Technology can be so alluring because it provide an easy way to get many of our psychological needs met (i.e., for belonging, power/esteem, freedom, fun). Moreover, many forms of technology (e.g., Facebook, texting, Twitter, Instagram, email, games such as Candy Crush, Dots) can be powerfully addictive in the same manner as gambling and even drugs. That is, by using a variable ratio reinforcement schedule (i.e., we are in a state of anticipation because we don’t know what we are going to see/receive/experience), a primitive reward system in the brain is activated and releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. This dopamine contributes to feelings of eagerness and excitement as we await what might happen next. Dopamine is also involved in feelings of pleasure when a reward is obtained (which could be in the form of an eagerly anticipated result or outcome).
Because this reward system is so strong, sometimes avoiding the temptation of technology is the most effective approach to not getting ensnared in its web.
Lessons from Odysseus
In Homer’s The Odyssey, there is a wonderful lesson to be learned from the hero of that saga, Odysseus. He and his crew needed to sail their ship past the Sirens whose entrancing song was known to lure sailors to dash their ships upon the rocks. Odysseus wanted to hear the song of the Sirens but knew that he would want to wreck his ship if he did. So, he had his men tie him to the mast with ropes and to tighten them should he beg to be released. He also had his men put wax into their ears so that they would not be enticed by the Sirens’ call. Odysseus was thus able to listen to their song without endangering the ship or their mission.
Avoiding the Sirens’ Call of Technology
Odysseus didn’t chose to listen to the call of the Sirens without being tied to the mast because he knew he wouldn’t be able to avoid the temptation of their song. We need to think and act like Odysseus to save ourselves (and our kids) from ourselves (or themselves). We should not pick the losing battle of trying to fight the temptation of technology – we must remove the temptation altogether. Similarly, if we are trying to avoid eating junk food, we should avoid going to the grocery store hungry. Or, if we are trying to cut back on our drinking (or stop altogether), we shouldn’t meet our friends at a sports bar “just to chat” or “watch the game.” Here are some ways for us and our children to avoid the Sirens’ call of technology:
1. Put the cell phone away (out of eyesight) while driving, socializing, and at mealtimes.
2. Don’t allow kids access to various technologies (e.g., a smart phone, Facebook) until they are developmentally appropriate.
3. Don’t use the cell phone as your music player when working out. Instead, use a dedicated music player.
4. No computers, TVs, tablets, cell phones allowed in the bedroom…at least past a certain time of night.
5. Put the smart phone on airplane mode unless you are actively using it.
6. Turn off chimes, ringers, and push notifications. If you need to have some on, just use the bare minimum.
7. Avoid playing any games that require you (or your child) to frequently check the status, take a new action, etc.
8. Avoid purchasing an Apple Watch or other “smart watch” as these devices will make it impossible to escape the various alerts and notifications. If you are interested in a sports watch, purchase one that is dedicated to measuring fitness (e.g., heart rate, steps, GPS).
9. Just like when you go to the movies, turn the cell phone off or put it in airplane mode AND put it out of sight when watching TV or movies/shows at home.
10. Many apps, when you first download them, ask whether you would like to be sent push notifications. The answer should be, “No!”
11. If possible, have one “work” computer in which games, social media, and other recreational uses are not installed or easily accessed (e.g., not running in the background, no saved passwords).
12. Separate the “work” computer/tablet from the recreational one by proximity. For example, the work computer could reside in a study that is ONLY used for studying/working. Thus, one would have to physically get up and go to a different room to Facebook, play a game, etc.
Technology can be wonderful, but we need to be careful to put parameters on its use. Otherwise, the constant, beckoning call of technology will pose a treacherous hazard as we try to navigate the waters of life.
Hi Dr Brooks,
My practice isn’t too far from yours and we recently had a patient utilize your services. I was impressed with the uniqueness of the report–usually the neuropsych evals are very boiler plate, as you well know. So, out of curiosity, I went to your website. Just wanted to say thanks for your timely blog posts–screen time is an issue I’m also passionate about. Kudos!