Why mindfulness is an essential skill of the new year.
Navigating the modern world is not easy — our culture places excessive demands on our time and attention, often pulling our focus away from those nearest to us and even away from our personal health and well-being.
Technology dominates every aspect of our lives. While it has undoubtedly delivered incredible opportunities and improvements to so many aspects of our lives, we must recognize the impact on our health and the health of our children while finding solutions that best protect our families.
So much of our society is now focused on fast, dopamine-rewarding distractions that it has produced a fundamental shift in our behavioral patterns — how we consume media, interact with others, and prioritize and approach tasks.
Practicing mindfulness provides an essential outlet that acts as a circuit breaker to the potent dopamine-seeking loop that many of us unwittingly find ourselves in. With social media algorithms, news feeds and gaming mechanics becoming more refined and advanced in their ability to draw us in, practicing and teaching mindfulness techniques to our children should be a priority in 2023.
The Dopamine-Reward Loop
In a 2020 study investigating social media addiction at St. Georges University Hospital in London, researchers found that the algorithms powering social media platforms were designed to specifically exploit the dopamine feedback loop — providing rewarding stimuli at random intervals. With a parallel to gambling and other addictive behaviors, social media has taken the same brain chemistry that keeps gamblers gambling, refining it by reducing the chance of disengagement.
The study found that while social media has many benefits, awareness of overuse and the detrimental effects on users’ physical and mental well-being rapidly become a public health necessity. What’s significant is that this behavior quickly becomes mindlessly habitual — picking up our phones and scrolling without thinking has almost become a mechanical action for many of us.
King’s College London’s Centre for Attention Studies discovered a vast discrepancy between how often people think they check their phone and the actual number. Participants in the study estimated they checked their phones on average 25 times a day, whereas the unlock data on participants’ phones showed the figure to be over double the amount at 60 unlocks per day. Apple released data in 2016 stating that the average iPhone user unlocks their phone 80 times daily.
Regaining awareness about how frequently we use our devices and using mindfulness to break these impulsive habits are vital first steps to changing our behavior.
The Isolation and Loneliness of Technology’
Feelings of depression and anxiety are on the rise, particularly in children — the American Psychological Association reported that 20.5 percent of children worldwide in 2021 were struggling with anxiety and depression symptoms, almost double the figure from a previous 2012 study.
While it would be unfair to pin the blame solely on technology use, it is undoubtedly fueling, or at least exasperating, the situation.
Using meta-analysis to help understand this global mental health crisis, researchers at the University of Philadelphia looked at 29 international studies involving 80,879 children and adolescents for commonalities and patterns in what is causing this marked upswing in mental health issues. Many common stressors were uncovered — the COVID-19 pandemic, exposure to harmful and violent news stories, and political unrest — the underlying feelings that these events produced were even more significant.
Feelings of isolation, loneliness, overwhelm, lack of guidance, and lost focus were amongst the most commonly self-reported emotions. In fact, the most common similarity was the increase in time spent alone.
This suggests that screen time, often accused of fueling the rise in poor mental health, is not the issue — it’s what we are missing out on when we are using screens.
Mindfulness Techniques Are the Key to Navigating Technology Use
It’s easy to think that putting in place strict screen-time limits is the answer, but it doesn’t help our children build up any resilience or coping mechanisms for the future. Technology is now an ever-present reality of our lives, and as we head into 2023, it will only get better at what it sets out to do — demand our attention.
Techniques that teach us to be more mindful and present with our technology use are vital for the mental wellness and happiness of our families.
An impulse that drives us to reach for our phones, check notifications and open an app are, most frequently, entirely habitual. Reframing this process in our minds and asking ourselves what our intentions are behind using our phones begins to break the habit.
Involving your children in this process, focusing on your behavior, is a great, non-judgmental, non-confrontational way to plant the seed in their minds about their device habits. Helping children and adolescents understand that impulses pass and don’t need to be acted upon is an incredibly powerful lesson.
- Be present and undistracted. Being mindfully present when we interact with our children is a compelling example to set. Giving your child your undivided attention, free from distraction and devices, boosts their self-esteem and confidence. It gives them the time and freedom to express themselves openly and honestly without fear that they are not listening or about to do something else.
- Add more family-based activities. Whether it’s family board game night or a family craft project, setting aside time to participate in a screen-free activity that requires talking, interaction and a communal focus are rewarding and exceptionally beneficial to family unity.
Loneliness and feelings of isolation are not restricted to physically being on your own — finding ways to spend meaningful, mindful, and connected time as a family are more important now than ever.
Anthony Cupo is a Trained Mindfulness Facilitator (TMF) from the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is a co-owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center, LLC, and has been meditating for over 30 years. Our article is also published in ParentingOC’s Magazine!