Put your phone down! — if you can. Studies show the average American over age 14 now engages with screens more than 10 hours a day. And as it turns out, all that screen time is changing our brains and making significant impacts on our psychological well-being. In a digital world with ever-changing and advancing technologies, it may not be possible or necessary to unplug completely, but how can we develop healthy practices with our devices?
Doreen Dodgen-Magee (Psy.D. ’92), a Rosemead School of Psychology graduate and an internationally recognized technology and psychological health expert, tackles this topic in her newest book, Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, October 2018). She feels called to “the work of how technology is shaping us and how we might all respond with greater intention.”
Biola Magazine recently connected with Dodgen-Magee about her book, the psychological effects of technology and why it’s important to retrain ourselves to be bored.
Doreen, how is our growing dependence on technology impacting us?
Technology is changing our brains and bodies, our interpersonal relationships, as well as the way in which we develop and maintain a sense of self. At the same time, it is also allowing us to live further outside of ourselves than we’ve ever been able. Our attention spans are shorter, our willingness to be uncomfortable or inconvenienced is diminished, and our face-to-face communication skills go unpracticed. We lack boredom tolerance, which leads us to seek stimulation.
The vicious cycle goes like this: Our device use leaves us ill-equipped for our embodied lives, which, in turn, leads us to engage our devices to escape the unknown, quiet or out-of-our-control embodied environment. Many of us have bought the lie that stimulation is really soothing. We play video games, or watch endless hours of Netflix, surf Pinterest for longer than we want to admit, or listen to podcasts every waking minute and think we are calming ourselves. In reality, most forms of technology engagement actually activate us neurologically and physiologically. Without intentionality, moderation and deliberate practice, we will become people who can only live comfortably in overly activated and stimulated states. There are psychological and practical costs to this kind of living.
How does the overuse of technology affect our brains? And have you seen an increase in cases of tech addiction?
Most of us are all highly dependent upon, and devoted to, our devices. Whether or not we are “addicted,” we have inoculated ourselves to lower levels of stimulation and slower-moving content. At the same time, we’ve diminished the time we spend practicing behaviors outside of the digital domain. This means that we are both more dependent upon our devices and less capable without them, with technology creating both a physiological and behavioral cycle of dependence. Neurologically, there is evidence that our technology use may be responsible for “pruning off” regions of the brain related to emotional regulation, relational attunement, self-control and focus, via a lack of stimulation. Since the brain wires together where it fires together, we must offer it opportunities to encounter boredom and slower-moving stimulation in order to have complex wiring throughout all regions of the brain. Life no longer naturally offers up these opportunities for boredom or lack of stimulation, meaning that, unless we intentionally work at developing focus and regulation skills, we end up wiring a brain that is less likely to be able to carry these tasks out.
How have our online relationships with others impacted how we relate to each other in person?
Living in a world where our relationships live in social networks, video game clans and other digital spaces has led to a deeply altered scaffolding upon which we develop relationships. We easily objectify others and “shop” for community rather than learning to live within a diverse community of people who are present in our embodied spaces. We forego practice in traditional communication methods by offloading a majority of our communication in words that are typed rather than spoken. We point out awkward moments but don’t have the skills to live through them in the context of others simply because we haven’t practiced doing so in our embodied spaces. All the while, we are seeking to have a wide network of friends with little awareness of the strength of that network.
While technology has offered us opportunities to connect with more people from more places than we could have ever imagined, it’s important to keep a balance of connections in our embodied spaces and in our digital ones and to keep our communication skills (e.g. eye contact, voice-to-ear communication, etc.) intact so that we have what we need, relationally, when online connection simply isn’t enough.
One thing you talk about in the book is how we don’t really know how to wait anymore because of the many conveniences technology offers. If we’ve grown weak in delaying gratification, how we do retrain ourselves to wait?
We must do the difficult work of being inconvenienced, bored and uncomfortable. We must believe that there is merit in being able to tolerate boredom and in doing things in the less-than-“sparkly” or -convenient ways. Every once in a while, we would be benefitted by driving to a local store, finding the object we’d like to buy, then interacting with a checker as we purchase it. Some of the time, it would grow us to wrestle with an answer in and of ourselves rather than picking up our device to Google it. Without practicing waiting, we will never learn to do so. Without forcing ourselves to develop the resiliency and grit required for delaying gratification, we will never be able to experience the kind of benefits that come from being a person who can remain regulated even while waiting. There are simply some traits of a healthy self that require an ability to be still and OK even when we are wanting something or while we work to meet a need. If we are to be people who can think deeply and critically and who can encounter our neighbors and God with depth and intimacy, we must learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. We must learn to be still, to listen, to wait and to encounter.
How is our excessive technology use impacting our spiritual lives or how we experience our faith through activities like praying, Bible reading or listening to sermons in church?
I believe we are losing our ability to simply be and be still, given the 24/7 “on” nature of the digital landscape that we live in. In order to encounter God in all of God’s genuine and authentic wonder, we must be able to be quiet, to listen intently and to get past our biases by engaging skills of discernment and critical thinking. We must be able to do this while also accessing our emotion in order to deepen our relationship with God. All of this requires cognitive and emotional regulation skills. Technology use (especially when it is excessive) robs us of all of these skills by feeding our biases (via algorithms delivering us never-ending streams of “the same”), by keeping us dependent upon stimulation (sometimes telling us the lie that it is soothing) and by offering constant external input/distractions.
As a result, we must work extra hard to maintain these skills in order to know God deeply and love God, and God’s creation, well. We must work extra hard to learn to be still, to learn to listen past our biases, to both be gazed upon and to gaze at a God who is present. To do this we must now practice an ability to be regulated even while under-stimulated. One of the most incredible findings for me has been the research that shows that 10 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation, which can also look exactly like contemplative prayer, increases both the grey matter and myelinization of the regions in the brain that appear to be under-stimulated with heavy technology use. The fact that God created us with brains that can heal and that do so by being still and connected to the depths of our souls is incredible to me.
What kind of habits should we form to better balance our lives and technology in this digital world?
Two things could change the trajectory of technology’s widespread impact. First, the development of an ability to tolerate boredom and be inconvenienced and uncomfortable has the ability to counteract our short attention spans and distractibility. Second, making sure that we are tending to our embodied selves and lives would go a long way toward giving us a “muse” worthy of moderating our technology use for. I talk a lot, in the book, about creating and maintaining a fiery life. If our most “sparkly” and habitual experiences happen in digital spaces, we’ll be hard-pressed to want to leave them. If, however, we are tending to our intellectual, relational, spiritual and personal selves in embodied and wholehearted ways, feeding the flames of our fiery lives with rich, deep, appropriately risky, growth-inducing and life-challenging offerings, our digital engagement is likely to be kept in its place.
ABOUT THE EXPERT
Doreen Dodgen-Magee (Psy.D. ’92) is a technology and psychological health expert with over 25 years of experience working with individuals and groups in Portland, Ore., throughout the country and internationally. Her newest book is Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World. You can read her blog at doreendm.com or follow her on Instagram or Twitter @drdoreendm.