DULUTH, Minn. — Michele Johnson’s weeks are packed.

She spends a fair amount of time tied to technology, grading, researching and emailing as an assistant professor of occupational therapy at the College of St. Scholastica.

Michele Johnson
Michele Johnson

This summer, she found her screen time went further.

“I’d be spending all day on the computer, and I’d be tired. My eyes would be strained and exhausted, but then (at home), I would pick up my phone and go to Facebook.”

That’s how she spent one to two hours a night — time she might have spent with her family, she said. So in August, Johnson replaced some of her screen time with sudoku books, crossword puzzles, magazines and backyard bird-watching — all an effort “to protect” herself.

"I have a young adult daughter with serious mental illness," Johnson said. "Everyone seems so happy on social media.

"I found myself becoming more unhappy looking at social media, based upon where my daughter was."

Phone use or something a client saw on social media is brought up 95% of the time in individual or couples counseling, said Katie Erickson, clinical director and licensed professional clinical counselor at Duluth Counseling Center.

“We’re more connected than ever, but we’re more disconnected than ever,” she said.

Katie Erickson
Katie Erickson

Life depicted online isn’t real, and Erickson said people start to compare their lives to their perception of others'. They start to believe they’re not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough. “They forget there’s a filter on this picture, or that’s made up, or that’s Photoshop,” she said.

Screens offer a form of connection, but what’s missing is face-to-face interaction, eye contact and touch. Increased time on social media can lead to FOMO, fear of missing out. And, the more social media accounts a person has compounded with the amount of time devoted to being online can create or exacerbate depression, anxiety, Erickson said.

There is a link to social media connection and the feel-goods.

Dr. Rebecca Gilbertson
Dr. Rebecca Gilbertson

The pleasure pathway in the brain was designed to promote activities that contribute to our survival, said Dr. Rebecca Gilbertson at the University of Minnesota Duluth. That’s why dopamine release in the brain is related to food, sex, exercise and social connections.

Positive social stimuli, such as peer praise or loving interactions with family, result in dopamine release, which reinforces the behavior that preceded it. That includes social media.

“Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a ‘like’ on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx,” according to a Harvard University article.

Paul Baecker
Paul Baecker

Technology and social media are “dopamine at the click of a button,” and the dopamine response technology gives is what we can become addicted to, said Paul Baecker, board certified counselor at MAP Behavioral Health Center in Duluth.

Internet addiction was first mentioned in the 1990s, but what has plagued the nomenclature is there’s a problem with measurement of symptoms, Gilbertson said.

Compulsive buying, sex addiction and gambling are recognized as addictions by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “Tech addiction doesn’t exist anywhere in the DSM,” Gilbertson said.

The term “addiction” is employed when the outside factor causes significant impairment or distress. Hallmark characteristics are tolerance, withdrawal and loss of control. But there is a correlation between gaming and the gambler’s fallacy, which is an idea that your luck is going to change. Potentially, that same type of thinking could apply to gaming, she said.

In 2018, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder in response to a public health issue predominantly in Asian countries. And while internet gaming disorder isn’t recognized in the U.S., the American Psychiatric Association noted that responses ranging from irritability at the loss of gaming to losing a job over gaming as possible symptoms.

Excessive use of technology is most often considered a factor in obesity, lesser sleep quantity, physical pain to back, neck and hands.

Tilting your head to look at your smartphone or tablet leads to poor posture and spine strain. And prolonged use in a flexed neck position used to view smart devices is tied to shoulder and neck pain, according to the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.

The blue light from devices reduces the release of melatonin. This can throw off the body’s circadian rhythm and affect sleep, according to a Harvard Health Publishing article.

This spring, Minnesota lawmakers responded to distracted driving injuries and deaths with a “hands-free” law, prohibiting phone use while operating a vehicle.

Most often, though, Baecker sees hyper-vigilance, inflated emotions, lower distress tolerance and executive functioning as common responses to screen time that exceeds two hours a day in kids and families. The mental capacity required to keep up with constant online activity can be exhausting, he said.

But technology also paves the way to health benefits.

When used appropriately, it offers pro-social, positive effects. Consider if it’s adaptive or maladaptive, is it helping or harming, to avoid or to calm?

There are step counters, nutrition apps for food tracking, Erickson said. There are screen time trackers on smartphones to help you identify your online activity and the duration.

Gaming for some is a grounding technique for self-soothing and emotional regulation. It can also be used as positive reinforcement. And for those on the autism spectrum, using a device can stimulate and aid communicate, said Baecker.

He works with LGBTQIA kids, or children on the spectrum, who often reach out to him in an event by text. He also conducts online therapy sessions which grant access to remote clients.

Baecker recommended introducing screens to children based on their social, academic functioning and responsibility levels. “(Age) 14-16 is a fair time to start to introduce phones with proper guidelines and clear transparency of expectations.

“It helps the kids to realize the responsibility and gravity of having a phone or tablet,” said Baecker.

At home, Baecker’s family turns screens off after school/work. “Disconnecting from our devices can be liberating, and we can seek out dopamine in other ways such as in board games or good old-fashioned delayed gratification.”

Turning our phones off can lead to more mindfulness, greater satisfaction, less anxiety. “It increases happiness if we get off our phones and connect with people in our lives,” added Erickson.

In Michele Johnson’s home, there’s a limited data plan for the teenagers, and wifi is turned off at 10 p.m. Personally, Johnson checks social media every couple of days now, and she said she’s more relaxed and patient with her family as a result.

“I’m really trying to focus on what is going on here and now, and be OK with the silence. I don’t always need to be activating my brain,” Johnson said.

Cutting back

Moderation in all aspects of life is healthy, said Katie Erickson, clinical director and licensed professional clinical counselor at Duluth Counseling Center. This year, adults in the U.S. will spend three hours and 43 minutes a day on their phones and tablets, according to the Los Angeles Times. Cutting screens out cold turkey is unrealistic, but if you’d like to reduce your screen time for whatever reason, here are some tips.

  • Remove social media apps from your phone for a week.
  • Set limits to your screen use, schedule time for social media, set a timer and stick to it.
  • Avoid screens one hour before bedtime.
  • Keep your phone out of your bedroom.
  • Take a Saturday or Sunday away from your phone.
  • Turn off phone or put it in the glove compartment of your car when driving.
  • Invest in a watch and/or a paper planner.

Setting limits for kiddos

  • Make unplugged playtime a priority.
  • Create tech-free zones or times.
  • Discourage use of media entertainment during homework.
  • Eliminate background television.
  • Set screen time limits and curfews.
  • Consider using apps that control the length of time a child can use a device.
  • Remove screens from your child's bedroom.

  • Limit your own screen time.

    — Mayo Clinic
  • Internet gaming

    Internet gaming is not a recognized disorder in the U.S. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders determined there is not sufficient evidence to classify it at this time, but it did propose these symptoms:

    • Preoccupation with gaming

    • Withdrawal symptoms such as sadness, anxiety and irritability when gaming is taken away or not possible

    • Tolerance, the need to spend more time gaming to satisfy the urge
    • Inability to reduce playing, unsuccessful attempts to quit gaming
    • Giving up other activities, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities due to gaming
    • Continuing to game despite problems
    • Deceiving family members or others about the amount of time spent on gaming
    • The use of gaming to relieve negative moods, such as guilt or hopelessness
    • Risk, having jeopardized or lost a job or relationship due to gaming

    *This does not include general issues with online gambling, social media, smartphones or the internet.