Podcast: Social Media & the Mind
Jenn talks to Dr. Jacqueline Sperling about the impacts of social media on mental health and well-being. Jacqueline explains the science behind what keeps us constantly coming back to social media outlets, shares how overuse impacts kids and teens differently than adults, and answers audience questions about how we can improve our digital habits.
Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who specializes in implementing evidence-based treatments, such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and works with youth who present with anxiety disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Dr. Sperling is currently a program director of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program.
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.
Hi, folks. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening to you. Whatever time you’re joining us, wherever you’re joining us from, thank you so much for joining for our chat today about “Social Media and the Mind.”
I’m Jenn Kearney, and I’m a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital. And I’m joined today by Dr. Jacqueline Sperling. And if this was an in-person thing, I would ask whoever’s joined to raise their hand if they use social media.
I’d maybe even be so bold as to ask who’s on social media as we’re having this conversation. And by the way, totally judgment-free zone here. If you’re active on social media on a regular basis, it’s pretty likely that you’re feeling sort of reliant on it for many reasons.
Social networking, engagement, feeling connected to others. But you might find yourself checking it a little bit more often than you’d really like. You might even unconsciously reach for your device or find yourself answering a work email, and then questioning how you found yourself on LinkedIn.
And the last part might’ve been a personal anecdote from this morning. So just what on earth is making all of these platforms so habit-forming? And even more importantly, why is it so hard to snap out of these habits?
So these questions and so many more are exactly why I’m thrilled to have Jacqui with me today to talk all about the science of social media. What’s making it so habit-forming, how its overuse is impacting kids and adults differently, and ways that we can change our own digital consumption habits to better improve our mental health.
So if you are unfamiliar with her, Jacqueline Sperling, PhD is a clinical psychologist, faculty at Harvard Medical School, and the co-founder and co-program director of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital.
She specializes in working with youth who present with anxiety disorders and/or obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as providing parent guidance by using treatments like behavioral parent training to help families address children’s internalizing and externalizing behaviors.
And as if she doesn’t have enough on her plate, she’s also the author of “Find Your Fierce: How to Put Social Anxiety in Its Place.” So, Jacqui, I know this conversation has been a long time coming, and that you had worked alongside me and our social media content for McLean’s website.
So I’m super-excited to actually have the conversation with you in person. I want to start by asking, what is good about social media? And with a focus on the negative, ‘cause we’ve been talking about that so often, are there benefits to actually using it?
Jacqueline: Sure; it’s not all bad, right? Social media apps, they create opportunities for direct communication.
They also allow for local businesses to share posts about specials that they may be having, so community members can support their local businesses. They also can be platforms on which people can use to rally support for fundraisers and other meaningful causes.
Jenn: So what exactly is making social media use unhealthy then?
Jacqueline: So social media use has been linked to depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, low self-esteem, among others. And then a key aspect is those who differentiate between the different types of use of social media apps.
So that can be active use, passive use, and even more specifically, self-oriented and other-oriented use. And I can give examples of each. So an example of active use might be where someone is exchanging messages directly with a peer.
And that can be an example of a healthy way of supporting a social connection. An example of passive use might be when someone is scrolling through one’s newsfeed. And that can create opportunities for comparisons, and those comparisons may negatively impact one’s mood and self-esteem.
So for example, you’re seeing that someone else received more likes for their post compared to your post. You may also see examples of social exclusion. You see friends who are posing in a picture at an event, and you weren’t invited to that event.
And, in addition, the use of filters with pictures distorts people’s concept of what is a typical body type. And these filters can also negatively impact one’s self-esteem and body image. For self-oriented activities like updating one’s profile, those are less linked to a negative impact on one’s mood and self-esteem.
It’s really the other-oriented activities where you are looking at other people’s profiles, the comments, the likes, that are more linked to the negative impact on one’s mood and self-esteem.
Jenn: Can you elaborate a little bit on the mindless scrolling, and what is making social media and other apps so habit-forming?
Jacqueline: Sure, it’s this unpredictable frequency, or what we call a variable schedule of reinforcement, that is the most reinforcing schedule. And so it’s, you’re not knowing how many likes you’re going to get for a post, what people are going to say, what people are doing at different times.
All these different experiences facilitate more frequent checking behavior and a dopamine feedback loop. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that’s involved in the reward system. And any behavior that gets rewarded by the brain is likely to continue.
Jenn: So is that dopamine system...one thing that comes to mind is when you pull down on an app and it has the spinning wheel, and then something pops back up.
And you know it’s, I’m an adult, I’ve been to a casino before, it reminds me of a slot machine. Is there some sort of similarity in terms of why it’s structured that way?
Jacqueline: You absolutely nailed it. And actually a slot machine is often an example I might use. It’s almost like a slot machine. But yeah, so it’s this intermittent or unpredictable schedule of reinforcement.
And actually, those slot machines, and I know the paths are actually set up statistically for people to fail. So why are they so reinforcing, right? It’s like, if you knew that you never were going to get money back, you would not sit in those chairs.
But people have, they’ve been sitting in those chairs for an extended period of time just for that one chance they might get that jackpot. And that’s because like you don’t know how many likes you’re going to get if you put a post up. You keep checking, are you getting another like?
Or did someone post another comment? What did they say? Or did this person get more likes than I did? And there’s that you don’t know, or what are they going to post next. And so I think it’s an unpredictable nature that then reinforces people logging on.
Jenn: I also feel like, and you’re the expert, you can correct me if I’m wrong here, but it almost feels like when you think of a penny slot, people go, well, it’s only a penny. If I do it 100 times, it’s only a dollar.
What’s the big deal. So if people are constantly opening their apps and they’re going, oh, I’m only going on for a minute, it’s really not a big deal. But 100 times of that, you’ve lost almost two hours of your day.
Jacqueline: It adds up. And I think if you’re thinking about also the different types of use, like if you’re going and updating your profile, that’s one thing. But if you are having these experiences for comparison and it’s making you feel worse about yourself, it definitely does take a toll.
Jenn: I’m curious about the benefit of trying to keep kids away from using apps, especially if all of their friends are using them.
It seems like it’s a little like damned if you do, damned if you don’t, where they’re going to feel left out if they’re not on it, but if they’re going on it and seeing that they’re being left out anyway, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling cycle of misery.
Jacqueline: So I’d say forbidding youth to have access altogether can backfire. So I would say it’s important for families to develop a specific screen time plan in general. And then as part of that plan, it includes the use of social media apps.
And then I think it’s also important for parents to inform teens, give them the information about the impact that different types of social media use can have on one’s mood and self-esteem. Then teens can have this information to empower them, to make changes to their behavior.
Jenn: So how do we talk to kids about digital habits without coming off as being overbearing or bossy?
I know a lot of times parents want to approach their kids in a friendlier manner, but you just got to be the authority figure sometimes. Is it even possible to have a middle-of-the-road conversation?
Jacqueline: Teens do best when you offer a rationale as to why something is happening. If you’re just going, “Because I said so,” you’re not going to get usually a receptive response.
But if you give a rationale like this, “I’m presenting this screen time plan for the family, because I’ve learned how some strategies that might help our physical and mental health,” and explain why, then they might be more perceptive to hearing what you’re about to say.
It’s also critical for parents to follow the screen time plan that they implement at home. Teens will be much more likely to adhere to a plan if their parents are modeling healthy habits. If you want your teens to put their phone away at dinner, it’s going to be key for parents to do the same.
Jenn: What, in your professional opinion, would you consider to be an appropriate restriction for adolescent use of social media sites? The person who wrote in said specifically Instagram and Snapchat, but I’m sure this applies to all of them.
Jacqueline: So I think it’s going to depend on the age of the child as well, in terms of also family values, culture. I would say it’s really important for all caregivers involved to talk together and to have a united front, come up with a plan first before presenting it to the family.
And it’s not, let’s say, up for negotiation, any parents may adapt it over time how they see fit. You can decide whether it’s a certain amount of time that you want anyone spending on the app, or if it’s after certain activities have been completed, like when’s it going to be used.
And I would say get as concrete and specific as possible. ‘Cause if it’s vague then it’s almost like a setup for conflict, right? Or you get these questions sprung on you, “But what about a sleepover? What about vacation?”
You’re like, I knew nothing about that ahead of time, and then you’re put on the spot. So the more you can think these things through and have a plan in place, and talk about it with your family ahead of time, then they know the plan and they can read it accordingly.
And I would say it could be, particularly like for younger kids, you want them turning in their phones at a certain time, or you’re reviewing activities together, or families can have as part of the screen time plan, or if kids on Instagram or on Snapchat, they want to follow someone they don’t know directly, that they have to ask permission first.
And then parents can actually preview the posts that this person is airing out there to see is it appropriate for my child to see this.
Jenn: It seems like a similar response to what I was going to ask next, which is, how can caregivers ensure that their kids are using social media in ways that are safe and appropriate? Do you have any suggestions for even how to approach that conversation with them?
Jacqueline: I think as part of a screen time plan with families, it’s really important to include all those aspects in there in terms of how their teens should be using it. And I think there are multiple ways.
And particularly if you have a younger teen who’s first starting out on using the apps, it can be important to have as part of the plan that parents will review certain posts or that they have certain agenda to see how they’re using the apps.
And these posts are permanent fingerprints, and that can be really tough to grasp for a teen whose frontal lobes have not been fully developed, right? And so they have to learn to be comfortable that their posts might, think of them as like being up on a billboard, right?
They have to be comfortable thinking like, would you put that up on a billboard? Let alone have her parents review the post; think about the billboard. It’s much more public than your parents, they’re the least of your concern, right?
And so that might then help them feel like, oh, my parents are going to see that, and that might make me think a little bit before I post this, right, to have a little bit more thought that goes into something before they post and share things.
I think it can also be important for parents to have regular conversations with their children, youth, to see what are the takeaways from their social media use. I think this can also influence parents to see how they’re interpreting certain behaviors, certain images on there. And also they can see how use is affecting their teens.
Jenn: So if my child wants to sign up for a social media site or an app, what should I be on the lookout for to make sure that it’s safe for them to use? Should I myself join the platform to check it out and see if any red flags might be popping up that way?
Jacqueline: I think you can check out some of these profiles, what type of media are shared on these different apps, you want to explore that. And I think that other aspect is part of the plan to see, having your teens ask permission to follow someone they don’t know directly.
I mean, if it’s like a peer, you know the family, I think that could be fine that they’re having, they can have direct communication that way. But if it’s a celebrity, someone’s now identified as an influencer, you want to make sure that they’re having a positive influence on your child, and to check out what kind of posts they’re having.
Jenn: One thing that I’ve noticed is that with social media, people really only post good things. A lot of it ends up being a highlight reel, and they’re not really showing the reality of what’s happening behind the smoke and mirrors, so to speak.
Is it healthy to be kind of honest and transparent, and vulnerable on social media? Or do you find that this might be problematic or backfire? Where does that divide lie?
Jacqueline: It’s really tricky. You highlight a really important point that I think also plays a role into that negative impact on one’s mood, right?
Because people are just showcasing, you know, it could be a shot that was taken 24 times before they got the image that they wanted to have, or use a filter, or only showing their travels or social opportunities that they have.
People aren’t really posting pictures of bad hair days or really tough, challenging, painful days that they’re having. And at the same time, is that really the platform that you want to use to share something that’s really deeply personal to yourself?
I think it is really important to practice making one’s self vulnerable in order to establish strong connections with others. And then think about what is the context in which one might do that.
So I think practice making yourself vulnerable in live conversations, right? Whether it’s a direct communication, a phone call, an in-person gathering, I think those would be great spaces to do that.
Jenn: I think that’s a much better starting point, too, because you can get people’s reactions in real time, and it doesn’t have that glossed-over filter. People can’t think about what they want to say, type it out, erase it, so on and so forth.
So they can actually give you a genuine and honest response as to what you’re sharing. What are some of the signs and symptoms that using social media is either contributing to or causing mental health struggles?
Jacqueline: Sure, so one can look out for changes in mood, sleep, a desire to socialize or engage in what once were previously deemed pleasurable activities. While this is not exhaustive, but it can offer some ideas of what might change.
I’m also a firm believer that seeing is believing. So in terms of like one can do a behavioral experiment to kind of see how these social media apps are affecting one’s mood and self-esteem.
So one can, this behavioral experiment might look like rating one’s mood before they use an app on a scale of zero to 10, 10 being the most intense you could ever experience in emotion, zero, not at all. So before using the app, you can say I’m seven happy, four worried, maybe a little angry, and then use that.
Pay attention to how you’re using it actively, passively, and self-oriented and other-oriented ways. Re-rate your mood afterward. If you start to notice that you are less happy and you’re feeling worse after using that app, you can use those data to motivate changes in your behavior.
And then you have some direct evidence of how they’re impacting your mood.
Jenn: I’m curious, based on the work that you’re doing, mostly focused in anxiety and OCD, have you noticed any upticks in anxiety, depression, or OCD that’s associated with social media usage? Have patients reported that they feel worse after using it?
I think you know that, without revealing any personal information, I think generally what I’ve noticed, first of all, there are just a lot of concerns about even what to say, their social anxiety about what they want to put out there, or just like having just the right image or also then comparing.
The social exclusion is big, particularly if you are a student in junior high, I think you know that that is just a whole other level of relational aggression that can happen, meaning that it’s not physical aggression, but it’s in terms of like exclusions, spreading rumors, people posting snarky comments.
And people feel almost like, with that barrier of a screen, they feel more emboldened to share things I can’t imagine someone would do to someone’s face, but they feel more likely to be able to do those things. So I think that could be a helpful thing to share.
Jenn: It seems like young kids are spending a lot of time watching shows and playing games on screens. Do you have any insight into how much screen time is actually healthy for younger children?
Jacqueline: So I guess maybe on average, there was a recommendation of no more than two hours of recreational screen time. So that evolved over time. You just want to make sure that, and particularly in a pandemic, we become so reliant on use of screens.
You just want to make sure it’s not replacing other activities, right, that it’s not replacing getting out and being physical, and doing sports or extracurricular activities that allow you to be active, not replacing social outings that are live or in-person.
You want to make sure that they’re able to do the more typical everyday activities, and that these are just sort of like an adjunct.
Jenn: Can you provide a little bit of clarity on the types of screens that we’re talking about for screen limits? Is that just like phones and laptops? Or does that actually include TV time as well?
Jacqueline: I would say recreational screen time, that’s really important. I’m glad you brought that up. For the family screen time plan, you want to get really concrete. So this is anything with a screen they’re using recreational. TV, laptop, iPad, phone.
It could be, if families want to include Kindle, it’s up to them if they want, particularly because it can affect their sleep hygiene. So you want to make sure that, in particular, teens are not on their screens at least an hour before bed.
So anything that’s recreational, and find out the window of time you want them doing it, and when they turn those screens off. If it’s a family movie night, I wouldn’t count, I mean, I would say you wouldn’t have to count that as their screen time hours.
So they feel like you’re probably going to have teens be like, “Well, fine, I’m not going to spend time with you. I’d rather do it on my own independently.”
So you can have that as a separate amount of screen time. But it’s more like they’re on their phone by themselves, thinking about recreational, video games.
Jenn: Do you have advice about how to talk to your loved ones about setting limits on their screen time? Obviously, trying to approach it a little bit non-confrontationally, but I imagine because of the pandemic, we’re all a little bit more glued to our devices.
And if one of us in a partnership wants to snap out of it, it can be kind of hard when you seem like you’re the pot calling the kettle, you know?
Jacqueline: I think, so I’m in the mindset I would recommend, suggest saying, “Hey, this is what I’ve learned about how social media use can affect one’s mental health, I’ve decided to make some changes. I’m wondering if you’re interested in hearing what I’ve learned.”
And if you get a yes, then you have an invitation to hear what you have to say and an openness to listen that could be received much differently versus like, “I think you should stop that and do this differently,” right? “That’s not good for you.”
And people often might like shut their ears and just have a knee-jerk reaction because they feel like they’re being told what to do and not often being heard as well. But if you’re sort of like, “Hey, this is what I heard. Would you be interested in hearing it?”
The same goes with like teens too, right? That you are giving them information that also can empower them to make different behavior choices.
Jenn: You’ve teed me up beautifully for the next question.
Someone wrote in saying that they struggle between wanting to use an app that controls screen time for their teen, but also wants to build trust with them in the hopes that they’ll actually control their own time on their own devices.
So do you have any suggestions about which path to take? Or do you suggest that parents limit screen time by using an app that controls teen and child usage?
Jacqueline: I suggest starting with the screen time plan where it’s actually giving some locus of control for the teens, right? It’s not like you’re cracking down and then sort of turning off all their apps or their apps just disappear.
I think that those are somewhat backup actions, if you find you’re having some challenges. But really empowering teens is to be able to, whether it’s like, you’re turning your phone or all screens off on a certain hour.
You know, like that’s part of the screen use plan. And you can do it a couple different ways. It could be like how you earn your screen time the next day is if you turn it in by a certain amount of time, right? If not, then you skip a day and try it again the next day.
It could be like you’re using a reward system for someone, that they get a point or a star or a check for every time they hand in their phone, and then they could use that point system to cash in for anything else that might be rewarding for them.
Not necessarily things that have to cost money, but something that might be rewarding for them, like picking what they want for dinner or something like that. Or it could also be like, if it is something that costs money like a Spotify subscription for a month or something like that, you know, they can cash those in.
So I think create a plan where it gives them an opportunity to actually actively participate in this plan and not feel like they’re being told what to do.
Jenn: I love that you’ve provided a suggestion that is kind of flipping the gamification on its head, because we all know gamification works. It’s why we all enter sweepstakes and play games. We enter contests and all of that stuff because we all want the chance at something better.
So for you to actually take the gamification of social media and flip it around to say, well, if you spend less time on your device, you’ll actually be able to gain an incentive in real time. That’s a really interesting approach to it.
Jacqueline: Well, I appreciate your support of that, ‘cause I’m of the mindset that you’re never too old for rewards. I wonder if any of the viewers out there have any of like the, I’m not promoting a certain store or anything, but there’s like the Starbucks app.
The Starbucks app will give you legitimate stars for every time you make a purchase that you can then cash in. And sometimes it’s like Double Star Day, and that motivates people to then go make a visit.
So like you’re never too old for rewards. Those things are designed for even adults, so.
Jenn: Yeah, and the fact that it’s a gold star, too, is like, it just hearkens right back to your childhood.
Jacqueline: Exactly. So if you can find a way to make it more motivating, then that would be my suggestion. And keeping in mind, I just want to put out there, too, is that something that I noted was that they could earn their screen time the next day. This is key wording choice.
So you want to make sure that you’re not taking away screen time. I would remove that phrase from your vocabulary. It seems that kids often feel like these screens are like an inalienable right or like an appendage, and they are a given. They actually are a privilege, right?
You know, like parents are required to give food, clothing, and shelter, and things that go beyond that are privileges. And so that you’re not taking anything away, but there can be ways when you come up with a screen time plan, but have your children honor their screen time use. It’s not just a given.
And so that can be something that you fold in there in terms of whether they turn in their phones at a certain time and that’s how they earn it, or with homework completion and things like that.
Jenn: We’ve had a couple of folks write in saying that they’ve had hesitation in getting their child their own digital device, because they’re concerned about another distraction. And we live in an overwhelmingly distracting world to begin with. Phones aren’t helping anybody.
But a lot of their friends have one or multiple devices, and there’s that feeling of FOMO, the Feeling Of Missing Out, their kids feel left out. Do you have any suggestions on how they can manage these situations?
Jacqueline: This is really tough, and I feel for families feeling like they’re being pulled in multiple directions, right. They feel a sense of what they value for their family, and at the same time, they don’t want their children to be left out of the actions.
And I, from what I gather, the situation is not too different from what we would experience before smartphones, like I said, that there were some children who couldn’t stay out as late, or couldn’t go to certain venues, right?
And you may throw your parents under the bus. “Oh, my parents are really strict.” That’s totally fine, right. But that’s what it looked like before smartphones and now it may look a different way.
And so what I would encourage children or teens to say is that it’s totally fine to throw your parents under the bus, if that’s okay with your family, right, to say, “You know what, my family only lets me have access to my phone,” I’ll just make something up, “between seven and nine,” right? “That’s when I have access to that, so that’s when I’ll be able to respond to our group chat.”
If you want to make plans, like if you have a landline or their parents’ number or something that they want to call that they can do ahead of time or they can find them at school. And the thing is, well, they could miss out on some social opportunities, like kids aren’t going to wait for them.
And I would say a good friend will find a way to connect with you, to make sure that you find out about plans so that you’re included, right. And if not, you see the test of friendship and they’re likely not a good friend. And so I think this is something we saw before smartphones, it just looked a little bit differently.
So I encourage families to adopt a screen time plan that’s consistent with their values, and then helping their teens communicate with their peers so that they know when they’re available.
Jenn: How would you navigate the conversation where, if it’s a true friend will actively seek you out, when everything is so easily at your fingertips if your, say, for example, like I’m the teenager who’s unavailable because I don’t have a device, and I end up being left out from everything.
Your true friends will find you conversation, I feel like, can only take you so far before a teen would start internalizing that. How would you approach that type of conversation where, if it’s a repeated behavior, both on the teen’s part and their friend’s part?
Jacqueline: I would have conversations with teens to say that, “Look, I’m wondering what would be helpful to help you communicate with your friends to help make sure that you are notified in some way.” Like, what would feel helpful?
So if you’re not coming into lecture mode, right, kids are much more likely to hear what you have to say if you create a space to be invited in, right. And if they say, I don’t know what to say, like, what do I do? Then you have an opportunity.
Would it be helpful to kind of brainstorm something that you could say? Again, another way, offering an invitation. And then you can help them learn to advocate for themselves. It’s a skill that will take them beyond communicating whether they’re on screen or not.
I mean, someone can communicate like, “Hey, I’ve noticed that people are making plans. I get that I’m not available until later and that could be an inconvenience. What would be the best way that would work for you to make sure that I would really love to be involved, but I want to make sure.”
And sometimes the other person is not keeping that in mind. They’re like, oh, I need a reminder. Or how important is it they want to make sure that they communicate with each other. Like check in with me at this time. I’ll let you know about for the weekend, you know.
Jenn: I think that advocacy piece of advice is super-helpful because a lot of folks end up with social anxiety or some aspects of social anxiety.
And one of those big things is you don’t want to be left behind, but you’re also, you have fear of speaking up and standing up for yourself because you don’t want to look like you’re an outlier.
So I think being able to, I don’t want to say get over that, but start to overcome that at a younger age is just so much more empowering than trying to learn that skill when you’re an adult later on.
Jacqueline: Recognize that this is a skill that they can take with them beyond this situation, right, if you can generalize it.
Jenn: Exactly. I’m curious about if there are any gender differences in terms of frequency, like frequency of phone or social media use as a predictor of anxiety and depression onsets.
An example would be like, are girls/women more susceptible because of comparison behaviors due to what they’re being exposed to?
Jacqueline: So there have been differences found in particularly the younger the age it all starts when it really affects girls.
I think it’s also the body image and self-esteem concerns, particularly if those are seeing images over and over again that involve the use of filter, and those people only post pictures where they’re looking their best, or even an enhanced version of themselves.
And in particularly in girls that their bodies are changing, and they’ve seen some sex differences there.
Jenn: Can you talk a little bit about filter use and what it actually does to not only the mind of the person that’s applying a filter, but the mind of the people that are being exposed to it?
Jacqueline: It distorts what your view of what a typical body type is like.
Even where a leading plastic surgeon is saying that they’ve seen an uptick in requests for people to change their appearance, to look like how they look with a Snapchat filter. And so it definitely has a negative impact on what people want themselves to look like.
Jenn: Can you talk a little bit about ways to break the mindless scroll habit that a lot of us call self-care? I know I, myself, am very guilty of this. At the end of the day, I will, air quote, unwind by checking up on what’s happening on social media or on my phone.
And I know a lot of folks have said that that’s a helpful distraction, but for people like me, it’s been five minutes and that’s it. And before I know it, it’s been 45 and I should’ve gone to bed a half hour ago. So help me help other people.
Jacqueline: You’re definitely not alone, absolutely. It’s a challenge, right, and it’s easily accessible. And as we talked about with that slot machine effect, it’s very reinforcing. Your brain is getting a lot of dopamine. It’s going to make you keep going.
It’s like with Netflix and they’re like, just one more, just one more, right, and it keeps scrolling to the next show to cut you off. So I would suggest like, if you’re finding that setting a timer for yourself and that’s helpful, and you’ll stop at the time that it goes off.
If you’re someone where you’re like, I’m just going to hit that snooze button or turn it off, I’m not going to follow that, you can schedule your screen time use probably when you’re online, maybe perhaps before you have something else scheduled.
So maybe perhaps you’ve a phone date with a friend. And then that way, it’s a hard stop, right, where you’re held accountable, and you’re doing something that doesn’t involve necessarily looking at a screen, right, you’re connecting with someone.
So that can be another way to be held accountable to stop, if you find that setting an alarm wouldn’t suffice.
Jenn: So I have to admit it is becoming really difficult to tell what’s true and what’s not online, and this is beyond the concept of things being fake news. But there are a lot of conspiracy theories and a lot of bot accounts that push them.
Do you have any suggestions on how to teach teens, and I would go so far as to say even some of our own peers, how to think critically to identify what’s true and what isn’t on social media?
Jacqueline: I think it’s really important. That’s a part of it for parents to have conversations with teens. Like what are their takeaways from the use, engage them in conversations like, “Oh, I saw this post,” and that can also spark a conversation of like, how do we determine what’s credible and what’s not.
And to recognize like, what is the source of that information, right? There are some sources that could be more reputable than others. Is it backed by science, for example. Are there facts that like, are you seeing this across multiple places of reputable sources are sharing some information.
Teach them some tools to determine whether or not it’s misinformation and disinformation, so it’s accurate.
Jenn: So I’m curious if you are often seeing folks who meet the threshold for addiction when it comes to device use? And then I suppose a follow-up question would also be, what does digital addiction present as?
Jacqueline: It definitely happens.
I mean, particularly with through my work, I think some people might use it as a form of not to say addiction but like avoidance, right, where it’s sort of like if they’re someone who’s experiencing social anxiety, they’re afraid of in-person interactions, would be sort of like one way as sort of like a crutch.
But then they maybe more less likely to get out of the house because they have some form of remote access. And then there are teens, they just feel like they’re losing sleep over checking their phones all the time.
Research has found that a significant number of teenagers are checking their phone in the middle of the night, and it’s disrupting their sleep. But they’re finding that they’re checking it during school, they’re distracted, they’re not paying attention to what’s being told.
Or if it’s an adult, that they’re checking all the time at work, and it’s reducing their productivity. And these are signs, right, where someone might need to cut back on their screen time use.
Jenn: Do you have any advice for teachers who are dealing with kids that are on their phones all the time?
Because I know, as I’ve got several friends who are teachers who say, it’s really hard to enforce it, because number one, that they’re using their phones for calculators and other research and they’re actually using it for educational purposes.
But then the other part is, sometimes parents get a little bit annoyed. You can’t tell exactly what the kid is relaying to the parent at home, and then it comes back, and it’s a difficult place to be in.
Jacqueline: I don’t envy that position. I think that’d be so tricky if they’re using the phones, right, to access certain media.
I wonder in terms of they can come up with a plan of they’re using it briefly for something and then asking their students, turn your phones over, and so they can see that the case is face up, right.
Or they can flip it over and do this one computation, and then flip it over, let’s have a discussion. Or if there’s a plan where they don’t need to have it and the phones are in their backpacks, or they’re in their lockers.
They’re not turned away if they’re not using the phone. But I think the more that schools will come up with ways where they don’t necessarily need to use the phone to access information, I think probably the better. We have been able to learn a lot before then, so hopefully.
Jenn: Yes, I did okay with my TIE or math without an iPhone. I think I’m going to be okay, knock on wood, but. We had a provider write in saying that they’re seeing a lot of middle school kids that are especially boys, who can very easily access adult content online.
And some of them are admitting to spending too much time looking at it in the same way that parents are telling the providers that kids are just spending too much time on social media.
Is this something that you’ve come across? And if so, how do you suggest that care providers address this?
Jacqueline: In terms of if it’s with youth or it’s adults? It sounds like it was with youth for this question, right?
Jenn: Yeah, so it seems like it’s more youth-focused, ‘cause it says middle school kids, especially boys. But I’m certain that this could apply to adults as well.
Jacqueline: Well, I think in terms of like, it’s important for parents to make sure that the sites that are being accessed are appropriate for their teens and their kids.
So I think there are certain parental controls that can be put in place so that there are certain sites that cannot be accessed. And I think it can also be where you’re reviewing the material, right, where certain sites that are being accessed at certain time points by teens so that there are those checkpoints in that respect.
If someone’s finding they are addicted to certain sites or certain media, I think there’s a different type of treatment that might be involved with that as well, right. Because some of the overuse of those images or those videos can also distort one’s perspective of how relationships actually unfold in real life, too.
Jenn: Are you aware of any research or results that have come up now that a lot of social media platforms have been around for a decade plus? I want to say like Twitter has been almost 15 years, and Facebook, too, if my math is, anyway.
I can’t do math. But do you know if there’s any research that’s been done in some of the longer-term use of social media and its impact on people’s mental health?
Jacqueline: So there have been more in terms of like a longitudinal follow-up where some researchers found that it wasn’t necessarily the amount of time that was negatively impacting their moods.
That was more of a longitudinal study, but it had a narrow focus, right, in terms of like, it’s not the amount of time that’s actually negatively impacting someone.
I think what research is suggesting now it’s the type of use that has a negative impact on one’s mood, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be more long-term. It could be more immediate as well. We were talking about the different ways, whether it’s self-oriented or other-oriented.
Jenn: How can folks, this is not necessarily teen-specific, but how can folks deal with cyberbullies?
This is something that it’s a very emotionally-fueled environment, I guess, is really the only delicate way that I can put it. But it seems like people are just very reactive and that can be problematic. So how can we deal with cyberbullies?
Jacqueline: I suggest dealing with cyberbullies in a similar way that I would suggest with in-person bullies, is that as tough as it may be, I suggest removing all attention from them. It’s likely what a bully wants, right, is to make someone feel smaller than they feel.
They typically don’t feel very good about themselves, right. And so that they may say something hurtful online and feel even more emboldened to do so through a screen. And if you engage back and forth, you’re giving them just what they want, right, is a reaction out of you that if you don’t actually respond, it’s not going to be very motivating for them to keep going.
I think it’s important if it were a teen that is experiencing this, right, that they also are being open about what they’re experiencing, so you can help support them through this.
Jenn: Someone wrote in, and I’m genuinely curious of, is I have never heard this before.
They asked the question, “My teenage son and his girlfriend chat on FaceTime before bed, proceed to leave it on all night long, and then wake each other up in the morning because they’re still connected to the same FaceTime session.”
This parent has asked around, and apparently he’s not the only young person doing this with either a friend or a significant other. Have you heard about this before? And do you have any suggestions for parents who might be experiencing this with their kids?
Jacqueline: That’s quite a call, an extended call, to stay on. I mean, I appreciate that desire to remain connected. I find, I think that’s, I know that’s very lovely that they’re feeling very excited about each other and want to say goodnight to each other and wake up to each other.
You know, that’s great that they have that positive connection. And I think it’s really important for families when they’re coming up with the screen time plan to talk about sleep hygiene, how having the screens on, the blue light can actually suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin, which helps the brain start to fall asleep.
And so making sure there’s a time where actually the phones get disconnected well before bed, and that they can still say good morning to each other when it’s time earlier on, but they can do so in a different way.
If you find that your plan is that they don’t have access to screens until later in the day, then maybe they can come up with an alternative way to remain connected, whether they’re seeing each other at school or something like that.
Jenn: Seems incredibly helpful. Had a few questions about apps. So first and foremost, what would be, do you have any suggestions for what would be considered a healthier app, something that’s actually going to strengthen your mental health or your fortitude?
Jacqueline: A social media app that improves your mental health?
Jenn: Not necessarily social media, but any digital app.
Jacqueline: Well, I mean, there are lots of apps that offer different mindfulness exercises, like Headspace and things like that, and Calm that people can use. I think those can be really helpful. You also don’t have to look at the screen to use them.
It’s more audio-based. And so I think those can be helpful. I think not necessarily found to work for social media apps that have been like all-around in terms of like a boost to one’s mental health.
Jenn: I do know that Pinterest has released research about people’s mental health when using their app? And most people, I think it’s like 80% of people actually report feeling better after using Pinterest, but they also have some of the most strict guidelines in place.
Like recently, they just eliminated weight loss and scammy exercise things. They just refined all of their search results. And I know probably about a year ago, or several years ago, rather, they were pretty aggressive in removing anything that was promoting eating disorders from their platform.
Jacqueline: Well, I think, you know, there are a lot of people that like to look at recipes, right, or crafts and things like home design. So I think I can definitely see how that might boost one’s mental health.
And I think like, I’ve also talked to people about curating their newsfeed, where you can actually remain socially connected with peers, but you can actually unfollow them or mute their posts so that you only see, maybe you follow some news organizations or you like certain restaurants and seeing their posts, and so you just want to see those.
And you might find you feel much better when you log on and you’re only seeing non-human posts. So that’s something I think about with Pinterest. I think I could see a lot of that, because a lot of those posts are not necessarily about someone’s life updates.
Jenn: Exactly. If folks, if anybody listening uses Google Chrome, there’s an extension that I personally use called Newsfeed Eradicator. And between the hours of seven a.m. and seven p.m., if I go on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, there’s no posts.
It’s really only an inspirational quote, and you have to go in and manually disable it. And I found that actually to be very helpful when trying to get things done. It’s my own little umbrella of protection to make sure that I’m productive at my job.
Jacqueline: That’s great. I love that. Thank you for the suggestion.
Jenn: Do you have any advice for apps to provide digital limitations not just for yourself, but for your kids?
Jacqueline: So some families have found the OurPact app. I think that’s free, where it’s OurPact app is where you can actually set a time where like certain apps just disappear off of other people’s phones.
You can still text and use the phone, though, but it’s like other, like Snapchat and Instagram might disappear. Disney Circle, that is one where you can have all devices connected to it, and it actually monitors how many minutes each device is being used, and things like that.
You can even have a tour plan on there and a reward system. So it’s very dynamic in terms of what might be helpful.
And I think also just using, even like using the app that people like, whatever company that they use for their Internet. There are often ones you can actually have an app for that to look at parental controls, and they also can limit or restrict their access.
Jenn: We have some folks asking about how addiction to social media differs from substance addiction. And my follow-up question to that would be, does detoxing, air quote, detoxing from social media actually work?
Jacqueline: In terms of like, if you take a break from it, are you no longer addicted in terms?
Jacqueline: In terms of that?
Jacqueline: I think it’s you want to come up with a plan, find out why someone is using social media.
Like if some people are seeking it because they’re seeking maybe perhaps like a, it’s almost like a superficial way of getting reinforcement or praise from people if they post, they want likes on certain posts.
What is it that they’re trying to fill a little void of their self-esteem, or they feel disconnected from the world. And I feel like then I would want to work on helping them foster social relationships that are in real time.
So I think like I would, I think if you just cut them off from social media, are we just sort of like putting a Band-Aid on something, and are we not necessarily healing what’s going on underneath. So I would be more inclined to look at what’s driving that behavior.
Jenn: Out of curiosity, how do you yourself manage your social media limitations and your usage?
Jacqueline: Oh, that’s a great question. So it’s not a secret for those who know me. I am very passionate about ice cream. And so anything that I may follow, the only thing I see in newsfeed is special flavors that may be posted in local stands.
I like to support the local communities, particularly in the pandemic. So if I see there’s a special flavor, I will go visit them. And in the real-time interaction with friends, family, to experience their special flavor and to support those shops.
But I don’t actually see people’s life updates. If I want to have direct communication or if someone I see posts, ‘cause I can get a notification, I will send them a direct message so that I can have a direct conversation with them, and that it’s not necessarily out in the public eye.
And that’s more how I would use social media. And the other thing is like, I also, I love to learn. And so there may be like, in terms of an undergrad alumni institutional share, like articles or different research that’s coming out, I like reading that, too. So those are some of the updates. Ice cream and education resources.
Jenn: The best of both worlds, in my opinion. So, alright, my follow-up question to that, which is totally unrelated to just social media, but what is your favorite flavor of ice cream that you’ve had if you’re supporting all these local places?
Jacqueline: Oh, my gosh, this is like, you’re opening up Pandora’s Box. But if I have to pick just one, for those of you who are in Massachusetts, am I allowed to promote a certain place? I have no connection to them, I don’t get any kickback, but-
Jenn: Not a promotion. This is not hashtag sponsored anybody.
Jacqueline: Okay, I’m just saying-
Jenn: Just your favorite flavor.
Jacqueline: ‘Cause I’m all about supporting. Also, I like s’mores, and so there’s a certain local stand that makes a really great s’mores flavor.
Jenn: So my final question for you is, any last pieces of advice or words of wisdom that you’d want to share with folks tuning in about social media, how we’re using it, and how we can better make it work for us instead of us working for them?
Jacqueline: So I get the social media, it’s going to be here for at least a very long time, if not the long run.
And so to find a plan that works best for you and your family, that would be my suggestion, start collecting information for yourself, behavioral experiments about what works best, what might be not work so well.
But I also really will encourage people that if you’re feeling it’s a way that offers social connection in a way that’s COVID-friendly, find ways to have live conversations with people, interact with people directly.
Those are some really satisfying, meaningful connections. And if you can also use them to leverage support for local community organizations or events, then you go have those experiences in real life. So use it as sort of like a starting point to go then have, in real time, connections.
Jenn: I think that is a lovely way to end the session. And if I may say, if I may be so bold to say, this is the best hour of screen time that I have had this week.
Jacqueline: Thank you.
Jenn: So Dr. Sperling, thank you so much for all of your insight. This has been really, really fascinating. And I hope that everybody tuning in has learned as much as I have. So this actually concludes our session.
But until next time, be nice to one another, be nice to yourself, and get off your screen and go get some fresh air. You’ve totally earned it. So thank you again, Dr. Sperling, and-
Jacqueline: Thank you so much for having me.
Jenn: Everyone, have a great day.
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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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