Several years back, when I first began consciously observing and digging into the research around how technology use might disrupt relational and personal depth and maturity, I became very depressed very quickly. The news didn’t seem good. To improve my outlook and mood, my kids encouraged a technology-free evening. We got out a box of old Life magazines in the hopes of thinking about simpler times. The ads claiming that powdered orange drink was more nutritious than orange juice, foods fried in vegetable oil were more healthful, and that is was never too early to start your babies on all manner of sugary drinks told the story of American’s tendency to latch on to trends affording convenience. Not a country of moderation, we Americans bought into false claims and repeatedly turned what could have been a fine side dish into the main course meal.
Ten to twenty years later, scientific research caught up with the public health crisis caused, at least in part, by the over consumption of convenience foods. Might a similar dynamic be at play with digital devices? It seems rational to wonder how our full-scale adaptation to technology-based education, entertainment, and communication might be creating a reality ripe for consequences in ten to twenty years that will be difficult, if not impossible, to curb.
To help Americans make healthier food choices and counteract the widespread epidemic of obesity and other health concerns related to convenience foods, the United States government created the food pyramid. While this tool hasn’t solved all of our problems, it has gone a long way in helping us consider what a healthy diet might look like. Similarly, I suggest that the first step of any plan to alter our technology engagement begin with a consideration of what I refer to as a “technology pyramid.”
Just like the older version of the food pyramid, the technology pyramid I suggest recommends a greater proportion of healthy engagement with platforms, devices, and apps that deliver technologies that have less potential to hurt or limit us—and less engagement with those that have greater potential to hurt or limit us.
When exploring the idea of a technology assessment using the technology pyramid or any other possible tool, I stress considering the quality of the devices, platforms, and apps being engaged. Ideally, more time should be spent in digital spaces that encourage connection to embodied people within one’s social and relational sphere or ones that are truly educational in nature. The educational sites, apps, and programs that are beneficial to spend more time in are those that best reinforce effort and allow mistakes to be a part of the learning and creation process, thus reinforcing a growth mindset.
With the technology pyramid model, I encourage spending less time with purely entertainment-based platforms than with connecting and teaching platforms. If someone is going to use digital devices for entertainment, my recommendation is to choose sites and devices that allow for the cultivation of focus and delay skills as well as the encouragement of creativity, effort, and mistake-making within the context of healthy and pro- social environments as part of learning acquisition. When the chosen entertainment sites and devices center around exposure to violence or inappropriate, sexually explicit, and commercially driven content, real effort should be made to minimize engagement and to counter the impact by embodied experience. This is especially true for younger users.
The importance of the quality of the digital content we interact with cannot be understated. Just as with the food pyramid, the quality of what we ingest has almost as much to do with the content of what we ingest. Fresh fruits and vegetables provide the most potent vitamins, minerals, and nutrition. Flash frozen are next best, with sodium-drenched canned vegetables being next; deep-fried variations exist at the low end of nutritional value. In other words, eating a can of green beans is better than eating a bag of potato chips, but it’s less potent than eating a bowl of freshly picked green beans. The same is true of the technology we ingest. Choosing high-quality, well-produced media in every domain of the technology pyramid will pay off with a fuller, richer, more balanced life.
Practicing Shrewd Consumption
Evaluating the technology and media we ingest can be difficult. Video games and porn are some of the most engaged platforms at present. As a result, the industries tied to them have some of the deepest pockets in business. These content creators (sometimes platform creators) have access to huge funding and creative power as well as to users ready to invest in their products. As a result, they produce content and products that are highly complex, beautifully designed, and fun to use. They are, likely, some of the most “high-quality” digital offerings out there. This is not, however, the type of high quality to which I am referring when I suggest engaging more well-produced technology and media. What I mean is that it is important to consider the goals behind the content and how the manufacturers reach these goals. The production values of my own personal favorite high-quality TV show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, might be considered laughable by most content creators and huge swaths of the general population today. The content, however, is excellent, presented in intentionally chosen ways at reasonable speeds, affording the creative interaction of the viewer.
So, how does one go about evaluating any digital media or platform? It can help to ask the following questions:
- What is the creator’s goal?
- Does engagement with this space teach me something?
- What does it teach me?
- Is this a value, skill, or informational domain that improves my life?
- If this is purely frivolous fun, are there any negative impacts I should be aware of as I engage with it?
- Do the creators of this content benefit directly and monetarily from my repeated or prolonged engagement with it? Am I encouraged to make frequent in-app purchases? Am I required to pay for frequent upgrades?
- Am I required to watch ads repeatedly during engagement? If so, what are the ads for?
How does the flow of offerings to me in other digital places change after I’ve interacted with this platform? Basically, we’re asking, “How does my engagement here in this space impact the algorithm that determines what is offered to me online?”
A good rule of thumb is to take a look “underneath” the sites and apps being interacted with. For example, many art museums host beautifully designed websites that contain all kinds of educational information. Rather than doing a general search for design or art information, these museum sites may be more reliable, more deeply considered, and more well designed than wherever you happen to land after a general search. Sometimes paying for access will mean less exposure to mindless ads or never-ending streams of content intended to create a physiological desire for more. Nowhere is this more true than with games. Game conglomeration sites offer hour after hour of frivolous and highly stimulating games with ads that must be watched or clicked on in between. These sites definitely consider the user the product and the advertiser the client, thereby hoping to keep people on their site longer, regardless of quality. Similarly, video- sharing sites such as YouTube, where more than four hundred hours of new video are uploaded every minute, are rife with content meant to excite and hold our attention hostage. Turning to videos made with greater intention, goals, and production quality will train our minds to expect and desire content that is not merely attention grabbing.
That being said, video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo can be amazing places to go to learn a new skill. In my own research, people have learned how to cup stack, spackle, knit, crochet, fix a microwave, repair cars, do makeup and hair, create art, budget, cook, craft, draw, put on tire chains, fix a smartphone, dance, frame a door, repair plumbing, record music in a home studio, sew a princess cape, and beatbox via online tutorials. What a fantastic example of using an online resource to create greater embodiment in life!
To get your creative juices flowing, here are some other things to learn via online tutorials:
- Paper airplane folding
- Portrait drawing
- Clothing design
- Putting together wardrobes Understanding the stock market How to build a go-kart
- How to play kendama
- How to juggle
- How to make tin-can stilts Double-dutch jump roping
- Slime making
- Mastering a front roll or cartwheel
- Cooking the perfect egg
- Brewing root beer or kombucha
- Or a million other creative ideas!
Another way of increasing quality of experience is to increase the quality of your own investment by creating content instead of just consuming it. We must admit, consuming within digital spaces is largely passive. We watch videos; we surf and scan sites. We merely take it all in, or absorb content, which typically requires little engagement of the mind or body. On the other hand, when we create, our minds and bodies are engaged! Thus, creating with technology and within digital spaces has the potential of improving the quality of our experience. Learning to code, creating websites, mastering the process of making music or videos online, and writing a blog are all examples of being creative in ways that could also enhance the quality of our interactions with technology and the Internet.
The only real way to be assured of interaction with high-quality content is to do some research. Websites such as Common Sense Media go a long way toward providing non- biased reviews from both children’s and parents’ points of view. Often times, a quick web search of the platform, hardware, software, or apps with the word “reviews” or “scholarly research” or “potential risks” can uncover the backstory or potential pitfalls of said technologies. Asking others is also a great idea, but parents, especially, must remember that not all families make the same choices for their engagement. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to understand the quality of what we interact with.
But embracing a balanced, moderate stance regarding technology is not easy. Working toward a life of engagement in the digital domain without full immersion—without filling up one hundred percent of the pyramid of our day with digital activities—actually requires discipline and critical thinking. It’s easier to live a reactive life, allowing information, entertainment, marketing efforts, or news reports to dictate our feelings and responses and eat up all our time. Speaking of time, it’s time we begin to moderate our full-fledged adaptation to our devices!
Another Technology Assessment Tool
One of the most common questions I receive at talks or via email is, “How do I know if my child/spouse/partner/self is overusing technology?” In other words, “How much time is too much time to spend with screens?” Over the course of the dozen-plus years I’ve done this work, I have struggled to come up with a concise answer that has its roots in research and reason rather than in opinion and sensationalism. I wish the remedy for our overuse were as simple as limiting, or controlling, our time. Instead, many factors go into determining how our technology use is impacting us and how we might become more intentional to prevent negative effects.
After playing with all kinds of complex assessment possibilities and researching the various benefits and pitfalls of digital engagement, I created a simple tool for determining one’s technology engagement and the way it may be impacting a person’s overall life. This tool allows us to gather qualitative data about the way we are engaging with technology in such a way as to help us moderate use. By taking some time and energy to become aware of the areas in which our use is moderate and healthy—and where it is not—we are able to find ways of adjusting our digital engagement, providing counter balances for our tech time and expanding the richness and relevance of our embodied lives.
The tool can be helpful to everyone. I’ve seen it used with great impact by parents, university students, psychologists seeing clients who are struggling with digital addictions, pediatricians trying to determine if too much screen time is affecting the health of their young patients, and more. Who couldn’t use a healthy dose of honesty about our habits? And everyone’s digital dilemmas are different! The only way to deal effectively with those dilemmas is to accurately understand them—and that involves starting with an honest assessment. Once we understand the nature of a particular problem, then we can determine a particular solution.
The five components of this assessment tool are easy to remember, as I have tied them to the A, B, Cs, with a twist (T) at the end. Using your hand and beginning with your thumb, say one letter for each finger: “A. B. C. D. T.” Each letter is a prompt for the five categories that can be issues when it comes to dependence upon technology:
By writing these letters down the side of a piece of paper and making columns for notes, we can create a Technology Impact Chart and get a general overview of how we’re doing. Here’s a sample:
This chart will look different for everyone. Some people using it might want to make a number scale to rate and record how they are doing in each area. For example, in the “A” row, they might rank their ability to focus as a 4 on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 means “low ability” and 5 means “high ability.” Their delay skills may be self-assessed as a 4, and their regulation skills may be a 2. Moving to the next row, they may find that their attachment balance needs more work, scoring a 4 where 1 means, “My relationships are balanced with a similar or greater number being nurtured in embodied spaces compared to those in digital spaces.” A rating of 4 might result from the realization that most of this person’s connections are maintained online, rather than in physical spaces. A number-rating system might not work for some. Instead, those individuals might make notes in each column, using words and descriptors to understand the tech engagement and impact.
I have found that doing this assessment on a monthly basis can be helpful, as my clients and friends work to make their use more moderate and healthy. To remember to complete it, some even ask to receive this simple assessment chart monthly in their email box.
Making Adjustments After Assessment
Assessments are only helpful if we become active with them. Becoming active with them however, is downright difficult. In fact, the change-making part of taking stock is often actually painful. We can identify the things we want and need to change, but determining where and how to start is frequently overwhelming in every way, and the costs feel immense. The reality is, though, that making changes does not have to involve a total time or energy transformation.
Neither does it need to be overly costly. The goal should be to make small and meaningful changes over time with readily available resources. The more targeted we are in addressing the specific areas where we need to make changes, the more specific our efforts will be. This means that the more detailed we can be about where our tech engagement might be negatively impacting us, the more likely we will be able to regulate the problem, thus making increased space for a fulfilling embodied life. To make this happen, the effort will need to be real and committed.
The rest of this article is designed to help with moderating technology use in order to develop our abilities to focus, delay, and regulate; achieve attachment balance; moderate our devotion to our devices and the content they deliver; and effectively manage our time. To that end, the following sections provide a basic set of ideas for objects to engage, activities to try, and questions to ponder relevant to specific “need” areas. The ideas, activities, and questions are intended to get us thinking about creative ways of making our embodied life rich in ways that will help our technology use stay moderate and centered on engagement. Of course, these suggestions are jumping-off points. Our own creativity or the creativity of those we know will provide the best solutions for how to make our technology use healthy and supportive of a well- lived, fiery, rich life.
Assessing and Addressing “A”—Ability to “FDR” (Focus, Delay, and Regulate)
As discussed earlier, being able to focus one’s attention, delay, and self-regulate are critical to optimal human development.
Building the Ability to Focus
Recall that focus refers to the ability to hold sustained attention toward one (or a small field of) objects. These objects can be tangible or can be internal constructs such as thoughts, ideas, or feelings. In essence, focus is built upon a developed capacity to tune out distractions. In other words, focused individuals can say “no” or ignore input and stimuli that compete with the object of their attention. Whereas some temperaments seem to demonstrate a natural proclivity toward attuned focus, others need more practice.
More than ever, people’s capabilities in this arena are challenged. Many individuals with whom I speak talk about distractibility as a primary frustration in both themselves and others. Particularly powerful at impairing our focusing skills are those technologies that reward us for scanning the environment and having a wide range of attendance to the “field”—as opposed to those technologies that encourage focus on one task, character, or directive. Much of the digital domain is built on the promise of specifically helping us to task switch with great efficiency. This is in direct opposition to focus.
When deficits in the domain of focus reveal themselves, it is important to take intentional steps to develop this ability. Being able to ignore or tune out some stimuli to focus on other sources of input is central to satisfaction and success in relational, academic, vocational, and spiritual pursuits. The goal in acquiring focus skills is to build an ability to direct attention toward a specific and limited area and sustain the focus for an ever-growing period of time. The kinds of questions that get at measuring this ability sound like this:
- Can I complete a given task without diverting my attention from it?
- Can I know that a message has come in yet not check it until I have completed what I was focusing on when it arrived?
- Can I maintain a conversation with someone without referencing my device for at least forty minutes?
To develop focus skills, we must create opportunities to do one thing at a time, turning away from stimuli that compete for our attention. While daily life used to offer such opportunities as a function of the sheer opportunities and resources available to any one individual, we no longer live in a world that offers us swaths of time for boredom and generating our own fields of focus. For this reason, if assessment uncovered a need for greater focus, it is important to build in daily opportunities for focused attention and deep work across a number of domains.
A task that many call “re-direction” is important for building and sustaining our ability to focus. Re-direction refers to the ability to notice our distractibility, name it, then return our focus to the task (or idea, etc.) at hand. Perhaps you are working on writing an important email. While you are composing, you notice several texts and emails arrive. Re-direction skills would allow you to notice that the new messages are distracting you, to name this truth, to determine that waiting to attend to them is a viable option, and to return your attention to the original email. Your internal dialogue might sound like this: “It’s really hard to stay focused. I want to read the new messages. I need, however, to stick with this until I’m done, and doing so will be rewarding.”
With devices that alert us to all activity and minds that drift away from objects of focus and onto distractions in our environments, we need a well-developed and practiced ability to re- direct our attention back to the task, thought, or experience at hand. Simply deciding that we will have better focus and intending to stay on task will never be enough. These skills are supported by neurological wiring. If they aren’t practiced, the wiring will not be robust enough. If we do not actively protect time and create experiences with which to practice, focus and an ability to re- direct will always escape us.
My friends Lynea and Jim Gillen are the founders of Yoga Calm. In keeping with the mission of this world-renowned yoga program for children and adults, they created an innovative class during which children can learn focus through creative play. They call these “Jedi” classes and use the concepts of Jedi training, illuminated in the Star Wars empire, along with toy light sabers to teach young, easily and highly distracted children how to stop, pause, and focus. With arms at their sides and light sabers in their dominant hand, Lynea and Jim teach kids belly breathing as they stretch their arm and light saber out to the side and up. At the top of the arch they exhale, bringing the sword to their chest. After many repetitions, children learn to do that activity like a “Real Jedi,” in their minds. Needing no prop, they eventually can redirect their attention from distractions to the present moment, breathing deeply and focusing on what is at hand. We all need this type of practice!
When we train ourselves to meet distraction with a deep “Jedi” breath, we are giving ourselves the space to direct our attention to a chosen spotting point. On the inhale, we can see and name the distraction before us; on the exhale, we can blow it away from us and return our focus to the task at hand. If we practice this and can trust that anything of importance will come back to us when it is time, we can re-direct our attention to the task we were working at prior to the distraction. In the early days of our practice, we may find ourselves naming and blowing away our distractions more than finding a settled focus. Do not fear: This practice will eventually pay off, as we learn to notice and name our distractions and re-direct our attention.
A few activities that encourage focus are:
- Mindfulness meditation
- Contemplative prayer
- Yoga (including “Jedi training”)
- Reading a paper book
- Listening tasks/challenges
- Classical music concerts
- Plays/live theater
- Chess and strategy games
- Solo imaginative play
- Memorization tasks
- Balance games and tasks
Building Delay Skills
Like being able to focus one’s attention, having the ability to delay is developmentally optimal for humans. The ability to delay refers to our capacity to pause and wait, especially when coupled with a desire for a particular experience, sensation, object, or outcome. When we can master this skill, we realize we can face the discomfort that accompanies the need to wait, knowing that it doesn't preclude us (eventually) getting what we want or need. This is true if those desires refer to physical possessions, relational wishes or needs, or actions or behaviors.
Similar to how our twenty-four-hour-stimulation-driven culture impairs focus, an individual’s competence in delaying gratification is deeply impacted by having most things readily available at all hours of the day and night. Thanks to incredibly powerful technology, we can purchase whatever we want whenever we want it from nearly anywhere, we are able to communicate with a friend across the world with no lag time, and we can learn the answer to any puzzle with a quick search. With so few reasons to delay and work through things, people simply don’t do it—and we get more and more out of practice every day.
In previous centuries, people developed the skills of focus and delay as a function of living in a world where they were forced to wait. Through the process of waiting, alongside the presence of fewer distractions, people simply learned to focus on things inside their own minds or within their immediate surroundings. Because opportunities to be constantly entertained or occupied did not exist, this dearth of stimuli created a natural lab for boredom tolerance and sharpened attention at least some of the time. Subsequently, the requirement that one must wait for either external resources or internal insight led us to value the resource of insight more deeply. When something is difficult to attain, it is often more highly esteemed.
Any activity that allows an individual to pause between stimulus and response will build delay capabilities. The ability to delay is important because it provides us with margins within which we can unfold discoveries or make intentional decisions. In many ways, what I mean is that an ability to delay might just be the antidote to impulsivity and to shallow relationships. When we can delay, we engage our consciousness before acting, and we have a greater ability to know our own selves and to encounter the authentic selves of others.
While delay of gratification specifically gets plenty of press, delay as a general skill is related to many other human experiences. Delay, in all domains, helps us gain a sense of sturdiness that serves us as we think, feel, and act. It also helps us to esteem and value the efforts we make and the answers or solutions we find.
The important thing with learning delay is to remember that a little practice, done consistently, can go a long way. It’s not important that we do these suggested activities all the time, but we must do them consistently some of the time. Even doing research once via a phone call or an in-person library visit benefits us doubly by, first, increasing our skills in delaying while we wait to acquire knowledge and, second, by making us aware of and grateful for the speed with which we gather data every day.
Activities that teach delay skills are:
- Making a phone call, leaving a voicemail, and waiting for a response
- Watching a series weekly rather than binge-watching it all at once
- Waiting in line, doing the shopping, completing a drive from one location to another, or eating a meal—without interacting with a phone, laptop, television, or electronic tablet
- Waiting a pre-set amount of time between the urge to impulse-buy an object and actually purchasing it
- Writing back and forth through “regular” mail with a penpal or friend
- Shopping in-person rather than online
- Forcing a waiting period between screen times (e.g., thirty minutes with screens followed by a mandatory thirty minutes without before screens can be engaged again)
Activities that help children develop delay skills include:
- Play stop-and-go games such as Red Light/Green Light, Musical Chairs, or Duck, Duck, Goose.
- Narrate waiting time. For example, when a child wants an object or activity, create a period of waiting beforehand and narrate this to the child. For example, say, “I know you’d like to play with your Legos right now, but we also need to finish our meal. Let’s see how it feels to wait. I’ll help you do this!”
- Use a timer or clock and explain the concept of waiting. When it’s time to stop waiting, really make note of how good it feels to have waited and to get to move on to the desired activity.
- Wait as a family. Choose some desired activity or purchase and make a plan for how you will, as a family, save time or money to invest in it. Mark your progress with a chart or on a calendar and really celebrate when the waiting is accomplished and the delay ends.
Learning to Self-Regulate
As noted earlier, the ability to regulate refers to the ability to know and consciously engage our internal emotional and cognitive states. Interestingly, this skill is directly related to our ability to focus and delay. People who can regulate are able to understand the interplay of the external world and their internal responses to it. In fact, our regulatory skills allow us to observe the ways in which our thoughts, feelings, or experiences are evoking responses in us and then to address those thoughts, feelings, or experiences with action or physical self-soothing.
Impulsivity is the hobgoblin of regulation. When we have developed patterns of impulsivity, we are prone to move from where we are rather than toward something better. Unless it has been actively employed in the service of pausing, impulsivity screams, “Do whatever is necessary to change what I am experiencing now!” Regulation, however, adopts a more reasoned stance. That is, a person who can regulate mindfully asks:
- What is happening in or around me?
- Why am I reacting the way I am?
- What can I do to get through my thoughts and feelings?
How can I find comfort or resolution within myself rather than outside myself? For example, when someone faces disappointment but can make sense of that disappointment cognitively, offering comfort and understanding to herself, she is demonstrating self-regulation skills. When someone encounters failure or hardship and knows how to think and work through the difficulty without it having undue impact, that person can regulate. When a person feels strong feelings and can assess them with an eye toward resolving them, regulation has been mastered. Leah Kuypers has developed a fantastic curriculum that addresses helping children regulate within the classroom, Kuypers describes four color zones that coincide with different feeling states.
The red zone is characterized by heightened states of alertness and intense emotions. In the red zone, emotions such as elation, anger, rage, fear, and terror are experienced. When people are in the yellow zone, they are still in a heightened sense of alertness with strong emotions, but they feel a greater sense of control and capability. Feelings such as stress, excitement, agitation, and anxiety fit here. The experience of being in the green zone is that of being calm and alert. The best learning and living happens here, as people feel content and ready to face their present circumstances. The blue zone corresponds with feelings of sadness, sickness, tiredness, and boredom. The helpful handholds of colors and conceptualization of zones make it such that we have words for how we are feeling and can brainstorm active ways of moving ourselves from one zone to another. When this can happen in conscious ways within a healthy self, we can get ourselves to better regulated states with relative ease. When we have a shared vocabulary such as this, our family constellations and other relational systems live in better harmony, as we can understand and communicate about the various zones we all move between.
Unfortunately, however, as increasing amounts of our lives are lived outside ourselves, we become less and less likely to develop or rely upon self-regulation skills. Not only do we simply ignore our selves and our current realities by spending inordinate amounts of time staring at our screens, but we also look to the size of our followings, the number of likes we acquire, and the range of our digital reach to decide how to feel about ourselves and the world around us. As psychiatrist and author Victoria Dunckley so aptly describes in her article “Electronic Screen Syndrome: An Unrecognized Disorder” in Psychology Today, we have come to depend upon screens rather than develop our own capabilities. Above all, rather than developing an ability to regulate, we distract ourselves with near-constant stimulation.
On the contrary, when we can regulate ourselves, we can moderate and traverse the intersection between our internal experiences, our physiological realities, and the external world of expectations and stimulation. Regulation includes an ability to read both the environment within ourselves and outside ourselves in such a way that we can act in manners that honor the self and respect the setting that the self exists within.
The ability to self-soothe may be the single most important skill for the development of self-regulation. Self-soothing is built on the abilities we’ve just discussed and can only occur when an individual can pause in response to an emotion, thought, or impulse to focus on what is occurring in the present moment—and can move from one emotion zone to another. There are self-soothing behaviors that are healthy and those that are not. Healthy soothing behaviors bring us to places where we can function in integrated and regulated ways that lead us to resolve any present conflicts or areas of unrest and move forward. Time-outs, intentional breathing exercises, actions that enable us to “clear our heads,” physical activity, and more are examples of healthy self-soothing behaviors. Self-soothing behaviors such as substance use, restriction of food, and self-injury are examples of self-soothing behaviors that, while effective in the moment, can cause harm.
As with opportunities to develop focus and delay, regulation skills are best developed with intention. When we need the ability to regulate is not the time to try to develop the skill to do so! I, thus, highly recommend that we find ways of building and practicing self-regulation skills in times when we are not dysregulated. By doing so, we build self-soothing muscles we can employ when we really need them.
Activities that teach self-regulation skills include:
- Deep-breathing exercises
- Progressive relaxation
- Mindfulness meditation
- Spiritual direction
- Contemplative prayer
- Self-help or human development books
- Self-discovery classes
- Use of prayer beads, labyrinths, and mandalas
- Physical exertion in the form of exercise that is pleasurable and releases tension
- Some forms of personality tests (Meyers-Briggs, Enneagram, etc.)
Assessing and Addressing “B”: Attachment Balance
Attachment balance refers to the proportion of a person’s connections to others in embodied life compared to their connections in digital spaces. If our primary attachment to others is through digital means, it is important to note if the communication happens person to person or through characters built online. If it is mostly mediated by characters (for example, avatars) or very carefully curated profiles built online, it is important to take a look at how our wishes, disappointments, and general beliefs about ourselves are reflected or compensated for in the characters we have created. If these representations of our selves are far from authentic, we might appropriately wonder if the connections made to them feel secure or if an ambient awareness of “being found out” might impede the relationships.
A primary feature of attachment balance is the maintenance of communication skills necessary for embodied person-to-embodied person communication (i.e., conversational skills, eye contact, active-listening skills, verbal articulation, and comfort with pauses). A lack or deficit in these skills does not necessarily mean that a person is overly attached digitally. It does, however, indicate that an intentional increase in embodied person-to-person contact and skill building may be in order.
For us to achieve balance in our primary attachments, we need to be able to accomplish four tasks:
- Establish a community of meaningful relationships, at least some of which are engaged in embodied forums and with authentic presentations of the self
- Develop the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in embodied spaces (face-to-face or, at a minimum, voice-to-voice)
- Develop the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in digital spaces
- Maintain a flexibility about the most effective way to communicate across different situations and an awareness of our preferences in communication and connection (in- person or digitally)
It is easy, anymore, to shift a huge bulk of the maintenance of our relational work to digital spaces. Whereas there is nothing inherently bad or wrong about this, an ability to interact with people in embodied ways is important for our long-term health. When I taught parenting classes, I always encouraged parents to make sure they provided opportunities for their children to talk with people of all ages, genders, and personality types both about something specific and about “nothing at all” (aka “shooting the breeze”). When we have active practice in engaging others and have evidence that we can live through the sometimes-awkward realities of in-person communication, we can risk embodied connection.
When these skills are rusty, we can be at greater risk of consciously or unconsciously avoiding such connection, and we can become nervous about interacting with others. As anxiety about in-person encounter increases, so do our feelings of incompetence and fear of the unknown. A fantastic therapist I know invites socially and relationally anxious individuals to fill a coin purse with change and to take it into a coffee shop. After ordering a drink, making eye contact while doing so, the client is challenged to drop the change, pick it up, count it, and hand it over, thanking the cashier verbally. In this experience, the client must face up to fears around competence and skill and, in doing so, builds both.
If we rigidly resist communicating digitally, we may face similar anxiety and disappointment in relationships. The reality is that many people rely on the ease and speed of texting. Individuals who prefer voice-to-voice communication in person or on the phone cannot always expect others to comply with their preferences. We must all move toward each other and, at the same time, be willing to flex and adjust if we hope to have a complex relational life.
To have and maintain a modicum of balance in our attachments, we need to hone and maintain our abilities to both speak and write, to meet in person, to speak on the phone, to email, and to text. We must seek out connections in our embodied spaces as well as in our digital ones and benefit by trying to spend at least a portion of our relational energy in embodied encounters.
Some creative ideas for increasing attachment balance are:
- Use online sources to find individuals with similar interests with whom to spend time in the physical world. Meetup.com is a great resource for this.
- Attend lectures and community talks (public libraries, bookstores, and local universities are good places to look for these). Challenge yourself to talk to at least one person while there or to ask a question in the group question-and-answer session.
- Practice making conversation with people in your natural surroundings such as grocery- store clerks, baristas, waiters, librarians, and more. Be intentional about your own eye contact and non-verbal cues, and don’t make assumptions about those of others.
- Make at least one phone call for every ten texts you send.
- Learn and teach digital citizenship. Learning how to communicate effectively in writing is especially important now that so much of our communication is done in this way. Texting and instant messaging can risk diminishing or altering our articulation and communication skills. Digital citizenship training can keep healthy and proper communication skills in place when communicating in digital spaces. Common Sense Media has a fantastic curriculum that can be used for this.
- Practice eye contact. I mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating. Find people in your relational circles who will practice gazing with you. Set a timer and try to silently maintain eye contact. This is hard but worth it. Every. Single. Time.
- Talk with those closest to you about why they prefer the methods of communication they do and work diligently to understand them. At least some of the time, challenge yourself to communicate with them via their preferred method as opposed to yours.
Assessing and Addressing “C” for Content
During my talks, I raise the finger associated with “C” in my hand model (the middle finger) and comment upon how much trouble I can get into by raising this finger alone. The same is true with the content we consume!
While assessing this digital domain, we must consider the many different layers of quality and subject content that dominate the games, websites, and social networks with which we interact. Is the content driven by strategy, competition with self or others, intellectual pursuits, risk-taking? Do we engage with a wide variety of digital spaces, or are we preoccupied with one certain type of media or technology? Pay special attention if the content is solely focused upon violence, rigid or fixed gender stereotypes, or sexualization and/or is marketing driven—all of which can tend toward the unhealthy. Referring to the technology pyramid, if most of our exposure is to low-quality, sales-driven, or violent or sexualized content, we will likely experience more negative effects than if our use is with high-quality, non-commercialized content.
At first blush, content can seem the easiest change regarding our technology use. Taken together with time, however, the content we engage massively shapes our experiences online, therefore impacting our physiological, emotional, and relational well-being. The type of content we engage actually both exposes and reflects our preferences along many domains including entertainment, learning style, and communication. This complex reality means that we could expose ourselves to inordinate amounts of certain types of content without considering the other material that comes with it. As noted earlier, individuals who enjoy violent first-person shooter games may do so largely because of the richness of the graphics and the intensity of the strategy requirements. The potential impact that the violence may have is likely a second- or third-level consideration in the choice of platform. The same is true of any platform that employs repetition with perfectly placed moments of novelty. Who cares if the mastery we are gaining involves lining up candy? The repeated opportunity to do so in new ways keeps us coming back for more.
If humans were capable of maintaining moderation, this would not be an issue. The truth, however, is that, once we find something we really like, we often tend to overdo the amount of time and energy we sink into it. We really enjoy flipping through social media to stay on top of what is going on with our community, so we end up investing a bulk of time and energy there, over time making it a cornerstone of our relational self. With gaming, we find content that suits us and sink ourselves into it, similarly turning it from a point of entertainment into a place wherein we play, engage our strategic mind meaningfully, and connect with clans of others who do the same, leaving little time for experiences in other spaces that might make us more well- rounded individuals.
When we find that our engagement with a social media platform has come to substitute for meaningful, complex, out-of-platform thinking and acting or for embodied relational pursuits and has caused us to lose some of our skills related to both personal and interpersonal engagement, it can feel scary to give up the social media altogether. Similarly, if our minds are most actively engaged in our video game play, it’s unrealistic to think we’ll want to step away simply because the content can harm us. Our minds love to be stimulated, and we are often quick to overlook negative effects that come alongside positive ones. For this reason, we need to be able to tell ourselves the truth about the content in which we invest ourselves. It is crucial that we determine what the healthy parts of the content we engage are, and to also be aware of any potential negative or hurtful effects.
To do this, we must consider the “backbone” of the technology toward which we gravitate. Content can be very loosely organized into the following broad categories:
- Social/relational connection
- Media and pop culture
- Creative arts
- Body/kinesthetic interests
Many video games would likely fall into the strategy and logic domains, whereas social networks would likely live within the social/relational realm. Content creation technologies may be considered media-based and artistic, whereas technologies specifically geared toward physiological experience might work by teaching a skill to be performed in embodied space or by eliciting certain physical responses, as with porn.
Because we have built our engagement with specific content into our lives, it is unrealistic to imagine simply putting it aside. In many cases our relationships with the content we engage have become support systems to our daily lives. We feel that they comfort and entertain us. Particularly if our tech engagement involves being networked with others, online social platforms are sometimes the vehicles that deliver much of our social support. Because of this, we must be specific as we work to reimagine how we might engage digital content. In addition, we must work extra carefully to put new supports in place in our embodied lives as we make any changes.
Once we can identify the primary themes driving our draw toward certain technologies and devices, we can determine what, if any, embodied experiences we might engage to balance out our tech engagement.
Assessing and Addressing “C” for Context
As with the content we consume, the context within which we engage technology also matters. Context refers to the environment within which we engage technology. From homes (kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms) and cars to coffee shops, theaters, stores, and more, how we engage technology within our physical contexts can either lead to an increase in pro-social behaviors or render us over-stimulated and less capable of pro-social action. Referring to the technology pyramid, if we engage our devices in such a way that we constantly contextually isolate ourselves, wherein our technology pulls us out of the context of embodied living and into the world of the digital domain, we will pay a price. Granted, using technology in the context of embodied encounters can be neutral, but it also has the capacity to rob us of the ability to practice in-person encounters. That’s why we must honestly assess if we use technology to contextually isolate ourselves or to connect ourselves to others through mostly digital means. Consider that earbuds provide one level of isolation and physical locality provides another.
Questions to ask when considering the domain of context are:
- Are we consuming technology solely in isolation?
- Do we spend all our “social” time on screens, or are we able to put screens away to interact with embodied others?
- Do we use our device(s) to escape awkward, uncomfortable, or undesired contact with others who are physically present?
- Can we have an embodied encounter without referring to or accessing our devices?
Context is important because it has a bearing on two primary lifestyle outcomes: First, if we are technology dependent across all contexts (social and solitary, within the home and outside of it, while at work and at play), there is a very high chance we are foregoing important investments in social practice and conversational skill-building. These two behaviors are crucial for long- term life satisfaction and health. If we find ourselves grabbing our devices to look things up during conversations or must share the latest YouTube craze when we are with others, it may mean that we are too dependent upon our devices in relation to others. Secondly, if we use technology solely or even primarily in isolative settings, there is a strong chance we are missing out on the input of others in helping us discern which digital spaces are and are not healthy and life-giving for us.
Making sure our home environment provides a multitude of options for creative engagement, play, and exploration will help us be able to separate from devices and engage embodied life. Being able to be bored, wait in line, be in social settings, and perform basic conversational tasks all take practice. Our current way of living does not always provide these opportunities. For that reason, we must intentionally practice separating from technology to learn to thrive in more embodied contexts. It may feel less fulfilling to verbally describe something than to pull up photos or videos to illuminate our stories, but doing so can be a powerful action toward growth. There are hundreds of other examples of similarly small risks that could reap large inter-personal and intra-personal rewards.
Having spaces within the home where technology is used and spaces where it is not used can be helpful, as can setting some minimal guidelines for ourselves regarding embodied versus digital connections. For interventions regarding space use in the house, all family members must agree to participate. One simple, albeit difficult, contextual intervention is to have family members use alarm clocks, docking their phones together and away from all bedrooms at night. Another idea is to have the router switch off at a certain time at night so that all devices are Internet-disabled after that time.
Similarly, the establishment of some simple but stretching norms around how one does or does not engage technology in times of solitude or connection can be helpful. Deciding upon an hour per day when all devices are turned completely off is a good place to start. Choosing to leave one’s phone in the car or a backpack when meeting with others (as opposed to having it out and on the table) would also be a healthy place to begin.
Assessing and Addressing “D”: Devotion to Technology
In the West, a ring on the second to the last finger is often a sign of a marriage or commitment. For that reason, in our hand model, this finger is associated with the level to which we are devoted to our devices and the digital spaces they offer us. Devotion in this context involves our level of complete dependence upon our devices. Important here is determining the types of day- to-day living skills we have completely given over to technology versus the actions we still perform without technological assistance. The skill of getting directions and finding our way to a location previously unvisited is an easy place to begin. For example, can we find our way to a new place without a GPS or smartphone? Can we determine a route without turn-by-turn directions from Siri? Can we find an address without Google? Similarly, if we can’t place an order online, can we find a way to buy what we want in a brick-and-mortar store? Can we accomplish basic functions such as waking up without a digital device? Are we willing to choose a restaurant without reading reviews or watch a movie without checking its “Rotten Tomato” score? Can we determine the weather with a quick step outside or a peek out of a window rather than opening up a weather app? Are we able to be spontaneous or resourceful without our devices in any part of our lives?
If assessment uncovers that we are unduly devoted to living all parts of our life online or doing all daily living tasks with a device in hand (shopping, ordering meals, meeting people, maintaining relationships, finding places, time telling and awaking, etc.), important cognitive and physical functions may be at risk of diminishing due to lack of use. This demands that, as an intervention, we seek non-digitally based ways of living and of completing tasks—and enhanced opportunities for embodied living at least some of the time.
Reprinted with permission from Deviced! by Doreen Dodgen-Magee and published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.