People often think that because my research and practitioner work over the last 15 years has focused on device management, I advocate abandoning social media completely and trading in our smartphones for flip phones. Let me set the record straight: I’m not anti-technology. I use it all the time myself; I’m all about a family sitting together and watching a show, or sharing memes that make us laugh, or enjoying each other’s photos on Instagram.
But the question to ask yourself, and the question I ask my clients or audiences to whom I present my work, is, Are your devices controlling you, or are you in control of your devices? Because most online content, apps, and platforms-and certainly the devices which deliver them-are tied to revenue and consumerism, I remind them that if it is free, you are most likely the product, and thus purposefully designed to control us—to keep us online and engaged as long as possible. To create a healthy relationship with them, we need to take back the control.
This is particularly critical for teens and young adults, because their brains are still under “construction” until around age 26—specifically the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functioning and impulsivity. That makes young people especially vulnerable to the neurological and psychological effects of persuasion, impulsivity, and unhealthy device management and choices.
What Is Healthy Device Management?
An unhealthy relationship with devices can catalyze a wide range of negative mental health effects, through a variety of mechanisms. Poor sleep, nutrition, and/or exercise hygiene can detract from well-being on multiple levels. Social media potentially breeds detrimental comparison to others—what I call “Compare and Despair” and some of my colleagues refer to as “Doomscrolling.” Moreover, device mismanagement or overuse can also exacerbate any comorbidity with other emotionally or psychologically based issues, from ADHD, depression, and anxiety to self-identity construct/esteem, body image dysregulation, and even self-harm.
Furthermore, constant scrolling or gaming appears to create dopamine-related changes in the nervous system. These actions target our limbic system through its engaged susceptibility to intermittent variable rewards—the same basic idea behind slot machine design—that get us “hooked” and coming back from more. Our brains keep seeking the dopamine hit that comes with the next level of the game, the next post we see on our feed, or the next reaction to something we’ve posted. Research also suggests that these rituals may “prime” the brain for other future unhealthy dependencies or addictions.
To protect both our mental and physical health, we need to create a more balanced relationship with technology. But it would certainly be unreasonable to recommend the type of full abstinence that is the best course for other types of “addictions.” We live in a world rich in technology, and expect it only to become more so. Thus, to recommend “full abstinence” from technology or devices as a treatment plan would seem not only unreasonable, but also completely unrealistic—I’d pretty much be setting up every client for complete failure. That’s why instead of “addiction” treatment, I call what I do “Healthy Device Management.” In a definition just within compliance of the new Twitter post character limit (#PunFullyIntended), Healthy Device Management is about ensuring that our relationship with the devices we utilize promotes us, helps us to excel and to succeed, and doesn’t negatively impact or impede any aspect of our lives, whether biological, relational, psychological, social, or career/academic.
In short, then, the basic idea is that devices should be tools to enhance, not detract from, our happiness, well-being, success, relationships, and lifestyles. My goal is to work together with those for whom their device use has become a liability or negatively consequential in any way, to “reboot” their behaviors and take back control over them.
Organic Bids for Connection: What We Lose When We Overuse
Because we’re enmeshed in and dependent upon our devices, we are potentially missing out on essential IRL experiences. I call these “organic bids for connection”—opportunities for positive interactions and emotions that are happening around us all the time, but likely only that one time. An organic bid for connection might be an awesome sunset that you don’t notice if you’re on your phone, or an important conversation with a friend that doesn’t happen because even though you’re sitting together, you’re both on your devices. It might even be a stranger or acquaintancewalking by your table in the college social space who ends up becoming your best friend—it’s actually how I met mine; he walked by my table one day, we recognized each other, started talking, and didn’t stop.
Although some may disagree (and indeed do), I don’t believe it is a mere coincidence that after decades of young people’s relative stability, research for almost the past decade has been reporting spiking statistics for increased loneliness, isolation, anxiety, depression, and self-harm among young people since 2012, while smartphone sales, social applications, and the use of both have followed a similarly trending increase. There are certainly myriad variables that could be hypothesized to be causing this terrible surge in teen emotional and psychological struggles. But I also believe that to completely deny the potential significance of the introduction in 2008 of the iPhone (which meant that the Internet suddenly became mobile) or theoretically reject any potential correlation with teen social media use (which, especially via the launches of Instagram in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011, made social media a “must have” for social status) would be both naïve and irresponsible.
When you’re buried in your phone, you’re sending the message, Do not disturb me. You’re not open to organic bids for connection, and you’re not extending them to others through a look, acknowledgement, or even subtle greeting. I worry that young people are actually losing the skill set for recognizing or inviting these bids for connection; their equivalent appears to be more motivated towards “liking” someone’s TikTok video or harvesting new followers on Instagram.
And it’s not just kids: Parents are also potentially missing organic bids for connection with their children, just as frequently. If a teenager comes home from school and wants to talk about their day, and the parent is busily engaged with their device, they might miss that all-important—and often rare—opportunity to connect and support.
Healthy Device Management, Step One: The Self-Audit
The first step in changing your relationship to devices is to honestly assess how often you use them and also what you use them for—what I call “an honest and legitimate device use and utilization review.” There are applications that will track and report for you exactly where you’re spending your time online, and for how long. For teens and young adults, it’s important to “clean” the data by determining how much of their time on devices is spent in actual communication with people they know in real life—groups chats, DMs, etc.—versus time spent on apps, gaming, social media, or other online platforms.
Once you have an accurate picture of usage, the next step of the self-audit is to assess whether or not the time you spend on your devices is impeding your happiness or restricting your life in any way. In short, how does it make you feel? What is your emotional state before you pick up your device, and then after you’ve spent time on it? Do you have anxiety if you put down your phone and walk away? How do you feel when it’s 10 feet away, 20 feet away, in the next room? How intense is your level of anxiety if you’ve left your phone at home or (#FullOnZombieApocolpyse!) misplaced or broken it?
Next, examine your authentic motivation. Are you using your devices to deflect painful emotions or avoid problems you don’t want to face? For example, I find that teens and young adults who spend most of their time online playing video games often struggle with social interactions; gaming offers them easily accessible, low-risk connections. Young people also use gaming as a way to explore and play out alternate personalities, abilities, needs, or fantasies. If they struggle with insecurity, body dysmorphia, or social anxiety, for example, gaming might allow them to create a heroic, conventionally attractive avatar that can do everything they feel unable to do in real life (IRL). Thus, learning about both the games clients choose to play, as well as their avatar choice, can often help me understand more about who they are in real life—sometimes in an even unexpected and surprising way. It can also help me better help them, by uncovering and discovering what they are actually getting out of their game play.
Step Two: Decide Whether You’re Willing to Change
The most effective change occurs when the individual is committed to creating a shift in their behavior. Truth be told,this isn’t always the case at first, especially with my adolescent clients who may be in treatment because their parents chose it, but they themselves don’t think they have a problem. The self-audit helps with that. I often get buy-in from my clients once they realize how much they are actually being controlled by their devices, and how bad that ultimately makes them feel. They know that they’re sitting in the dark, feeling left out, not really doing all that great, and they realize it’s probably not good for them. I really love that moment when it happens for them—it’s when the positive shift begins to happen, and it is amazing.
I also let them know that they don’t have to be willing to change everything all at once. We start where they are, with whatever amount of meaningful behavior change they are ready to undertake. If they’re very resistant, I might ask them if they’re willing to try making a small shift for just one day and just see how it feels. As they observe their mood and well-being improving as their device usage decreases, their motivation to continue these new habits will usually become stronger as well.
Step Three: Create a Plan of Action
At this point in the process, I sit down with my clients and, without judgment, we discuss what changes, with respect to their specific circumstances and history, might be beneficial moving forward, and create together a plan of action for change. I don’t call these plans “contracts,” but instead “partnership agreements” between the client and me, and there are as many different ways to design them as there are clients. I also work with each client and their parents to ensure pragmatics, support of all parties, and full, agreed fidelity to whatever we all decide are the best items to include within our new “Healthy Device Management Partnership Agreements.”
These agreements could include all family members turning off their devices during meals together and 90 minutes before bedtime, getting off some or all social media apps, or adding an application on their devices that limits their screen time. For a hardcore gamer, it might be 90 days off gaming to reset the brain. Some might need to create boundaries around social media, video viewing, or texting. The strategy must be individualized for each particular person, according to their habits and underlying issues, while promoting the best opportunity to successful change and sustainability of new device-driven habits, rituals, and routines.
To address any possible correlation or comorbidity—especially with any other underlying biological, psychological, or sociologically-based issues—behavior change needs to go hand-in-hand with self-exploration, which is safest and most effective within the therapeutic context. What are teens and young adults craving when they play video games or use social media? What painful emotions, relationships, or past experiences are they running from? Where in the real world can they find the interaction, mastery, and validation they’re seeking?
When young people begin to better understand themselves and their motivations, their devices lose their power and become simply one of many tools for enhancing well-being and building connection. They begin to rediscover and reinvest in their “offline” self and relationships; understand how wonderful and powerful technology and the support it delivers can be to enhancing their lifestyle and goals; and hopefully reconnect with the IRL world in a healthy, exciting, and exceptional new way.