Mindful Technology Use

Most of you who open this article will not finish it. That's okay. No one denies we read differently on the web than from a physical book. But how often do we stop to think about how we engage with digital technology, and how it is serving us? How often do we ask our students to do the same? Are we being intentional about our use, or do we find ourselves pulled from our moorings, looking up hours later with no clear awareness of where the time has gone? Stopping to check in becomes incredibly important in this age where our lives are so entwined with screens.

Now, I love digital technology. It allows easy collaboration with clients and colleagues. I can text a friend if I am running late. I can navigate unfamiliar places with ease. There are brief moments of panic, when the internet is down or my phone battery dies, when I realize how heavily reliant I have become on these technologies. What am I am going to do?????

I am not alone in this digital dependency. According to Common Sense Media, American teens use digital technology an average of 9 hours a day, not including time spent for schoolwork and homework. From interactions with my students, that number seems low. They sleep with their phones next to their beds and under their pillows, wake to streams of snapchat conversations, and pull out their phones if a teacher pauses for an inhale. That said, adults are no less dependent, spending even more time in front of screens (including work-related use).

There's no question digital technology is a real boon to society. But do we ever stop to consider the darker side of our technology obsession?

There are two questions that I think each person to should consider when evaluating their own digital technology use habits:

1. What impact does my digital technology use have on my well-being?

2. What impact do the things I am neglecting, while engaged with my digital technology, have on my well-being?

These are answers we must come up with for ourselves through careful experimentation and observation.  Mindfulness gives us tools to notice ourselves, our habits and tendencies, without judgement. When we are aware, then we have the power to decide: should I keep scrolling through instagram, or have I had enough?

That said, there is research suggesting some universal impacts of our screen usage that can guide our investigation.

1. According to Dr. Lucy Palladino, author of Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers, excessive digital technology use weakens our voluntary attention by constantly stimulating our involuntary attention. Our attention functions bidirectionally. We can purposefully direct our voluntary attention to a particular thing and sustain that attention. Or, our involuntary attention can be captured, often times by flashing lights, bright colors, and fast movement. Video games, social media, and many websites are designed to capture our attention with flashy gimmicks and hold us there through these intense sensory stimuli. When we repeatedly face these excessive stimuli, our brains become dependent on them, and without proper practice maintaining our attention, we lose our ability to focus. And guess what requires our voluntary attention: Learning challenging things. Having higher-order complex thoughts. Reading.

As Nicholas Carr quotes from a study in Nature, web use, "weakens our capacity for the kind of 'deep processing' that underpins 'mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, reflection.'" As his book title, The Shallows, suggests, he believes we are rapidly losing our critical thinking skills in this new age of information exchange and acquisition.

Don't go away yet! I've got a fun video for you:

2. Our nervous systems are hijacked through excessive arousal from the aforementioned overstimulation. Thinking back to psych 101: Our nervous systems vacillate between states of calm of activation.  In a parasympathetic state, we can "rest and digest," whereas sympathetic arousal, is our "fight, flight, freeze" response, when our bodies prepare to protect ourselves. The hormones released during a sympathetic arousal would be dissipated by movement IF we were, in fact, running from a saber tooth tiger. But if our sympathetic system is activated and we don't discharge that energy because we are drooling over our phone or gaming system, it gets stuck circulating in the body.

Furthermore, we require down time for our systems to come back to stasis, and without this down time, we become addicted to those higher levels of arousal perpetuated by social media, video games, and other highly stimulating screen-based activities. Victoria Dunckley, in Reset Your Child's Brain, warns addiction arousal leaves young people craving more screen time, but also more sensitive to additional stress. If you are all jacked up on cortisol coursing through your system, and then you pile on one more stressor— say a geometry test tomorrow— that is enough to set you over the edge.

3. Digital technology disrupts our sleep. Bright lights disrupt the body’s ability to produce melatonin, the hormone that is released when evening cues us to start hitting the hay. Even with screen filters, which do help some, the aforementioned arousal that comes from engaging with digital technology does not create the soothing pre-bed environment our body needs to settle.

It doesn't stop there, however. According to Palladino (147), a 2013 survey of high school students revealed that over 50% reported they were woken in the middle of the night by text messages, phone calls, or emails because they sleep with their phones next to their beds. My students regularly confirm the disrupting nature of technology, reporting that they fall down the digital vortex at night, only at 2am realizing they have no idea where the time went.

There's more, of course, but who has the attention span for that?

The second question still remains: what are we sacrificing when we are on our screens? Time for imaginative and creative play and thinking, practicing musical instruments, playing board games with our family, fully savoring our meals, time outdoors connecting with nature, movement, dance, noticing our emotions and responding to them. The list goes on. As Nicholas Carr points out in the above video, these are the very activities that define humanity. Additionally, we need periods of extended uninterrupted time to engage fully with these experiences.

So, where to start? Here are some thoughts Professor Matthew Day and I have developed to help people start to address their own screen use habits.

Electronic Screen Use Guidelines:

1. Learn to be mindful and task-oriented when using screens. Practice using screens with intention and purpose. Become aware of how easily they can distract you. Consider completing a screen use assessment in order to become familiar with any problematic patterns you might not readily recognize.

2. Develop the habit of using paper, not a screen devices, for note-taking, reading and personal reflection. Writing by hand helps to focus attention, creates space for reflection, and helps to encode information into long term memory. Studies show we comprehend and remember information better when we read from paper instead of screens. Paper, unlike screens, is static and non-interactive. Paper does not have the distraction of containing multiple windows, functions, and hyperlinks. Thus, it does not arouse our sympathetic nervous system. Paper provides space for reflection - a point of view.

3. Create screen free times and spaces.  Carving out a space and time to be without screens provides an opportunity to do something different. 

  • Rediscover screen-free meal times. Establish family rules about screen free meal times, and practice developing a family culture that keeps meal times special. Notice how, in the absence of screens, mealtimes can become a time to unwind and reconnect with one another. 
  • Practice good sleep habits. Eliminate screen use for at least an hour before trying to sleep. Most screens emit blue light which interferes with sleep. Keep screens out of bedrooms. Televisions, game systems, and phones all compromise sleep. Use an alarm clock over a cell phone.
  • Find a time to take a screen sabbatical. Make a commitment to actively take a break from screens. Whether it be for an hour, a day, or a week, practice reengaging with your world without the presence of a screen device baying for your attention.
  • Designate a place in your home for screen use and storage. Put out a basket or box where everyone can drop their phones in the home. Whenever possible, create work spaces for electronics that do not overlap with spaces for eating, sleeping, or socializing.

4. Take regular breaks while using screens and engage your senses with the physical world.   Research shows it is best to take at least a 2 minute break after every 20 minutes of screen time to move and stretch your body. Go outdoors if possible and connect with something natural. Focus visually on an object natural and restful to the eyes that is 20 or more feet away. Engage your sense of taste with something nutritional, hydrate, and if possible, meditate for a few minutes.. Ask yourself if continued screen time is something you need to resume. Repeat for every 20 minutes of continued screen use. 

5. Limit screen use with children. Children Under 2: Minimize screen use. Children 2-5: ≤ 1 hour, Co-view slow paced educational (PBS) programming. Children and adolescents: ≤  2 hours recreational screen usage. If a child is not socially engaged and/or showing symptoms of psychological distress, screen use should be further reduced. Excessive screen use can be an indicator of underlying behavioral and psychological disorders, as well as exacerbate such conditions.

Instead, engage in meaningful ways with world around you.

  • Have meaningful conversations in real life (face-to-face).
  • Physically experience the natural world, by engaging all of your senses.
  • Practice a meaningful activity that develops mastery (juggling, knitting, drawing, play/learn an instrument).
  • Become sensitive to your feelings and learn how to breathe and center moment to moment.
  • Learn and practice noticing when you are becoming disconnected from the ones around you, and when they are becoming disconnected from you.


Further Reading:

Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.

Dunckley, V. L. (2015). Reset your child's brain: a four-week plan to end meltdowns, raise grades, and boost social skills by reversing the effects of electronic screen-time. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Levy, D. M. (2016). Mindful tech: how to bring balance to our digital lives. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Palladino, L. J. (2015). Parenting in the age of attention snatchers: a step-by-step guide to balancing your child's use of technology. Boston: Shambhala.