Technology, the internet specifically, has drastically changed the way we live our lives. From instant access to data, to 24/7 contact, to real-time traffic flow, many of us live simultaneously in both the real and virtual worlds.
For younger people, who have never known a world without social media, YouTube or TikTok, the virtual and IRL (in real life) worlds often blend so seamlessly, they may not appreciate how much time they spend in front of a screen, looking at images or puppies or chatting with friends rather than actually looking at puppies or being with friends.
“If you look at grammar school age and especially into the teens, the average screen use is pushing over seven hours per day,” said David Greenfield, Ph.D, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. “And that is non-productivity-related screen use.”
Many of the most popular sites are designed specifically to keep the viewer engaged and online. The product they are selling is the humans they can attract.
“The goal of all screen-based media,” said Greenfield, “including the news, is to keep eyes on screens. You may not be paying money but you and I and our children are paying with the one thing we can’t get more of, our time. We are paying with most valuable thing on the planet.”
Since the players behind the scenes have billions of dollars of research behind them to show how best to keep people engaged, it is not surprising to find more and more of us falling down a rabbit hole of technology usage and wondering where our time is going.
“Screens are incredibly distracting and addictive,” Greenfield added. “A smart phone is a portable dopamine pump, an easily accessible internet portal. One thing we know in addiction treatment is that the more accessible it is, the more likely you will overuse it and now you have a smartphone less than six inches from your fingers.”
As times have changed, addressing technology use and abuse has also become a major part of residential school programs. In April, Greenfield worked with the staff at Shortridge Academy in Milton, NH, for a two-day training and curriculum consultation on dealing with technology in a school setting.
While the school’s main goal is to offer an authoritative approach for students struggling with anxiety, depression, family dysfunction, and learning challenges, they found that incorporating lessons on healthy relationships with technology needed to be brought on board early.
“Our population often used screens as a maladaptive coping skill, spending hours a day on non-productive screen time, isolating with screens, playing video games, or seeking social approval via technology,” said Christina Smalley, LCMHC, clinical director at Shortridge.
Rather than attempting complete abstinence, experts recommend aiming for two hours or less per day of “non-productive” use, which would include all video games, television, and the Internet. At Shortridge, it is a matter of placing screen usage in context.
“Our Healthy Lifestyle Goal at Shortridge has a focus on technology balance,” Smalley explained. “We tend to work backwards to see what should fit in a typical day and then figure out how much time might be left for non-productive tech time.”
One concern is how difficult it can be to find something else to do. With the dopamine hit from screen time, the real world can feel less interesting and exciting.
“Sadly, many students have dropped out of activities for a variety of reasons and have turned to technology to fill their time,” Smalley said. “As adults, we’ve sometimes exacerbated that by lowering our expectations of what kids should be doing. When we do everything for them and pay for everything for them, there’s no reason for them to need to get off of a screen to do more for themselves. We use this concept in our family programming often.”
While in the program, technology usage can be physically restricted, but it won’t work long-term unless the staff helps students find other options.
“It’s incredibly challenging for students to figure out how to fill their lives,” said Smalley. “Often we fall back on their values: Who do you want to be and what do you want to contribute? What actions or activities help you get closer to that?”
The goal, of course, is to give students tools they can take with them throughout their lives, and maybe share with their own friends and families.
“The majority of students and families realize their tech life balance will always be a bit of a challenge and come away with strategies and benchmarks to help monitor that.”