Dr. Lee Hildebrand recently collaborated with Lori Acken at MKE Lifestyle Magazine to discuss the importance of logging off and managing your social media and technology use to stay healthy and happy. Read on for the full feature.
A renowned local online addiction expert tells you how much screen time is healthy and how to curtail harmful habits.
By Lori Acken
A few years back when I served as editor-in-chief of this magazine, I began crafting a story tentatively called O Solo We-O. The intent was to examine how much of our once crowd-based lives — restaurants and malls, offices and grocery stores — had morphed into online, at-home enterprises, with everything we wanted and needed digitally or delivered right to our door.
Then COVID-19 forced us into our homes and turned our once-social lives into fear- and safety-based isolation. Suddenly those online enterprises that seemed to me so needlessly reclusive became a godsend, ensuring food, income, education and other necessities at a time when leaving our homes could literally be a matter of life or death.
Two years later, we’ve reached an uneasy truce with the pandemic — a “to each his own” sense of personal responsibility that has some of us masking up without exception while limiting our exposure to crowded situations, and others trusting their vaccines or immune systems to carry them through and avoid infecting others.
How has that impacted our online experiences? Has a return to in-person workspaces, shopping and social settings presented as welcome relief? Or has our ability to peer into a screen for work, shopping and entertainment turned us into comfortably solitary beings? And what does that mean for our humanity and our mental and physical health?
Online Vs. Real Life
Dr. Lee Hildebrand, a renowned psychologist at Mequon’s Lakeshore Psychology Services with 20-plus years of experience treating addiction, depression, anxiety, trauma and other mental health concerns, says it’s important to first focus on the positives of our online lives. Via social media, we’re able to stay in close contact with family and friends like never before. Through Zoom and other online platforms, we’re able to work and interact with colleagues and clients anywhere on Earth. Most necessities are at our fingertips.
“Then there’s a whole host of disadvantages that we’re seeing that are leading to some pretty severe problems,” Hildebrand says. “Suicide rates have increased in general. Depression rates have increased in general, as well as anxiety rates. And there’s some evidence to demonstrate that technology and social media have definitely played a role in that.”
In part, Hildebrand cites recent news items that show executives at Facebook (Meta), which is also the parent company of Instagram, ignored its own research on the potentially horrific impact of its platforms on mental health, especially that of young people. In response, popular bath and beauty retailer Lush shut down its social media presence until those platforms implement better ways to protect users from harmful content.
Hildebrand adds that the damage also extends to youths’ ability to focus and to comfortably step away from the constant stimulation of life online. “For young, developing people, there’s some research and discussions in regard to how [that stimulation] affects the mind and attention,” he explains. “They might have a notification over here on their cell phone, but then they’re trying to focus on something related to school on their screen. Then they get an email related to another item. This moving of focus and this fast reactive stimulation to the brain is demonstrating an effect on concentration — and I certainly think it can contribute to attention deficit issues that students are experiencing.”
Rewiring Our Brains
More alarmingly, that constant bombardment of engagement and distraction can actually reconfigure our brains.
“There’s a neurotransmitter in our brains called dopamine. Each time somebody gets a ‘like’ or receives some kind of acknowledgement in social media, they get a little spike,” Hildebrand explains. “Even when you hear the ding on your phone, it could be someone messaging you — ‘Someone wants to talk to me! Someone wants to pay attention to me!’
“You get these little spikes of dopamine in the brain during the day. Unfortunately, over time, that can be a habitual thing that impacts the way the brain’s wired. Imagine a forest,” he continues. “In the forest, in terms of the neurochemistry of the brain, there are certain paths of reinforcement that, when they happen again and again, wear a path similar to deer trails. The brain will more readily move in the direction of that neural path.
“We’ll see this play out over time,” Hildebrand says. “If somebody becomes addicted to something like social media, other types of pleasures — a sunrise or a beautiful, brisk day or a conversation that’s not as immediate with the dopamine, like face-to-face over coffee — can become less rewarding to the brain than the dopamine hit from those little [social media-induced] spikes. There’s a numbed pleasure response to other types of stimulation. We see this in pornography addiction and other areas as well.”
And it can chip away at our very being.
Virtual Idealization And Teen Confidence
A September Wall Street Journal investigation, which also quoted internal Instagram reports, noted that social media’s ability to allow users to present only idealized versions of themselves and their lives, combined with its addictive nature, can leave people — especially younger people still developing their sense of self and self-confidence — in real crisis.
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” revealed one slide that summarized research. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” read another. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Further studying teens in the U.S. and U.K., Facebook found that more than 40 percent of Instagram users who reported feeling unattractive said the feeling began because of their use of the app, as did a quarter of teens who reported feeling “not good enough.”
Boys are very much in the mix. In one 2019 study, Facebook researchers reported that 14 percent of boys in the U.S. said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. In another tied specifically to body image, researchers found that 40 percent of teen boys felt socially inferior. One American boy told the researchers that the pressure was constant because “it’s like you can be called out for anything you do. One wrong move. One wrong step.”
Though many of the young people (like plenty of adults) recognize the time we spend on these platforms makes us feel worse instead of better, they feel powerless to stop. Two Wisconsin teens who participated in the WSJ piece said that a full 90 percent of the peers they polled for a science project tied to these issues admitted that social media was bad for their mental health, but fear of missing out kept them logging in.
That’s intentional, says Hildebrand.
Coded For Addiction
“Another challenge with this is the [social media] algorithms,” Hildebrand explains. “They’re designed to continue to present you with material that will get the most [prominence] by clicking or continuing to read. It’s not even necessarily positivity. It’s just reactivity — to continue to look, to continue to scroll. These algorithms have played into the polarization of our culture on certain issues.”
Even adults with more offscreen responsibilities and long-developed hobbies and interests fall prey.
“It’s this avatar life in which you have this array of highlights, and many times people compare their behind-the-scenes life with everybody else’s ‘highlight reel’ life,” Hildebrand says. “I’ve seen posts where the wife will say, ‘My husband’s the greatest! This is the most amazing life!’ And they either called me the day before or the day after and were telling me they’re on the brink of divorce. There’s this huge disconnect in regard to the impression management on the socials and what’s really at play in their lives.”
See also the phenomenon of “Instagram Moms” who create no-filter “content” with an unknowing infant participant in glammed-up photoshoots. Though many find social media and “sharenting” as still a great source of sympathy, empathy and information, woman-centric information and entertainment site Refinery 29 recently found that while 53 percent of new-mom users felt that social media didn’t accurately reflect the mothering experience, 69 percent still suffered insecurities stemming from its use.
So how do we reestablish a healthy balance in our online/offline lives?
Start by firmly establishing ways in which web and social media activities truly enrich your daily existence, says Hildebrand, who coaches individuals, executives and professionals across the country. Then set firm boundaries around that.
“One of the things I’ve talked to clients about is how they can maximize their attention and their performance. If they’re working remotely, they can perhaps cordon off part of their house that’s their ‘work zone’ and be able to step away from that — otherwise, all these worlds start to meld and that can become very tiring and oppressive.”
Next, Hildebrand says, set boundaries around the time you spend on email and professional social platforms. “I encourage them to pick some time during the evening, if they’re able, and literally turn their phone off and put it away so they can deflect the stress of those constant stimulations. I had to teach myself to do this. Get the information you truly need, and then leave it alone.”
For those who simply default to social media platforms for stimulation, Hildebrand says to accept that the desire is normal, but our brains can be gradually taught to find real pleasure elsewhere — and gradual is the key.
The need for self-soothing is inherent in all of us, Hildebrand explains, adding that our bodies will fight back hard if we attempt to go cold turkey on our method of choice. “Our bodies will physiologically want to react and may do something really impulsive to overcome that,” he says. “So we need to be intentional about finding the types of [healthier] soothing that work. Try to find as much soothing as possible that has the fewest amount of side effects.”
Take a walk — even a short one — during the day to enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of each season, he counsels. Join trusted friends or family members for a meal, some group exercise or a social outing, and put your phone down for the duration and stay focused interacting with others.
Hildebrand shares stories of running with friends, calling out gratitudes as they scale hills, and a visit to Door County as recent joyful experiences. “We sat at the breakfast bar with other locals and started talking, and it was like the old show ‘Cheers,’” he says. “Those little nuances and that sense of community are rich experiences you can’t get through the socials.”
If you’re really struggling to re-establish a life away from your screens, Hildebrand says that qualified, professional help is available in more ways than ever before. Even online resources and support groups are fine if they help you break unwanted and negative behaviors.
The key aspect he says is “accountability — being able to dialogue about the vulnerability of the weakness and getting support from others.” MKE
Lakeshore Psychology Services, lakeshorepsychologyservices.com
Addiction Center, addictioncenter.com/drugs/social-media-addiction
Smartphone/Internet Addiction, helpguide.org/articles/addictions/smartphone-addiction.htm
Online Gaming addiction, olganon.org/home