The psychology research bucket has been overflowing the last few years with indictments of technology and its deleterious impact on our mental and emotional well-being. Brain research and mental health studies are dovetailing on the conclusion that screen time—particularly social media use—is stressing our brains, specifically the engine of computation and mental functioning: the prefrontal cortex.
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Dr. Mark Rego, a Yale psychiatrist and author of Frontal Fatigue, says the modern lifestyle is overwhelming our prefrontal cortex (PFC) and interfering with its ability to handle the critical functions it was designed to control. “With chronic stress, the PFC loses its ability to send these signals and the stress response continues unabated, even if the original stressful situation is gone,” wrote Dr. Rego in his book. Like any worker saddled with responsibilities for which they are ill-prepared, the prefrontal cortex has been assigned the job of gatekeeper of mental illness, though it was not constructed to handle stress.
The dynamic in which the brain cannot cope with the everyday stress of modern life is not conducive to 21st century success, Dr. Rego wrote, in an article in Psychiatric Times. The result has been increasing mental disorders over time in industrialized countries. “To solve a life problem large or small, you no longer consulted someone older, more experienced, or with whom you identified—you asked Google,” he wrote.
This is doubly so for children and teenagers; indeed, a whole body of knowledge links teenage phone use to depression and found decreasing phone use directly correlated with easing of symptoms. It is the reason that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than two hours of entertainment screen time per day for children and discourages the use of any screen media by children under two years of age. Think about what that portends for individuals and society in the coming years.
How can ordinary people determine whether their prefrontal cortex is under assault? Consider these symptoms: a loss of ability to pay attention; mini-bursts of short-term memory loss that result in word-finding problems and forgetting where you put things; an inability to multi-task; and loss of emotional control. If these sound like common problems everyone experiences, it’s because our entire culture is under the spell of technology. The ubiquity of these signs suggests prefrontal cortexes all over America (and in much of the developed world) are crying for help.
Mental health professionals offer a simple solution for children and adults alike: disconnect. That doesn’t mean we should disconnect entirely from technology but limit your screen time and avoid reliance on the Internet.
How? Here are some workarounds that will sound remarkably familiar:
Engage your senses by exiting your home and taking in the natural world. Go for a hike in the woods; visit a museum or arboretum; enjoy a great meal with your nose and taste buds; listen to a concert; or in some other way stimulate your vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch without the involvement of a screen.
Use your creativity in some endeavor that involves imagination. Write in a journal; try woodworking; take a ceramics class; learn the art of improv; paint, dance, play an instrument, etc. If you have children, it is especially important to fire their imagination because research is showing that children are becoming passive phone users, turning off their brains while consuming content. Helping them associate creativity and fun with non-screen activities provides them with easy-to-access outlets for de-stressing.
Work out your body by one of countless fitness options, like running, cycling, lifting weights, yoga, Pilates, and so many more. Exercising with kids may require something more formal, like gymnastics or karate lessons, or organizing a fun run. Exercise plays a role in managing stress, in addition to the physical fitness it provides and the diversion from screen time.
Become a social butterfly. Or merely make sure to engage with a rich network of friends through any activities you like, whether play dates, girls’ nights out, group events via Meetups (which connect people online for offline activities) or some other way.
My interest in this subject was sparked by a conversation with Scott Klososky, of Future Point of View, who is imagining the future before the rest of us see it coming. He reminds me that technology isn’t going away; in fact, it is encroaching more on our lives every day for both good and ill. Minimize the malign impact of the screen by monitoring your prefrontal cortex and finding the de-stressor that works for you.
And that goes double for your children.