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  • Writer's pictureCara Gruhala

Therapist as guinea pig

Let me say this in a different way. In my undergrad I actively decided not to pursue a psychology major because a professor had me convinced that I would have to do psychological research on humans or animals that would cause them pain. Knowing what I know now, not taking that path in undergrad was likely the right decision for me. However it's not realistic that even in the non-research work I do, to think my clients will not sometimes feel discomfort. It's often a part of being on the way to feeling better or making changes.

However, in this case, I'm going to put myself through some discomfort for the sake of research. Let me tell you how this came about. Several years ago when I was a school counselor I invited a local provider who does a lot of research on the effect of technology on the brain to talk to parents with interest in this topic. One of the most important pieces that I learned there was the brain's reaction to quickly changing digital stimulus is different than to things that are more static, or unchanging. Think the difference between flipping channels everytime you feel bored, versus sticking with one channel even through commercials or shows that aren't your favorite. Many social media platforms and some games are designed to feed on this. That doesn't mean they're inherently evil, will cause long term damage in all cases, or even have to be heavily limited, its just a factor to keep in mind.

So let me tell you about my current technology usage. Sometimes (infrequently outside of work) I use a laptop or tablet. Primarily I am using my smartphone. My phone is frequently used for:

  • Direct communication - someone is purposely trying to talk to me or vice versa (voice, text, messenger)

  • Less direct communication - someone may be trying to communicate with me or I might be trying to communicate or keep up with others, but maybe not directed at a specific person (Facebook, Instagram, other forms of social media)

  • Keeping up to date on current events or news/information - (social media platforms, podcasts, Google)

  • Entertainment - (podcast, streaming apps, audiobooks, ebooks, games)

  • Accessibility - (communication and scheduling apps for activities, online payments, tracking tools, and more)

  • Online purchasing/ordering - (everything from Amazon to the app for my favorite restaurant)

Thinking through these, it's pretty easy to see the ones that are the biggest time sucks. I'm definitely not hanging out for hours on my natural gas provider's app where I pay my bill! Looking at my phone's data the biggest time suck is indirect communication, otherwise known as social media for me. The biggest culprit in this elder millenial's life is Facebook by far. The next two for me are direct communication sources, which for me are messenger apps as well as text messaging.

I have definitely noticed both an increase in my time spent on electronics since the inception of the smartphone (because I am old enough to clearly remember not having one!) as well as more since the inception of social media, and particularly social media apps. I can also say that often, just from my phone, I feel pulled in multiple directions at once. My attention is divided between several things and I'm doing none of them well. Over time, and through the course of some life changes including having children and grad school, I notice that my attention and focus has been heavily impacted. I went from a place of reading multiple books a month, to struggling to finish one. I struggled with losing items. I felt foggy. Just for clarification, technology does not cause ADHD related inattention. Full stop.

Have you ever opened up your phone with a purpose and found yourself in an app that had nothing to do with that original purpose? Have you ever been doing one thing on your phone and multiple notifications entice you to several other places before you can even finish the first task? Do you ever feel yourself picking up your phone or opening an app with no real purpose at all? Do you ever use your phone to distract yourself from uncomfortable feelings? All of these things are probably familiar from time to time for frequent phone users.

I have been really considering whether I am modeling a healthy relationship with technology for my children. I am actually very pro technology. I use traditional and digital tools in my play therapy work. Clients and I often connect over our love of various video games. Technology enhances my life in many ways, I'm just curious by nature and wondering what would happen if I felt more in control of some of my usage.

So here's the plan...I'm going to set some serious limits on my own usage, particularly of the scrolling social media apps, and record the results, for one month. One person is not a valid study that can be generalized to large groups of people. This is just a case study I'm doing on myself. The parameters are this: 30 minutes or less of social media a day. I'll give myself a few set times a day to look at and respond to texts and messenger app reach outs, and I'll be trying to set my phone down a lot in between. I'm not putting limits on my ebook app, my podcast app, or making and receiving phone calls because I don't find these currently problematic. Only my New York Times games because I play maybe 5 minutes a day (yay Wordle!), but no other phone games. I'm not shooting for any certain percentage but will be curious what the reduction in my time on my phone per day will be? I'll be curious if I'll notice any differences in attention and focus or mood by the end? I'm wondering if any of my relationships will be positively impacted by more presence in the moment, or negatively impacted by reduced/delayed communication when over tech means? I'm wondering how much is actually realistic to use less when we think of everything that is connected from smart home items, to necessary communication with my children's caregivers, communication for work, and more?

I'll plan on reporting weekly, yes via technology here on the blog, and shared to my professional social media. The irony of that is not lost on me, but like I said, I don't think technology is evil, just wondering what my life would be like with some changes to my own usage. This starts tomorrow, Tuesday, February 13th, and I'll try to provide updates weekly, on a day of the week TBD. Feel free to follow along and leave comments here or on social media about your thoughts or questions. I promise to only check them once a day for 30 minutes :)

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