Elaine Kasket: “Be realistic about the limits of your willpower”

Reflect on what you might be avoiding with your technology use. Do you reach for your phone to suppress or distract yourself from boredom, dissatisfaction, intimacy, lack of intimacy, conflict, anxiety, unhappiness, or loneliness? This is called experiential avoidance, and it makes us less psychologically flexible and able to cope. Smartphones can facilitate experiential avoidance […]

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Reflect on what you might be avoiding with your technology use. Do you reach for your phone to suppress or distract yourself from boredom, dissatisfaction, intimacy, lack of intimacy, conflict, anxiety, unhappiness, or loneliness? This is called experiential avoidance, and it makes us less psychologically flexible and able to cope. Smartphones can facilitate experiential avoidance because they’re an endless source of distraction and are always there. When you consistently avoid difficult internal experiences, you’re not only less self-aware, you’re less able to navigate and tolerate the full gamut of what life throws at you.

As a part of my series about 5 Ways To Create a Healthy Relationship With Screens and Technology, I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Elaine Kasket.

Elaine Kasket is a Counselling Psychologist, cyberpsychologist, and Honorary Professor of Psychology at the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom. She is the author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: The Digital Afterlife of Your Personal Data, which looks at control, privacy, and our relationship with social media through the lens of what happens to your data when you die.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?

I studied journalism at a time when the news was a completely different industry. Mobile phones were uncommon and weighed about a kilogram. Twitter, blogs, and even the World Wide Web didn’t exist at all. Journalists had much greater power and responsibility compared to today, because they were the gatekeepers. They decided what news was fit to print.

Ultimately, I declared a double major in journalism and psychology and toyed with the idea of becoming a science writer, but I moved on to a doctorate in clinical psychology, a private psychotherapy practice, and then an academic career. I developed a peculiar research specialism: the intersection of death and technology, particularly dying and bereavement on social media. That used to be niche, but it is considerably less so now.

In more recent years, I’ve preferred to offer my expertise to non-academics and to serve as more of a ‘public intellectual’. I now write books for the general reader, not just for my academic colleagues.

Can you share the most interesting story that has happened to you since you started your career?

I’m going to make myself a bit vulnerable with this story, but I think it’s a salutary tale. I worked my way up through the ranks in academia, and after my university job ended for the day, I would literally sprint to my evening psychotherapy clinic. At weekends I’d write, research and mark papers — and all the while I was the mother of a young child.

I was hugely stressed and functioning on automatic pilot, and I had drifted away from my core values. I told myself that I could handle stress, that it kept me sharp and made me productive. As a psychologist, I should have known better.

So, the most interesting thing that’s happened in my career was its dramatic disruption. My body revolted so completely that I developed a profound psychogenic stutter for about two months. I couldn’t do therapy, chair a meeting, or deliver a lecture. I was professionally incapacitated.

This enforced pause was an exceptionally important moment, for it enabled me to reflect and to reconnect with what really mattered to me. My extended period of burning the candle at both ends, mindlessly climbing the career ladder, and neglecting my creativity nearly ended me, so I’m extremely grateful to whatever part of my brain came up with the genius idea to deprive me of my speech for seven weeks. I handed in my notice and wrote my first nonfiction book for the general reader. Now I’m an Honorary Professor, not full-time faculty, so I’m far more in charge of my work/life balance.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Yes indeed. I just finished a novel based on a dystopian situation that I cooked up while writing my last nonfiction book, and I’m editing that now. I like the idea of doing a lot of research and then producing a paired nonfiction and fiction book on the same themes. Writing the novel has felt like the dessert that comes after a sensible meal.

I’ve also just signed the contract for a new nonfiction book, Exposed, which examines modern, technologically mediated privacy from cradle to grave and finds some reasons for us to be cheerful — or at least to feel more in control. It covers ‘sharenting’, which is when parents or carers disclose children’s information online; facial recognition technologies; the Internet of Things (IoT); medical privacy; and genealogical privacy on sites like Ancestry.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Between work and personal life, the average adult spends nearly 11 hours looking at a screen per day. How does our increasing screen time affect our mental, physical, and emotional health?

Everyone’s worried about screen time — their own, and other people’s — but actually screen time per se isn’t inherently bad for you. The picture is far more nuanced than that, and context is everything. Two questions are critical: What are you using the screen for, and what are you not doing (or being) because you’re on your screen?

Mindfully, deliberately chosen onscreen activity that’s aligned with your values can often increase your well-being. For example, if you’re using a screen to connect with someone you love, to attend an exercise class, to read a book, or to use your mindfulness app, that might be great for your well-being. Screen time that has an explicit relational, prosocial, or other valued purpose has been shown to be good for you.

On the other hand, constantly scrolling through your news feed or comparing your relatively humdrum life with glamorous strangers on Instagram is correlated with loneliness, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. If your smartphone use prevents you from switching off from work, or Twitter trolls are upsetting you, or you’re depressed about everyone else’s apparently fabulous lives on Facebook, then for you that’s bad screen time.

In other words, it’s not the inherent fault of the technology — it’s about how you’re using it. That’s good news, because it means that you have more control than you might think you have.

Now, the second question: what are you not doing because you’re on your screen instead? If you put the smartphone aside, would you be spending more time meaningfully interacting with your partner, family, and/or friends? Would you be intimate more often if you weren’t on your phone in bed? Would you be exercising more in the mornings, or cooking yourself healthy food?

Furthermore, are you using screen time to avoid or numb problematic thoughts and feelings that you’d be better off addressing? Are you so distracted or wrapped up in your phone that you can’t concentrate on other things, or flexibly redirect your attention?

If the answer to some of the above questions is ‘yes, probably’, then your screen time needs a rethink. If the answer is no, then you’re fine! Remember: it’s not a problem for you unless it’s a problem for you.

And what about effects on your physical health? Using a screen probably does less damage to your eyes than you think. We do get eye strain and dryness when we stare at anything for too long and don’t blink enough, and we do blink less when we’re looking at an illuminated screen. Varying your gaze, using eyedrops, increasing text size and keeping the screen further away from your face can all help. Stay aware of that posture too!

Screen time can cause some people to be more sedentary, which can increase the risk of obesity and diabetes. It can also disrupt sleep, which is associated with a host of physical issues. Then again, some folks may use their screens as motivation to exercise, or routinely drop off to sleep as soon as they start watching Netflix. Context is everything! If your screen time decreases your physical activity or messes with your sleep, you need to address it.

Can you share your top five ways people can improve mental wellness and create a healthy relationship with technology?

  1. Remember that technology in and of itself is not good or bad — it’s how it’s used. Don’t apply arbitrary rules and don’t worry about any technology use that improves your mental wellness. Used in the right ways, technology entertains, educates, connects, and facilitates the giving and receiving of social support.
  2. Be realistic about the limits of your willpower. Your phone and the apps on it are designed to hijack your attention. Sophisticated, subconscious nudges that operate below the level of your awareness keep you watching and scrolling. Organize your environment so that access to screens is constructively disrupted. For example, don’t be part of the majority of adults who keep their phones next to their beds. You can also design your phone so that it’s less appealing to your brain — for many people, turning their phones to grayscale helps.
  3. Assess your values, using a values clarification tool if it’s helpful. Then consider how well your use of technology fits with and supports those values. For anything that isn’t in service of your values, troubleshoot any environmental and situational triggers that are encouraging that technology use. Use behavioural substitution: identify the things that matter to you and that feed your psychological and emotional needs, and try to actively choose them over any technology time that isn’t nourishing you.
  4. Reduce or eliminate passive social media use. People who scroll and lurk and focus on the feeds of strangers and influencers are prone to experiencing envy, loneliness, and inferiority-inducing social comparisons. On the other hand, people who use social media to actively engage with their friends and communities may find that social media actually enhance their overall well-being. If mindless, automatic social-media or news scrolling is a problem for you, disrupt your access. If you must maintain your social media accounts, delete the apps from your phone.
  5. Reflect on what you might be avoiding with your technology use. Do you reach for your phone to suppress or distract yourself from boredom, dissatisfaction, intimacy, lack of intimacy, conflict, anxiety, unhappiness, or loneliness? This is called experiential avoidance, and it makes us less psychologically flexible and able to cope. Smartphones can facilitate experiential avoidance because they’re an endless source of distraction and are always there. When you consistently avoid difficult internal experiences, you’re not only less self-aware, you’re less able to navigate and tolerate the full gamut of what life throws at you.

Between social media distractions, messaging apps, and the fact that Americans receive 45.9 push notifications each day, Americans check their phones 80 times per day. How can people, especially younger generations, create a healthier relationship with social media?

Notifications and our response to them are intimately connected to a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine affects our mood, our attention, and our motivation, amongst other things. When we receive a notification, we get a little hit of dopamine at the very possibility that it will turn out to be something pleasurable. Perhaps someone has made a nice comment on one of your photographs! Maybe someone you like has written you a message! Is it an invitation that will alleviate your current state of boredom? The temptation to pick up the phone and check can be overwhelming. That’s dopamine in action.

Notifications dangle the prospect of validation, attention, or some other psychological reward. But more often than not — especially when you’ve enabled notifications from all the apps on your phone — the reality won’t live up to your dopamine-infused spike of expectation. You’ll feel let down. That little plunge of disappointment will make you that much hungrier for some kind of reward. Maybe the next notification will make you feel better. Voila: you’re hooked. Your phone keeps you endlessly circuiting round the dopamine reward system.

Never forget the reality of the attention economy. These apps don’t want an inch, they want a mile, and they’ll get it out of you however they can. They will always promise more pleasure than they actually deliver. If you’re truly paying attention, you’ll be able to notice how they steal you away from things that do make you feel good.

Take back some control by disabling your notifications, setting your phone to ‘do not disturb’ when you’re engaging in valued activities, and/or determining set times of day to look at your phone. At other times, stash it away. Stay mindful and values-driven by monitoring your screen time and reflecting, without judgement, on whether you’d like to reduce it — and be clear about why.

Catch yourself in automatic behaviours, observe what’s going on, and question yourself. How was I feeling just before I picked my phone up again? What was I looking for, and what was driving that urge? If I were being deliberate in my behaviour rather than automatic, what might I have done instead?

Now that our environment is actively trying to control us, the ability to be mindful has never been more important. Mindfulness training and practice should start in primary school or before, and parents should be aware of how their own technology use imprints upon their children. Infants and toddlers naturally follow their parents’ gaze, and that parental gaze is often directed towards smartphones.

80% of smartphone users check their phones before they brush their teeth in the morning. What effect does starting the day this way have on people? Is there a better morning routine you suggest?

The way that you’ve introduced this question is telling in and of itself! Brushing one’s teeth and having breakfast used to be the essential features of starting one’s day. Now the majority of us reach for our phones virtually as soon as we’ve opened our eyes.

The primacy effect means that we can be heavily influenced and have a stronger memory of the first thing we see. Picking up your phone first thing reinforces and reconfirms it as a central object in your life. And how often has your day’s mood been heavily influenced by the first things you saw that morning on your phone? The first thing we encounter as the sun rises, the first sensations we feel as we’re emerging from sleep, can set us up for good or for ill.

If your phone weren’t hijacking your attention and helping determine your mood, what would you do upon awakening? What would you want and choose to do? Would you be more likely to greet your partner, write in your journal, do some exercise or read a book? Broadly speaking, would you be more likely to do anything that felt better and were more aligned with your values than scrolling through your phone?

The remedy is simple, but you may have to work hard to break your established habits. Your mind will likely send you thoughts about missing out, needing to stay informed, and so forth, but see these as your brain’s desperate bid to stay in its usual dopamine dance with the phone. Your mind has been programmed that way through ongoing smartphone use!

Institute a gadget-free bedroom. Turn off your phone at night — radical idea that that is. Just seeing your phone is a powerful environmental cue, so charge it away from the bed, and ideally somewhere where you cannot see it. If you want to get through breakfast without it, don’t have it on the kitchen table. If you want to go out running without it, don’t keep it in the hallway.

Eventually, you’ll pick up your phone. But as you reach for it, see if you can catch yourself in flight and do a little check-in. Say to yourself, ‘I notice that I’m reaching for my phone. What am I wanting or needing right now? Is there a better way to get what I’m actually craving?’ This should help you start and continue your day in a mindful, rather than an automatic, way.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote?

‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ Krishnamurti

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I believe that addressing income inequality would have a profound impact on our wellness — physical, mental, and societal. In poorer communities and countries with a high level of income inequality, all types of health suffer. Dr Joe Herbert provides a very good summary of the connections between income inequality and poor mental and physical health, and I can’t say it better than he does, so I refer you to his Psychology Today article. I have the privilege of being able to vote in two countries, and I always cast my votes for those leaders who demonstrate a belief in and a commitment to reducing income inequality.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

You can find me on Twitter and Medium (@elainekasket), and I’m also on LinkedIn. You can see all my latest writing on www.elainekasket.com, where you can also subscribe.

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