do on your screens that are probably beneficial.

So, the first one, obviously, is connecting with your friends and your family, right? So, video chatting and face time is really, really important, and it’s a great way to feel like you’re connected even if your folks are far away.

If you have little kids, right, helping them stay connected to their families, you know. For us, we’re a bi-cultural family where my husband’s family are all in Ireland.

He’s the only one in the U.S. And then we have my family in the U.S., and I don’t know what we would do without some of the video apps to just check in with them, how everybody’s doing, you know, across these both sides of the pond.

So, I think that’s really important. Another thing that’s really useful, of course, is to experience culture, right? Like go travel on your screen somewhere else and learn about it, right. Check out the pictures, learn a different language. There’s so many different things you can do.

There’s all sorts of free virtual museums and zoos and galleries and things like that that are exciting, and I think, I don’t remember if I mentioned this last time, but we had a friend who put up a, I thought this was real, I totally fell for this.

But she put up this fake trip to Alaska where every day she posted pictures of her cruise and glaciers and polar bears and the food on the cruise and the mixed drinks.

And I was like, how is she traveling during COVID, this is amazing. And one of our other mutual friends was like, it’s just for fun, she’s not actually doing it. And I thought, that’s genius, how fun would that be?

Jenn: I wish you just heard the laugh that came out of my mouth because that is so delightful.

Lisa: Isn’t that awesome? And I’m like, that is really fun. And I’m kind of thinking, like maybe I’ll relive some old trips or something and post some pictures, be like, we’re back then.

So that’s another fun use, right, being somewhere else. For education, right, now is the time to think about learning new things if you want to, and there’s plenty of really brief things. I was just listening to a podcast earlier.

There’s so many cool things you could be learning about and dip into, right? And if you’re listening, you can be doing something else like your laundry or your dinner or tidying or whatever you know, hanging out in your Head, Pelotoning, yoga-ing, whatever, I know that’s not a verb.

Learning grammar, which I clearly need to do. And this is a good time to do that, right. So, learning. Working out with screens as Jenn and I have both talked about, this is actually a super useful use of screens, right?

There’s tons of like everything from like the four- or five-minute workouts you can get from New York Times to Peloton to all of these other apps. YouTube’s got a lot of free stuff. You can just stream it. These are really great.

And then the last thing I want to mention is relaxing, but be careful, right. We don’t want to, how you use the screens matter, right. So, if it’s become your way of avoiding uncomfortable things, that’s a risk factor.

And you might think about it similarly to the occasional glass of wine if you do indulge in that. And I know many of us do not, and that is great also, right. But if you do, it’s different to enjoy a glass with a chat with your friends than I can’t handle the stress of my day, I want to turn it off with a glass of wine.

That’s a risk factor, and we have seen, and it has been documented that there’s a pretty big increase in alcohol use during COVID. So, we’re all really at risk for these kinds of avoidance behaviors that can be unhealthy, right.

We’re experiencing a chronic unremitting stress, right. We’re in, is it month nine of the pandemic? It was March last year.

Jenn: So, we’re almost 11 months into it.

Lisa: My, God, it’s been almost a year.

Jenn: Yeah.

Lisa: My head is going to explode. It’s just, ugh, right. And you know, I always go back to this quote from Tara Brach, one of my favorites, she’s a Buddhist psychologist.

And she said, you know, suffering begins the moment we start to wish that the present moment is different than it is. And so, slowing yourself down and noticing is that where I’m at?

Is that my mindset, you know, and thinking about how can I be more accepting of this? You know, and Jenn, a couple of weeks ago, remind me did I tell the story of the tigers and the strawberries?

Jenn: I don’t think so.

Lisa: Okay. So, this is a good one a very dear colleague shared with me a few weeks ago. And he was saying, you know, there’s a story of a guy who’s running away from a tiger, you know, and he’s terrified this tiger’s going to get him and he’s running through the savanna.

And then all of a sudden, he’s not looking, he’s looking behind him at the tiger, and he falls off a cliff, and lucky him, he’s just able to grab a branch on the way down.

And so, he’s dangling there, the tiger’s peering over the cliff at him and he’s thinking, how the heck am I going to get up? There’s a tiger up there. So, he looks down to see, can he go down?

And not only is it pretty far down, but there’s another tiger at the base of this cliff just waiting. And he’s like, oh, man, tigers above tigers below. So, he’s looking around, what can he do?

And he notices that there is a little patch of strawberries just kind of clinging to the cliff there, and right in the middle of this sort of green burst of leaves is a little beautiful red ripe strawberry. And so, he plucks it, and he eats it, and it is just exquisite and delicious.

So, I don’t even know if I need to explain that. But one thing you can do instead of looking at your screen is remember to notice the strawberries in your life even though things are really hard.

Jenn: This is a conversation that I’ve been having with a lot of friends who have been experiencing close personal loss recently is that things get better, but your emotions also don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

You can still notice that good things are happening even when you’re mourning what you previously had and have lost.

Lisa: And for me too, when I’m feeling, you know, really sad emotions and really hard emotions, one practice I use is from compassion-focused therapy, and it’s treating them like they are visitors that require my kindness and acknowledgement, right?

So instead of running from them, right, as Rumi says, meet them at the door laughing, and just allowing them to be present, noticing them and seeing what is it you need? What are you here to tell me?

You know, if you’re feeling overwhelmed maybe that emotion is telling you need a break, you know, can you take a break? Can you engage in some self-care or self-kindness, right?

And this, of course, engages, you know, basically our system, our autonomic nervous system to kind of soothe us, you know, it releases oxytocin, maybe, my therapy dogs do that for me, they’re fabulous.

They seem to know when I need a snuggle, and they have been very happy to help with that which is really great. If you’re feeling, you know, bored, maybe slow down and get curious about where you’re at, what can you do?

You know, try something new, you know, see if every time you feel that urge to pick up your phone or a screen there might be a way for you to try something different that you haven’t done before, right.

And notice when you do try that different thing, how strong the urge is to go back and just do the same old thing. We all experience that, right. And I’m sure my screen time is up as well, so.

Jenn: I’ve been doing a much better job at having my screen time be less. I’m averaging like an hour and 40 minutes a day this week, so...

Lisa: How did you check? What did you look at to check? Let’s check, I’m curious now.

Jenn: If you have an iPhone, you should, when you’re on your home screen you should be able to swipe to the right and then it should show you your screen time and activity.

So, this is, oh, wow, my screen is very dirty. So, it would then show you how much you’ve used for the day. So, for me, I’m at 53 minutes today.

Lisa: Hmm, is it in health and fitness? Maybe it’s there.

Jenn: You may also just be able to search for screen time.

Lisa: Oh, that’s probably easy.

Jenn: Unfortunately, I’m kind of like an iOS user, so if it’s folks who don’t have an Apple device I can’t really help you with this but it’s something you can easily search for and…

Lisa: You’re clearly better at this than me.

Jenn:…allow you to set limits. This is something I’ve been actively trying to pursue and clearly failing, but always something you can keep starting over and over.

Lisa: Yeah. Oh, here we go. Maybe I can find it here. I don’t know if I can find it, but I know in the morning sometimes, it’s funny, ‘cause even without asking, it started to give me information about my screen time.

Oh my gosh. No way, mine is down. I can’t believe it.

Jenn: Congratulations, that’s very exciting.

Lisa: I do not know why that is, but that’s kind of exciting. It’s still really high. It’s still like three hours and 55 minutes a day, but...

Jenn: But, you know, it’s kind of amazing how you try to jump in and say hi to friends or answer emails when you’re taking a walk or something like that, and then all of a sudden, it just kind of ramps up really quickly. So, you’re not alone.

Lisa: Ooh. Dog is talking.

Jenn: So, this actually tees me up beautifully for the next question.

Would you recommend silencing most notifications to remove that trigger of, I got to look at it, I got to answer so that it’s not drawing your attention?

Lisa: 100%. That’s exactly one of the tricks that the AI will use. I don’t know how many times this week it’s told me how many new Instagram followers I have.

And I’m like, I noticed it’s really interesting too ‘cause the number hasn’t changed but it keeps like showing this to me like it’s a new thing I should check. So yes, 100%, turn it off, put it away.

And we’ve talked about this before, I know, in different episodes of this, but think about like especially if you’re in a family having either times during the day that are screen-free times when nobody has a phone near them at all, nobody’s on the screen, you’re all together.

Or rooms, or areas in rooms like the table, the dinner table, the breakfast table, the kitchen, you know, the bathroom. That’s probably a good time to not have your phone for a lot of reasons.

Jenn: Considering how many germs would end up on that screen, probably...

Lisa: And the data on E.coli on your phone. Plenty. so, it’s actually like, no joke, really. So, thinking about that.

Jenn: We actually received a ton of folks saying that you can, if you’re on an Android, go to settings and then go to digital wellbeing.

If you are on an iPhone, you go to settings and then screen time. So, thank you, everybody, who has chimed in to say, here’s how you can get to it.

Lisa: And get off your phone. Lemon says get off the phone.

Jenn: That’s okay. She’s getting very up in arms about the screen time.

Lisa: Very much, but that’s actually, and if you have a pet they keep you regularly off your screens when necessary so that’s a very useful thing, except during McLean webinars, sorry about that guys.

Jenn: That’s fine, I just need to stop laughing. Alright, so folks often say that, you know, self-control is one of those things that’s needed when it comes to social media.

But I know you’ve talked about this in previous sessions the documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” which I’ve seen, and I enjoyed in kind of a sadistic way because it opens up your mind up to what you’re actually doing to yourself.

But there’s so much when it comes to algorithms and marketing is the self-control argument still relevant if algorithms are being made to overpower our own mental fortitude?

Lisa: I don’t find the self-control argument particularly helpful, right, because then it’s a question of do you have it or don’t you have it? Or how good are you at it? Or how are you not good at it?

I don’t find it an empowering argument to use. And certainly, you know, we’re not really in control of some of this if it’s outside of our awareness, right. So back to the idea of these are created to change our behavior, right, and if we’re not aware of that, you’re not going to be able to make changes to it.

And so, I think it’s more helpful to think about increasing your awareness of how and when are you using your particular screen? What is it doing for you, right? What is it removing? What experience is it saving you from maybe? Or what instrumental gain are you getting from it?

I have bought far too many pairs of really nice shoes, bad idea, bad idea. So, what are you getting from it? Is it connecting you with people?

Is it helpful the way you are using your screen or is it harming your ability, right, because the thing to remember is if we don’t know what those triggers are for us we don’t have a chance in changing our behavior.

So that’s trick one, right? Increase your awareness and your curiosity about how am I using this? When am I using this? Second, see if you could increase your willingness to experience that trigger without getting on your phone, right, that’s hard, because it involves saying yes to maybe being uncomfortable, right.

And remember, this is a flexible thing. This isn’t an all or none thing. Like, do you want to do this when you like really miss your friends and you think, I should call my friend? No, of course not, call your friend by all means, right.

Talk to them, talk to your mom or your dad or whoever it is. But again, if it’s something that’s getting in the way of your life, let’s practice being uncomfortable, let’s practice our ability being bored, right. We’re not so good at that.

And sometimes here’s the thing, you know, what if being bored is actually one of your best teachers because it helps you invent new and fun things to do, right. So, the third principle here is when people try to change their behavior or their habits.

Very often, and I don’t want to talk about like, you know, alcohol, substance use, things like that. I want to talk about just other habits that might or might not be unhelpful. Lots of times those efforts fail, and it takes them a few rounds of doing this to really change it.

But one of the reasons that they fail is because they start with just huge goals, too big changes. Start with a small change and an example might be, okay, for this half an hour that I see my family in the morning or my partner or whatever, when I’m walking my dog I’m actually not going to use my phone for this small chunk of time.

Or if that’s too big, 10 minutes, go for that, right. If you feel like you don’t have any control at all the chance that you’re going to go cold Turkey or make a huge change is really tiny. Start small and shape, right. And just celebrate the really small successes and changes that you make.

And lastly, when you do that, don’t forget, look for those strawberries in your world instead of listening to the podcast, or like walking with the screen in front of you with your dog or whatever notice the sunset, notice the air, notice who you see, notice the architecture of the house as you’re walking by, the fields, whatever it is.

Listen to the sounds of the cars, okay. Notice what it feels like to actually move your body in the cold air, right. Notice that you have the ability to move. How amazing, right.

Notice the difference in how you feel after that walk when you come home, as opposed to sitting in a chair, sitting on your couch, being in your house. Those are the things to really notice. Those are the strawberries we want to really notice and focus on, okay.

And then noticing, last thing I’ll say about this is, we can spend so much time trying to focus on the things that are bad, that are hard, that we want to change, and we can do that, or we can shift our intention to start looking for the things that we’re grateful for that bring us even little flashes of joy in our life.

And you need to be off your screen to do that lots of the time. The dogs are back, so they may start making noise.

Jenn: Pretty soon I’m going to have to start introducing them as well.

Lisa: You might, actually.

Jenn: If you’re unfamiliar with Lisa part I’m going to throw the dogs in there too. So, alright. So how do you balance screen time with both working and personal life?

Because after an eight-hour, 10-hour day where somebody is being forced to be on a screen, you know, you also want to decompress.

And for some reason, whether it’s COVID or you’re connecting with folks or whatever, more often than not, it’s including a screen.

Lisa: Yeah, and I think that’s really hard. I don’t know a great answer for this other than I’m very frank with my friends who know that I work as a psychologist, and I’m often talking to people all day and I’ll just say, I miss you guys and I just am not up to another hour on the screen, and I’ll send them little pings.

So, I’ll find a balance in that way. But I’d love to hear if other people have great ideas about that. I do think, if it’s possible, right, working on balancing, like thinking about how much time can I spend on a screen without getting up, I need to take a break, a walk, something.

So, for me I’m learning that like maybe three or four hours and then I need a little break in the middle is about all I can manage. And I’ll try and get up every hour and just walk around a little bit.

Go up and down the stairs, put the laundry in the basement or whatever, you know, play with the dogs, do a little dog training, we’re training.

Something to make a break. And I think just making sure you work in a little bit of time for your friends and your family I think would be very important too.

Jenn: You approach the conversation with friends, family, loved ones to say that you’re actively trying to spend a little bit less time on your phone or other devices.

So, like how do you get them to not take it personally if you’re not getting back to them right away because we’re all so accustomed to that immediacy, but you also don’t want people to take it personally.

Lisa: Yeah, for me, I’m very frank, and I’ll just say, I am scared to tell you this ‘cause I don’t want you to take it personally, please do not. It’s because of X, and you might engage them in a conversation about, do you ever feel that way?

‘Cause I betcha, you’re not the only one feeling like that, you know. And so, it’s, I think, cultivating that sort of authenticity and genuineness, I think with your friends will be very helpful, you know and being mindful, like if you have a routine.

Like I know I’m mindful we have this routine where we talk every day at this time, and you know, it’s important to me and I think I need a break. I think most people will understand that.

You know, just be open about it, and make a space for your friends to be maybe a little disappointed, you know, these things happen. But if they’re good friends, you know, it’s a conversation you can revisit and keep having.

Jenn: And I feel like maybe also having some parallels between like, just because I’m connected all the time doesn’t mean I’m available all the time.

Like if I was working in an office you wouldn’t knock on the door and ask me how things are going if I’m in a meeting, so why are you texting me at 11, 12 in the morning?

Lisa: Exactly, exactly.

Jenn: So, I feel like maybe resetting those expectations a little bit of like, what is appropriate and inappropriate outreach time or putting on do not disturb modes on your phone for certain periods of time might actually help get the point across maybe a little bit more aggressively.

Lisa: Yeah, and you know, cultivating a schedule for yourself too where like for Saturday morning from 8:00 a.m. to 12 screens are all dark, and if you do that consistently, I’m sure your friends will start to learn, Uh, they’re not available at that time and that’s okay.

They’ll get to you later. Don’t answer emails around the clock either. That’s another one I’m guilty of that.

Jenn: Yeah, so we had a few...

Lisa: My friends were like why are you posting at 3:00 a.m.?

Jenn: We had a few folks say, go on do not disturb if you have a work phone have it so that only a few people that are listed as contacts who like override do not disturb, so like only your boss could get a hold of you or only someone that reports to you could get a hold of you in those after hours.

Lisa: Right, exactly. Exactly right.

Jenn: So, we’ve got a lot of folks asking about their kids and gaming because…

Lisa: Ah, gaming

Jenn:…it qualifies as time with friends, right. Because if they’re talking with their friends on there that’s socializing screen time, but how as parents can we feel about it?

Is it okay to have mixed emotions? When do we start setting up thresholds? Any advice you can give on it?

Lisa: Yes, to all of the above. I mean, I have mixed emotions about it as well. And it’s funny because I, you know, we have a teenager, we have two kids.

One of them is an adult and the other, one’s a teenager, and we have kind of really frank conversation about, you know, he’s like, can I go out and play soccer on the field with my friends if we’re all masked? And I said, honey, I’m so sorry.

But like, and I’m showing him the data for our town and all these emails about cases. And he said, well, I hope you’re not mad at me for gaming a lot because that’s when I talk to my friends and I said, I am not. I said, I totally get it.

And I also want him to spend time with us at meals to say hello, you know, to, even if it’s a little brief windows during the day where he’s, ‘cause he’s in school too on the screen. So yes, mixed feelings. Absolutely okay.

Dreading the getting off of all of the screens when we’re back in kind of more normal living also okay. I think that’s important. And I think just having those conversations with your kids, right, openly about, you know this is not going to be this way forever, and I want to check in with like how are you using your screens?

Like are you checking in with your friends, yeah? And kind of working on thinking about like what are your values in your family? Like what is important to you about your family? Like we value intimacy with each other and being together, right.

So, you might have a conversation about that. Say, I know it’s important to you to be on your screen with your friends, and it’s also important for us to be together and chat. I’d love knowing what’s going on in your life with limits, right, so how can we work that?

Can we agree that for this time we’ll just hang out a little bit, you know, and then you can go back to doing what you’re doing, but I want to make sure you’re connected with me. Check in about mood. How are you feeling? Are you sleeping?

One thing that’s really important is making sure that kids are off screens 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime because the light disrupts their biological clock and will disrupt their sleep.

For teenagers, they’re already experiencing a sleep phase shift where they’re going to start to you’ll notice the bedtimes getting later and later and they’re going to want to get up later and later on in the morning.

And for some kids, they flip sleep where they’re up most of the night and they’re really tired during the day and they’re not making it to their classes. That is an example of when you would want to step in, right, with judicious changing of internet passwords, of having a parking lot for your phone.

And like one of the things we’ve experimented with when we have had issues with screen use is if you can’t get off your screen kindly, you know, and if you can’t get off the first time I ask you and if this happens three times, three strikes you’re out.

That screen’s coming out of your room, you know, or if I catch you up later than your time, whatever, you know, and what I want is not necessarily for them to get off the screen, like to limit their time, but I want flexible use, right.

I want flexible use. And it’s not a punishment, it’s you can have it until you violate these rules and then it’s mine. And then you can try it again. You know, after a few days of a break.

If you violate it again, you lose it for longer, right. And so, you can experiment with things like that in your family about how do you manage these things.

Jenn: What are your suggestions for flexible use when addressing screen usage with a partner?

So, I know that sometimes it might be easier because you’re parent guardian, you’re the person who’s responsible for them but what do you do when it’s a grown person who, theoretically, should be responsible for themselves, right.

Lisa: I think that that is a very good conversation to have as a couple, right. To really think about and talk about how it’s impacting your relationship, how it is impacting each of you, what your needs are, right.

And being mindful that, again, this is a shared space so it might impact the relationship, and also your partner might really be getting lots of support from friends or something like that, you know.

So, I mean, I think that that’s an... and I don’t think this is a once-off conversation either. I think this is an ongoing conversation to kind of see how is this working, right.

If you’re on the screens all day, and you’re not doing the things around the house that you need to be doing, or you’re not sufficiently connected to your partner that can be a problem.

Jenn: Do you have any advice for ways to advocate for ourselves on our jobs to talk about doing work off screen if the screen time isn’t necessarily needed to provide the service?

And a follow up question would be, is there any evidence that screen time at work is actually bad for us?

Lisa: Ooh, that’s a good question. I actually don’t know the answer to that latter, but I think too much of anything is hard, right. And we already know that extensive screen time can lead to things like sedentary behavior, headaches, stress, tension, eye strain, all of those things.

So, I mean, it’s really an issue for sort of OSHA, right, like workplace, like thinking about that. And I think what I would probably do is talk to your boss about, you know, have you thought about this and say, it’s important, like it would be helpful to work in some breaks.

I would like to be working off screen. You can, you know, my productivity will remain high. You will have evidence of that, but I need a break from being on the screens all the times.

Is that possible to discuss and just be frank about it because I’m sure you’re not the only person who is thinking that or needing that. And I do think that companies need to be responsive to those issues, right? It’s a mental health issue for sure.

Talk to your EAP as well. If you have an employee assistance program at your job they may be able to assist, you know, in, first of all, helping you cope with it.

Second of all, it’s a private, you know, free hopefully space to talk about how do I have this conversation with my boss? I’m worried. I don’t want to be seen as a slacker, but this is an issue for me.

Jenn: I do know from personal experience, a great way for me to actually consciously unplug for part of my day is actually taking my lunchtime and going outside and taking a walk or getting a workout in.

And then that way it’s been really helpful. It’s been helpful for me because it provides a break. And it’s also a time in which I wouldn’t have normally been reached out to anyway, or if I am being reached out to, people are under the impression that I’m not there because I would be eating lunch.

So that might be a good starting point too if you are unsure about how to initiate that conversation.

Lisa: Absolutely. Yeah, for sure.

Jenn: Do you have any advice about, I know that you are a big component of acceptance and commitment therapy…

Lisa: Ah, yes.

Jenn:…so do you have any ways of actually getting ourselves to be more accepting of the fact that some screen use is going to be inevitable?

Not all screen use is bad. How do we get that point across without it being like, well, I blew the diet, I might as well eat the whole chocolate bar.

Lisa: Yes, right, so how do we do that? So, I think it all comes down to, you know, in ACT is acceptance and commitment therapy and it’s all about thinking about how can we contribute to and build lives that we really love that give us vitality, and what sorts of things get in the way?

And one of the things that gets in the way is very often when we are engaging in what we call experiential avoidance which just simply means unwillingness to experience unpleasant stuff, right. I don’t want to feel bored, so I’m going to be on the screen.

I don’t want to feel left out, so I’m going to scroll, you know, everybody’s kind of feeds and things like that.

So, part of becoming more psychologically flexible, right, which is the treatment targeting act just simply means increasing your bandwidth and your willingness to allow experience and just let yourself feel your feelings, you know, without giving into the urge to have to fix them, right.

And then, thinking about what are the things that are really important to you in your life and how can you build in a steady diet of those things when you can, right. So, let’s say you’re a creative person. How can you build little things in during your day, little moments of creativity?

Let’s say you love nature. How can you do that, right, without being on a screen? Let’s say you value your friends. What’s one small thing you could do every day to kind of build on that, right? And noticing lots of times when we start to move in that direction, right, negative things can show up.

Oh, I feel guilty calling that friend ‘cause I haven’t talked to them in six months, I’ll avoid it, right. That’s where the willingness piece comes in, right. You can ask yourself this question.

Am I willing to feel this, you know, guilt or whatever it is if checking up with this friend or connecting with this friend is something that’s going to help me build my life in a way that matters to me, right. And if the answer is yes, then do it.

So, with the screen use, you can say, am I willing to let myself feel a little bored in the service of strengthening that muscle of learning how to entertain myself in other ways?

Building maybe some cool, fun things that I didn’t even realize were fun for me, you know. And if the answer to that is yes, put down the screen, so that’s one way you could use it.

Jenn: How do we own our behaviors without necessarily justifying them to death? And I guess my example would be like the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I spent five and a half hours a day on the phone.

Lisa: Oh, my gosh.

Jenn: And I’m way better about owning that now because I’m actively trying to cut back on it, but I know for probably a week after looking at it my thought process was, well, the weather was terrible, so I had nothing else to do.

How do we break the habit of actually acknowledging and being uncomfortable without rationalizing ourselves to death?

Lisa: So important. So, I think that’s a really important question, right. ‘Cause it’s not helpful to sit there and rationalize. It doesn’t serve you in any way. I’d much rather people say, you know what, I’m going to go ahead and use my screen, and I’m going to be on it for too long, and I’m going to give myself permission to do that, right.

Don’t beat yourself up, but choose, right. Notice it as a choice rather than a have to, right. The more we treat our behavior as oh, it just happened or I just had to, or I can’t help it, that’s not helpful, right. You want to think about it as a choice, right.

And practice choosing, practice screwing it up, giving yourself permission, go on screen, use the screen, and then practice not giving in and see what that’s like and notice the difference, okay. You’re going to cultivate more flexibility when you feel less bullied into doing stuff and more choice in self-efficacy and agency.

Jenn: Is there any research done on what an appropriate amount of time for teens to play games daily?

Lisa: You know what, the quick answer is not really. Yes, there’s lots of research and it’s really mixed, and, in general, the longer that they’re on the more risk of depression, anxiety, et cetera.

However, all of that is just moot during the pandemic because using screens, gaming, school, all of these are ways that these kids are now connecting with their world. So, I don’t think we really have an answer for now, what’s the right time.

And I also think that that’s one of those like looking at the behavior in a vacuum question, right. It’s not helpful. What would be helpful though is thinking about is the amount of screen use taking my teen away from other things that are really important?

Is it interfering with their developmental trajectory? Are they not learning in school because they’re gaming all the time? Are they missing opportunities where they could go out and walk with a friend if friends are doing that kind of thing because they’re isolating, right.

Are they avoiding being with the family in some way? I think those are the more important questions. And so, thinking about it like that will help you address it in a more flexible, maybe more effective way to think about what do I want to be happening instead of all this screen time.

And then you can build in some of those things you want to be happening. And that’s going to be a more positive approach than kind of cutting down the screen time.

Jenn: Do you have time for one more question?

Lisa: Sure, why not? Go for it. The dogs are like slavering, I’m like feeding them treats as we’re talking so they’re not talking to you guys, sorry. Yeah, go ahead.

Jenn: It’s the dogs’ witching hour. I mean though if you think about it, like if it’s seven years for each like seven years dog lives for one year, like they haven’t eaten in a couple of days, right.

Lisa: That’s really funny, Jenn. I wasn’t sure where you were going to go with that but that’s hilarious.

Jenn: I would also be losing it if it had been like 40 hours since the last time I ate. So, alright, I promise one last question.

Lisa: Okay.

Jenn: Blue light glasses. Are they effective or are they just a hype?

Lisa: I think they actually are. I think there’s a little bit of data suggesting that they’re super helpful.

And anecdotally, like a lot of, you know, my colleagues who are on screens all day long are finding them super helpful, that they make a huge difference that they didn’t even realize. So, I think that they’re definitely worth looking into.

Jenn: I would agree. Personally, these are blue light glasses, and...

Lisa: You like ‘em?

Jenn: Yes, they’ve been incredibly helpful. I got them probably June or July and it’s been a very positive six months. Way less eye strain and headaches, so.

Lisa: That’s great. Very cool.

Jenn: But that actually sums us up because I want to be cognizant of how much screen time you’re spending with us.

Lisa: Thank you, Jenn.

Jenn: Lisa, thank you so much per usual, for all of your expertise. This was the fastest hour of my week especially on a screen. It just blew by.

I cannot thank you enough for all the information you’ve given us, so thank you So thank you, and thanks everybody joining this session.

Lisa: Now get off your screens.

Jenn: And, yeah, get off your screens, but until next time just be nice to one another, be nice to yourself and have a great day, thank you.

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Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.

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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.

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