Getting Kids Unhooked from Their Smartphones

Mindful

Setting guidelines around kids’ tech use starts with the habits and conscious choices of parents. Mark Bertin, MD, shares tips on how families can be mindful with their tech.

elena_fedorina/Adobe Stock

Kids and screen time cause considerable parental angst these days—and for good reason. Research shows children spend on average seven hours a day glued to computer, tablet, smartphone, or television screens. This reality has created such a stir that in the fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its decade-old recommendation on childhood screen time.

Far from a radical revision, the guideline newly suggests a little well-chosen time is fine starting near eighteen months, when used interactively with a care taker. Below eighteen months no time remains best, apart from maybe video conversations with grandparents. From two to five, an hour daily maximum is recommended, and for older kids, two hours total time tops, no different than before.

Why is screen time such a uniquely charged and challenging topic? Guidelines of this type are tough to implement in the real world. Kids don’t want to hear that outside of homework too much screen time actually impacts healthy development. However, since children lack mature executive function, cognitive skills required to manage life like a grown up,  wise decision-making around screens remains limited until they learn better. As strong a pull as children feel, healthy technology use relies on parents.

The Command Center of Life

Executive function is like the CEO of our lives. Anything regarding organization, planning, anticipating, focusing, and regulating behavior relies on executive function. Healthy development of executive function in early childhood has even been linked to life-longacademic and social success.

In large part, kids depend on parents to manage life while waiting for executive function to mature. Executive function represents the path toward complex problem solving and goal setting, and the ability to defer short term gratification for long term gain. The unsettling reality is that executive function doesn’t fully mature until around the age of thirty. That’s one reason kids and teens make not-so-smart decisions when it comes to social media. In a nutshell, even an independent-seeming teenager almost certainly lacks the full capacity to make long-sighted choices.

Immature executive function is a large part of what makes kids act like, well, kids. Around screens, think of it this way: Most adults have fully developed executive function and a strong ability to manage attention, prioritize, plan, and control impulses, and consider the future. They still struggle to keep phones and devices from becoming a distraction. What does that mean for the average child?

Because children lack the self-management capacities of a mature adult, they are particularly at risk when it comes to screens. For many, whatever feels best right now (I’m bored, where’s my tablet?) trumps health and well-being virtually every time. For teens immersed in their complex social world and drive for independence, volatile hormones and emotions create a perfect storm when joined with immature executive function and a smartphone. Sending naked selfies—hey, why not? The part of the brain responsible for reflection and foresight isn’t all grown up yet!

Putting Your Kids on a Media Diet

Like parents through the generations, our modern role is to love our kids, guide them, and teach them. Kids have always needed supervision, and there’s nothing unique about their fascination with technology. Parents before us managed a child’s behavior around driving, partying, curfews, and manners, and we now must keep track of technology, too. This means setting boundaries and giving them more independence as they earn it over time, not before.

Four Negative Impacts of Phone Addiction

Technology is a tool; it is not inherently good or bad. To keep it in a healthy place in our lives requires skillful use. Unlike passing trends that scared parents over the years, research shows poorly monitored screen time bluntly impacts kids for the worse. (Rock and roll was never shown to affect child development in any real way; it isn’t evil, as it turns out.) Well moderated activities may augment learning, but hundreds of studies show that when devices drive their own use, consequences follow. A few examples include:

  • Short- and long-term attention and executive function suffer. Laser-like attention towards a screen is an illusion; kids remain engaged because their attention constantly, actively shifts. That’s why it’s fun. Increased time in front of screens has been linked to long-term worsening of focus. Short-term use—like playing games on the school bus—has been linked to immediate decreases in executive function.
  • Sleep becomes disrupted. Studies show we all benefit from at least an hour without screens prior to bed. If you’re someone who falls asleep with the TV, you’re distracting yourself from restlessness but probably not helping yourself fall asleep.
  • Screen time can interfere with language, communication, and other forms of social engagement. Background television in homes has been linked to shorter social interactions. Even just having a phone on the table in a conversation has been shown disruptive. “Educational” DVDs used in one study not only failed to work—they caused language development to slow. Particularly in younger children, screen time should be an opportunity to engage, not disengage, with others.
  • Screen time breeds behavioral difficulties. One study showed nothing more than cutting inappropriate media content in preschool homes leads to better school behavior. In another, violent video games in teens were shown to decrease activity in parts of the brain that respond to violence. Of course, not every child playing video games gets swayed, but over any group of children there seems to be an influence.

Mindful Screen Management

Mindfulness means living life with more awareness and less reactive habit. For a parent, that means not trying for perfection but taking the time to monitor and readjust often. As children need our guidance around any other area of health, they need it with technology. If there’s one takeaway point around the entire body of technology research it is this: Strong parental involvement moderating screen time in and of itself correlates with academic, behavioral, and social success.

Strong parental involvement moderating screen time in and of itself correlates with academic, behavioral, and social success.

Staying involved means pushing back against mindless screen habits. The role screens play in life is driven by buckets of research and advertising dollars, an industry itching to make more and more money. Wherever technology helps, educates, or entertains in a balanced way, that’s perfect. When its use is driven by boredom, fear, or compulsion, mindfulness means pausing and redirecting our behavior.

Nothing much has changed through the years about how children develop or the role of parents. You wouldn’t let a child eat chocolate cake at every meal and you wouldn’t let them drive recklessly. By the same token, you can’t let them use screens without limits. Parenting in the digital age means the same thing as in the stone age: Children require affection, firm limit setting, and a mindful, aware, clear-sighted approach to guiding them, from sticks and stones through television and smartphones.

Six Ways to Be Mindful with Your Tech as a Family

Some basic family guidelines for screen time include …

  • Start with yourself. Children learn an awful lot just from watching their parents, and 70 percent of today’s kids feel their parents are on their screens too much. When you’re with your kids, try to put down your device and pay attention to your family. You are the first role model for screen use.
  • Parents decide how much. For all the debate about how much time is healthy, it comes down to parents prioritizing what they want to prioritize. Take a daily calendar, and fill in everything you value first. Start with bedtime, school hours, homework, reading, exercise, outdoor time, after-school activities, and down time for open-ended play. Whatever is left after that exercise is the maximum available time for screens, without exceeding the AAP guidelines. (An online tool to figure this out is available here). Another trick is to ask yourself: What percentage of unscheduled down time goes directly to a screen?

What percentage of unscheduled down time goes directly to a screen?

  • Parents decide when. Set guidelines around homework, meals, and a screen bedtime. Use allotted times wisely, scheduling so you can get what you need done around the house. Teach courtesy and manners too—meaning, when there’s an actual person around we pay attention to that person. One practice to stay engaged with others is taking a deep breath first when the phone rings or vibrates, pausing before deciding if it needs immediate attention.
  • Parents monitor content. The Internet can be an incredible, healthy, helpful source of information for curious kids. It also can expose them to much that is developmentally inappropriate. A handful of games may educate, plenty more clearly do not. Sites such as a Common Sense Media provide unbiased information for parents about what is age appropriate around various games, shows, and movies. Keep computers and screens out of bedrooms so you know what your kids are doing. Use content filters, teach healthy use, and keep an eye on overall habits. Aim to stay a wise, involved parent.
  • Remember that screens are a privilege, not a right. In generations past, kids used the family car responsibly and kept to curfew, or else there were consequences. Technology is no different. If children don’t follow family rules, there’s nothing wrong with a similar result—you’ve lost the privilege of your phone for the weekend. To disconnect for a time won’t destroy their social lives any more than getting grounded did all those years ago.
  • Make active choices. Awareness is the core of mindfulness, stepping from autopilot into active decision-making. For example, a trend has grown to give every middle school student a smartphone, although most parents realize how disruptive they often are at that age. Most experts think high school a better time for a smartphone, but the trend lives on. Around that choice or any other, pause, note what’s driving your experience, and then decide what you think best.
This article originally appeared on The Garrison Institute, one of Mindful’s partners. See the original article.

The Dangers of Smart Phone and Tech Addiction

CBS 60 Minutes

What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care

Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked, says a former Google product manager. Anderson Cooper reports

The following script is from “Brain Hacking,” which aired on April 9, 2017. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Guy Campanile, producer.

Have you ever wondered if all those people you see staring intently at their smartphones — nearly everywhere, and at all times — are addicted to them? According to a former Google product manager you are about to hear from, Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked. He is one of the few tech insiders to publicly acknowledge that the companies responsible for programming your phones are working hard to get you and your family to feel the need to check in constantly. Some programmers call it “brain hacking” and the tech world would probably prefer you didn’t hear about it. But Tristan Harris openly questions the long-term consequences of it all and we think it’s worth putting down your phone to listen.

preview-brainhacking0.jpg

Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager

 CBS NEWS

Tristan Harris: This thing is a slot machine.

Anderson Cooper: How is that a slot machine?

Tristan Harris: Well every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, “What did I get?” This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit. What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward. And it turns out that this design technique can be embedded inside of all these products.

twitter.jpg

The rewards Harris is talking about are a big part of what makes smartphones so appealing. The chance of getting likes on Facebook and Instagram. Cute emojis in text messages. And new followers on Twitter.

Tristan Harris: There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible.

Anderson Cooper: What kind of techniques are used?

“…every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’ This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit.” Tristan Harris

Tristan Harris: Tristan Harris: So Snapchat’s the most popular messaging service for teenagers. And they invented this feature called “streaks,” which shows the number of days in a row that you’ve sent a message back and forth with someone. So now you could say, “Well, what’s the big deal here?” Well, the problem is that kids feel like, “Well, now I don’t want to lose my streak.” But it turns out that kids actually when they go on vacation are so stressed about their streak that they actually give their password to, like, five other kids to keep their streaks going on their behalf. And so you could ask when these features are being designed, are they designed to most help people live their life? Or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?

Anderson Cooper: Is Silicon Valley programming apps or are they programming people?

snapchat.jpg

Tristan Harris: Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. They are programming people. There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true.

Anderson Cooper: Technology’s not neutral?

Tristan Harris: It’s not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money.

It’s rare for a tech insider to be so blunt, but Tristan Harris believes someone needs to be. A few years ago he was living the Silicon Valley dream. He dropped out of a master’s program at Stanford University to start a software company. Four years later Google bought him out and hired him as a product manager. It was while working there he started to feel overwhelmed.

preview-brainhacking0.jpg

Tristan Harris: Honestly, I was just bombarded in email and calendar invitations and just the overload of what it’s like to work at a place like Google. And I was asking, “When is all of this adding up to, like, an actual benefit to my life?” And I ended up making this presentation. It was kind of a manifesto. And it basically said, you know, “Look, never before in history have a handful of people at a handful of technology companies shaped how a billion people think and feel every day with the choices they make about these screens.”

“Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. They are programming people.” Tristan Harris

His 144-page presentation argued that the constant distractions of apps and emails are “weakening our relationships to each other,” and “destroying our kids ability to focus.” It was widely read inside Google, and caught the eye of one of the founders Larry Page. But Harris told us it didn’t lead to any changes and after three years he quit.

Tristan Harris: And it’s not because anyone is evil or has bad intentions. It’s because the game is getting attention at all costs. And the problem is it becomes this race to the bottom of the brainstem, where if I go lower on the brainstem to get you, you know, using my product, I win. But it doesn’t end up in the world we want to live in. We don’t end up feeling good about how we’re using all this stuff.

Anderson Cooper: You call this a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” It’s a race to the most primitive emotions we have? Fear, anxiety, loneliness, all these things?

Tristan Harris: Absolutely. And that’s again because in the race for attention I have to do whatever works.

Tristan Harris: It absolutely wants one thing, which is your attention.

Now he travels the country trying to convince programmers and anyone else who will listen that the business model of tech companies needs to change. He wants products designed to make the best use of our time not just grab our attention.

Anderson Cooper: Do you think parents understand the complexities of what their kids are dealing with, when they’re dealing with their phone, dealing with apps and social media?

Tristan Harris: No. And I think this is really important. Because there’s a narrative that, “Oh, I guess they’re just doing this like we used to gossip on the phone, but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive. That was not true in the 1970s.

Anderson Cooper: How many Silicon Valley insiders are there speaking out like you are?

Tristan Harris: Not that many.

We reached out to the biggest tech firms but none would speak on the record and some didn’t even return our phone call.  Most tech companies say their priority is improving user experience, something they call “engagement.”  But they remain secretive about what they do to keep people glued to their screens.  So we went to Venice, California, where the body builders on the beach are being muscled out by small companies that specialize in what Ramsay Brown calls “brain hacking.”

ramsay-intv-at-lab.jpg

Anderson Cooper speaks with Ramsay Brown, the cofounder of Dopamine Labs

 CBS NEWS

Ramsay Brown: A computer programmer who now understands how the brain works knows how to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.

Ramsay Brown studied neuroscience before co-founding Dopamine Labs, a start-up crammed into a garage. The company is named after the dopamine molecule in our brains that aids in the creation of desire and pleasure. Brown and his colleagues write computer code for apps used by fitness companies and financial firms. The programs are designed to provoke a neurological response.

“A computer programmer who now understands how the brain works knows how to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.” Ramsay Brown

Anderson Cooper: You’re trying to figure out how to get people coming back to use the screen?

Ramsay Brown: When should I make you feel a little extra awesome to get you to come back into the app longer?

ramsay-brown.jpg

Ramsay Brown

 CBS NEWS

The computer code he creates finds the best moment to give you one of those rewards, which have no actual value, but Brown says trigger your brain to make you want more. For example, on Instagram, he told us sometimes those likes come in a sudden rush.

Ramsay Brown: They’re holding some of them back for you to let you know later in a big burst. Like, hey, here’s the 30 likes we didn’t mention from a little while ago. Why that moment–

Anderson Cooper: So all of a sudden you get a big burst of likes?

Ramsay Brown: Yeah, but why that moment? There’s some algorithm somewhere that predicted, hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231, we think we can see an improvement in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst.

When Brown says “experiments,” he’s talking generally about the millions of computer calculations being used every moment by his company and others use to constantly tweak your online experience and make you come back for more.

Ramsay Brown: You’re part of a controlled set of experiments that are happening in real time across you and millions of other people.

Anderson Cooper: We’re guinea pigs?

Ramsay Brown: You’re guinea pigs. You are guinea pigs in the box pushing the button and sometimes getting the likes. And they’re doing this to keep you in there.

The longer we look at our screens, the more data companies collect about us, and the more ads we see. Ad spending on social media has doubled in just two years to more than $31 billion.

Ramsay Brown: You don’t pay for Facebook. Advertisers pay for Facebook. You get to use it for free because your eyeballs are what’s being sold there.

Anderson Cooper: That’s an interesting way to look at it, that you’re not the customer for Facebook.

“You don’t pay for Facebook. Advertisers pay for Facebook. You get to use it for free because your eyeballs are what’s being sold there.” Ramsay Brown

Ramsay Brown: You’re not the customer. You don’t sign a check to Facebook. But Coca-Cola does.

Brown says there’s a reason texts and Facebook use a continuous scroll, because it’s a proven way to keep you searching longer.

Ramsay Brown: You spend half your time on Facebook just scrolling to find one good piece worth looking at. It’s happening because they are engineered to become addictive.

Anderson Cooper: You’re almost saying it like there’s an addiction code.

Ramsay Brown: Yeah, that is the case. That since we’ve figured out, to some extent, how these pieces of the brain that handle addiction are working, people have figured out how to juice them further and how to bake that information into apps.

Larry Rosen: Dinner table could be a technology-free zone.

While Brown is tapping into the power of dopamine, psychologist Larry Rosen and his team at California State University Dominguez Hills are researching the effect technology has on our anxiety levels.

Larry Rosen: We’re looking at the impact of technology through the brain.

Rosen told us when you put your phone down – your brain signals your adrenal gland to produce a burst of a hormone called, cortisol, which has an evolutionary purpose. Cortisol triggers a fight-or-flight response to danger.

Anderson Cooper: How does cortisol relate to a mobile device, a phone?

Larry Rosen: What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, “Gee, I haven’t check in Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post.” That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in.

So the same hormone that made primitive man anxious and hyperaware of his surroundings to keep him from being eaten by lions is today compelling Rosen’s students and all of us to continually peek at our phones to relieve our anxiety.

Larry Rosen: When you put the phone down you don’t shut off your brain, you just put the phone down.

Anderson Cooper: Can I be honest with you right now? I haven’t paid attention to what you’re saying because I just realized my phone is right down by my right foot and I haven’t checked it in, like 10 minutes.

Larry Rosen: And it makes you anxious.

Anderson Cooper: I’m a little anxious.

pix-1.jpg

A computer tracks minute changes in Anderson Cooper’s heart rate and perspiration

 CBS NEWS

Larry Rosen: Yes.

We found out just how anxious in this experiment conducted by Rosen’s research colleague Nancy Cheever.

Nancy Cheever: So the first thing I’m going to do is apply these electrodes to your fingers.

While I watched a video, a computer tracked minute changes in my heart rate and perspiration. What I didn’t know was that Cheever was sending text messages to my phone which was just out of reach. Every time my text notification went off, the blue line spiked – indicating anxiety caused in part by the release of cortisol.

Nancy Cheever: Oh, that one is…that’s a huge spike right there. And if you can imagine what that’s doing to your body. Every time you get a text message you probably can’t even feel it right? Because it’s such a um, it’s a small amount of arousal.

Anderson Cooper: That’s fascinating.

Their research suggests our phones are keeping us in a continual state of anxiety in which the only antidote – is the phone.

Anderson Cooper: Is it known what the impact of all this technology use is?

Larry Rosen: Absolutely not.

Anderson Cooper: It’s too soon.

Larry Rosen: We’re all part of this big experiment.

Anderson Cooper: What is this doing to a young mind or a teenager?

Larry Rosen: Well there’s some projects going on where they’re actually scanning teenager’s brains over a 20-year period and looking to see what kind of changes they’re finding.

gabe-intv.jpg

Gabe Zichermann

 CBS NEWS

Gabe Zichermann: Here’s the reality. Corporations and creators of content have, since the beginning of time, wanted to make their content as engaging as possible.

Gabe Zichermann has worked with dozens of companies – including Apple and CBS – to make their online products more irresistible. He’s best known in Silicon Valley for his expertise in something called “gamification,” using techniques from video games to insert fun and competition into almost everything on your smartphone.

Gabe Zichermann: So one of the interesting things about gamification and other engaging technologies, is at the same time as we can argue that the neuroscience is being used to create dependent behavior those same techniques are being used to get people to work out, you know, using their Fitbit. So all of these technologies, all the techniques for engagement can be used for good, or can be used for bad.

“Asking technology companies, asking content creators to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask.” Gabe Zichermann

Zichermann is now working on software called ‘Onward’ designed to break user’s bad habits. It will track a person’s activity and can recommend they do something else when they’re spending too much time online.

Gabe Zichermann: I think creators have to be liberated to make their content as good as possible.

Anderson Cooper: The idea that a tech company is not going to try to make their product as persuasive, as engaging as possible, you’re just saying that’s not gonna happen?

Gabe Zichermann: Asking technology companies, asking content creators to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask. It feels impossible. And also it’s very anti-capitalistic, this isn’t the system that we live in.

Ramsay Brown and his garage start-up Dopamine Labs made a habit-breaking app as well.  It’s called “Space” and it creates a 12-second delay —  what Brown calls a “moment of Zen” before any social media app launches. In January, he tried to convince Apple to sell it in their App Store.

Ramsay Brown: And they rejected it from the App Store because they told us any app that would encourage people to use other apps or their iPhone less was unacceptable for distribution in the App Store.

Anderson Cooper: They actually said that to you?

Ramsay Brown: They said that to us. They did not want us to give out this thing that was gonna make people less stuck on their phones.

Social media — helping or harming your mental health?

In May 2017, a survey by the Royal Society for Public Health in England revealed that 3 of the 4 most popular social media platforms/apps had a net negative effect on the mental well-being of young people. Surveying nearly 1,500 teenagers and young adults aged 14 to 24 from February through May of 2017, the survey asked about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat.

Some questions were on negative experiences and feelings, such as anxiety and depression when using the apps. Other questions were about positive experiences—such as getting emotional support on these sites and the ability for self-expression. Nearly 7 in 10 teens reported receiving support on social media during challenging times. ** See the end for all of the things asked in the survey.

For all of the sites, other than Facebook, the platforms were found to have more of a negative effect on mental well-being than a positive effect. Instagram was the worst—showing that it brings up a lot of feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, as well as problems with body image and sleep.

The survey’s authors have called on the social media companies to make changes to help curb these feelings of envy and inadequacy that result in anxiety and depression. Here are a few of those suggestions and how people in the survey thought about these ideas.

  1. In-app features that indicate when a picture has been digitally manipulated or edited (68% surveyed agreed with this recommendation—remember these are 14- to 24- year- olds agreeing)
  2. The inclusion of pop-up messages that tell a person when they are on an app excessively long (71% agreed with this)
  3. Social media apps should use algorithms to identify people that may be suffering from mental health problems and then discreetly send them info about getting help (80% agreed with this)

For this TTT, check in with your kids about how often they use these social media apps and what feelings come up for them when they do. If your kids are younger, then it can still be a great conversation about what responsibility companies have to their users.

Some talking points to get the conversation going:

  • What are some of the positives of being on social media for you personally? Can you give an example of getting social support during a challenging time?
  • Which platform makes you feel anxious or sad at times and why?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the suggestions that the authors are asking social media companies to do? And why?

** The 14 health and well-being-related issues were:

  1. Awareness and understanding of other people’s health experiences
  2. Access to expert health information you know you can trust
  3. Emotional support (empathy and compassion from family and friends)
  4. Anxiety (feelings of worry, nervousness or unease)
  5. Depression (feeling extremely low and unhappy)
  6. Loneliness (feelings of being all on your own)
  7. Sleep (quality and amount of sleep)
  8. Self-expression (the expression of your feelings, thoughts or ideas)
  9. Self-identity (ability to define who you are)
  10. Body image (how you feel about how you look)
  11. Real world relationships (maintaining relationships with other people)
  12. Community building (feeling part of a community of like-minded people)
  13. Bullying (threatening or abusive behavior towards you)
  14. FoMO (Fear of Missing Out – feeling you need to stay connected because you are worried things could be happening without you)

For more discussion ideas, you can peruse past Tech Talk Tuesdays. If you are interested in seeing Screenagers, you can find event listings on our site and find out how to host a screening.

Stay in touch with the Screenagers community on FacebookTwitter and at
www.screenagersmovie.com.

Warmly,

Delaney Ruston, MD
Screenagers’ Filmmaker
www.screenagersmovie.com

Breathe. Exhale. Repeat: The Benefits of Controlled Breathing

Photo

CreditAndrew Rae

Take a deep breath, expanding your belly. Pause. Exhale slowly to the count of five. Repeat four times.

Congratulations. You’ve just calmed your nervous system.

Controlled breathing, like what you just practiced, has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment.

Science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice are real. Studies have found, for example, that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder.

“Breathing is massively practical,” says Belisa Vranich, a psychologist and author of the book “Breathe,” to be published in December. “It’s meditation for people who can’t meditate.”

How controlled breathing may promote healing remains a source of scientific study. One theory is that controlled breathing can change the response of the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious processes such as heart rate and digestion as well as the body’s stress response, says Dr. Richard Brown, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of “The Healing Power of the Breath.”

Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm as well as the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol.

Many maladies, such as anxiety and depression, are aggravated or triggered by stress. “I have seen patients transformed by adopting regular breathing practices,” says Dr. Brown, who has a private practice in Manhattan and teaches breathing workshops around the world.

When you take slow, steady breaths, your brain gets the message that all is well and activates the parasympathetic response, said Dr. Brown. When you take shallow rapid breaths or hold your breath, the sympathetic response is activated. “If you breathe correctly, your mind will calm down,” said Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and Dr. Brown’s co-author

Dr. Chris Streeter, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University, recently completed a small study in which she measured the effect of daily yoga and breathing on people with diagnoses of major depressive disorder.

After 12 weeks of daily yoga and coherent breathing, the subjects’ depressive symptoms significantly decreased and their levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a brain chemical that has calming and anti-anxiety effects, had increased. The research was presented in May at the International Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health in Las Vegas. While the study was small and lacked a control group, Dr. Streeter and her colleagues are planning a randomized controlled trial to further test the intervention.

“The findings were exciting,” she said. “They show that a behavioral intervention can have effects of similar magnitude as an antidepressant.”

Controlled breathing may also affect the immune system. Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina divided a group of 20 healthy adults into two groups. One group was instructed to do two sets of 10-minute breathing exercises, while the other group was told to read a text of their choice for 20 minutes. The subjects’ saliva was tested at various intervals during the exercise. The researchers found that the breathing exercise group’s saliva had significantly lower levels of three cytokines that are associated with inflammation and stress. The findings were published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine in August.

Here are three basic breathing exercises to try on your own.

Coherent Breathing

If you have the time to learn only one technique, this is the one to try. In coherent breathing, the goal is to breathe at a rate of five breaths per minute, which generally translates into inhaling and exhaling to the count of six. If you have never practiced breathing exercises before, you may have to work up to this practice slowly, starting with inhaling and exhaling to the count of three and working your way up to six.

Photo

CreditAndrew Rae

1. Sitting upright or lying down, place your hands on your belly.

2. Slowly breathe in, expanding your belly, to the count of five.

3. Pause.

4. Slowly breathe out to the count of six.

5. Work your way up to practicing this pattern for 10 to 20 minutes a day.

Stress Relief

When your mind is racing or you feel keyed up, try Rock and Roll breathing, which has the added benefit of strengthening your core.

Photo

CreditAndrew Rae

1. Sit up straight on the floor or the edge of a chair.

2. Place your hands on your belly.

3. As you inhale, lean forward and expand your belly.

4. As you exhale, squeeze the breath out and curl forward while leaning backward; exhale until you’re completely empty of breath.

5. Repeat 20 times.

Energizing HA Breath

When the midafternoon slump hits, stand up and do some quick breathwork to wake up your mind and body.

Photo

CreditAndrew Rae

1. Stand up tall, elbows bent, palms facing up.

2. As you inhale, draw your elbows back behind you, palms continuing to face up.

3. Then exhale quickly, thrusting your palms forward and turning them downward, while saying “Ha” out loud.

4. Repeat quickly 10 to 15 times.

Try Monotasking

Read This Story Without Distraction (Can You?)

Stop what you’re doing.

Well, keep reading. Just stop everything else that you’re doing.

Mute your music. Turn off your television. Put down your sandwich and ignore that text message. While you’re at it, put your phone away entirely. (Unless you’re reading this on your phone. In which case, don’t. But the other rules still apply.)

Just read.

You are now monotasking.

Maybe this doesn’t feel like a big deal. Doing one thing at a time isn’t a new idea.

Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.

Earlier research out of Stanford revealed that self-identified “high media multitaskers” are actually more easily distracted than those who limit their time toggling.

So, in layman’s terms, by doing more you’re getting less done.

But monotasking, also referred to as single-tasking or unitasking, isn’t just about getting things done.

Not the same as mindfulness, which focuses on emotional awareness, monotasking is a 21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called “paying attention.”

“It’s a digital literacy skill,” said Manoush Zomorodi, the host and managing editor of WNYC Studios’ “Note to Self” podcast, which recently offered a weeklong interactive series called Infomagical, addressing the effects of information overload. “Our gadgets and all the things we look at on them are designed to not let us single-task. We weren’t talking about this before because we simply weren’t as distracted.”

Ms. Zomorodi prefers the term “single-tasking”: “ ‘Monotasking’ seemed boring to me. It sounds like ‘monotonous.’ ”

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, lecturer at Stanford and the author of “The Willpower Instinct,” believes that monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced.” She said: “It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”

This is great news for the self-identified monotaskers out there.

Jon Pack, a 42-year-old photographer in Brooklyn, was happy to hear that his single-minded manner might be undergoing a rebrand. “When I was looking for jobs and interviewing, they’d always want me to say, ‘I’m a great multitasker,’ ” he said. “And I wouldn’t. My inability to multitask was seen as a negative. Now I can just say, ‘I am a monotasker. I am someone who works best when I focus on one thing at a time.’ ”

And the way we work can have effects that kick in long after we clock out.

As much as people would like to believe otherwise, humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks, which, especially for those who work online, Ms. Zomorodi said, can happen upward of 400 times a day, according to a 2016 University of California, Irvine study. “That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day,” she said. “You’ve used them all up.”

The term “brain dead” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

A good sign you’ve task-switched yourself into a stupor: mindlessly scrolling Facebook at the end of the night or, as in Ms. Zomorodi’s case, looking at couches on Pinterest. “I just stuff my brain full of them because I can’t manage to do anything else,” she said. “The sad thing is that I don’t get any closer to deciding which one I like.”

But monotasking can also make work itself more enjoyable.

“I can multitask — and do, of course; it’s kind of essential — but I prefer to do one thing at a time,” Hayley Phelan, a 28-year-old writer, wrote in an email. “If I keep looking at my phone or my inbox or various websites, working feels a lot more tortuous. When I’m focused and making progress, work is actually pleasurable.”

Ms. Phelan isn’t imagining things. “Almost any experience is improved by paying full attention to it,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Attention is one way your brain decides, ‘Is this interesting? Is this worthwhile? Is this fun?’ ”

It’s the reason television shows we tweet through feel tiresome and books we pick up and put down and pick up again never seem to end. The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted. Paying attention pays dividends.

This is why, according to Ms. McGonigal, the ability to monotask might be most valuable in social situations. “Research shows that just having a phone on the table is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people who are in conversation,” she said.

Twenty-five thousand people participated in Ms. Zomorodi’s Infomagical project, which started the week with a single-tasking challenge. Upon completion, respondents agreed overwhelmingly that single-tasking was the No. 1 thing they wanted to carry into their post-Infomagical lives. “But they also said it was really, really hard,” Ms. Zomorodi said.

Parents of young children found it difficult for obvious reasons, as did people with jobs that permit them less control over their time. In those cases, try monotasking in areas where you can: conversations with your children, reading a book in bed before they go to sleep, dinner or drinks with friends. After all, monotasking is a good skill to incorporate into all aspects of your life, not just work.

Even those with more flexibility can find themselves going to great lengths for a little bit of focus. Nick Pandolfi, who works in partnerships at Google, once traveled to northern Sweden in what he described as an “extreme” effort to monotask.

“I had to write my business school application essays, and I was having no luck spending an hour here and there after work and on the weekends,” Mr. Pandolfi said. “I just wasn’t inspired. After spending a few days hiking in the Arctic by myself, I was able to get all of them done in just a few days.”

Transcontinental trips aside, Ms. Zomorodi stressed that it was important to find ways to practice. “Start by giving yourself just one morning a week to check in, and remind yourself what it feels like to do one thing at a time,” she said.

Mr. Pandolfi and Ms. Phelan use exercise to aid them, albeit in different ways. “If I need to get through a big project and don’t want to get distracted by my inbox and the minutiae of the web, I hop on the treadmill desk,” Mr. Pandolfi said. Ms. Phelan makes a point of running outside, weekly, “without listening to music or anything else.”

Monotasking can also be as simple as having a conversation.

“Practice how you listen to people,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Put down anything that’s in your hands and turn all of your attentional channels to the person who is talking. You should be looking at them, listening to them, and your body should be turned to them. If you want to see a benefit from monotasking, if you want to have any kind of social rapport or influence on someone, that’s the place to start. That’s where you’ll see the biggest payoff.”

So is monotasking a movement? “It’s not there yet,” Ms. Zomorodi said. “But I think it will be.”

If enough people pay attention to it, that is.

How to Teach Your Kids about the Brain

When children understand what’s happening in the brain, it can be the first step to having the power to make choices. Knowledge can be equally powerful to parents too. Knowing how the brain works means we can also understand how to respond when our children need our help.

Sometimes our brains can become overwhelmed with feelings of fear, sadness or anger, and when this happens, it’s confusing—especially to children. So giving children ways to make sense of what’s happening in their brain is important. It’s also helpful for children to have a vocabulary for their emotional experiences that others can understand. Think of it like a foreign language, and if the other people in your family speak that language too, then it’s easier to communicate with them.

So how do you start these conversations with your children, make it playful enough to keep them engaged, and simple enough for them to understand?

Here is how I teach children (and parents) how to understand the brain.

Introducing the Brain House: The Upstairs and the Downstairs

I tell children that their brains are like a house, with an upstairs and a downstairs. This idea comes from Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s book The Whole-Brain Child and it’s a really simple way to help kids to think about what’s going on inside their head. I’ve taken this analogy one step further by talking about who lives in the house. I tell them stories about the characters who live upstairs, and the ones who live downstairs. Really, what I’m talking about are the functions of the neocortex (our thinking brain: the upstairs), and the limbic system (our feeling brain: the downstairs).

The Brain House

Who Lives Upstairs and Who Lives Downstairs?

Typically, the upstairs characters are thinkers, problem solvers, planners, emotion regulators, creatives, flexible and empathic types. I give them names like Calming Carl, Problem Solving Pete, Creative Craig and Flexible Felix

The downstairs folk are the feelers. They are very focused on keeping us safe and making sure our needs are met. Our instinct for survival originates here. These characters look out for danger, sound the alarm and make sure we are ready to fight, run or hide when we are faced with a threat. Downstairs we’ve got characters like Alerting Allie, Frightened Fred, and Big Boss Bootsy.

It doesn’t really matter what you call them, as long as you and your child know who (and what) you are talking about. You could have a go at coming up with your own names: try boys/girls names, animal names, cartoon names or completely made-up names. You might like to find characters from films or books they love, to find your unique shared language for these brain functions.

Flipping Our Lids: When ‘Downstairs’ Takes Over

Our brains work best when the upstairs and the downstairs work together. Imagine that the stairs connecting upstairs and downstairs are very busy with characters carrying messages up and down to each other.  This is what helps us make good choices, make friends and get along with other people, come up with exciting games to play, calm ourselves down and get ourselves out of sticky situations.

Sometimes, in the downstairs brain, Alerting Allie spots some danger, Frightened Fred panics and before we know where we are, Big Boss Bootsy has sounded the alarm telling your body to be prepared for danger. Big Boss Bootsy is a bossy fellow, and he shouts: “The downstairs brain is taking over now. Upstairs gang can work properly again when we are out of danger.” The downstairs brain “flips the lid” (to borrow Dan Siegel’s phrase) on the upstairs brain. This means that the stairs that normally allow the upstairs and downstairs to work together are no longer connected.

Flipping your lid

Sometimes, Flipping Our Lids Is the Safest Thing To Do

When everybody in the brain house is making noise, it’s hard for anyone to be heard. Bootsy is keeping the upstairs brain quiet so the downstairs folk can get our body ready for the danger. Boots can signal other parts of our body that need to switch on (or off). He can make our heart beat faster so we are ready to run very fast, or our muscles ready to fight as hard as we can. He can also tell parts of our body to stay very very still so we can hide from the danger. Bootsy is doing this to keep us safe.

Try asking your child to imagine when these reactions would be safest. I often try to use examples that wouldn’t actually happen (again so that children can imagine these ideas in a playful way without becoming too frightened by them). For example, what would your downstairs brain do if you met a dinosaur in the playground?

Everyone Flips Their Lids

Think of some examples to share with your child about how we can all flip our lids. Choose examples that aren’t too stressful because if you make your kids feel too anxious they may flip their lids then and there!

Here’s an example I might use:

Remember when Mummy couldn’t find the car keys and we were already late for school. Remember how I kept looking in the same place over and over again. That’s because the downstairs brain had taken over, I had flipped my lid and the upstairs, thinking part of my brain, wasn’t working properly.

When the Downstairs Brain Gets It Wrong

There might be times when we flips our lids but really we still need the upstairs gang like Problem Solving Pete, and Calming Carl to help us.

We all flip our lids, but often children flip their lids more than adults. In children’s brains, Big Boss Bootsy can get a bit over excited and press the panic button to trigger meltdowns and tantrums over very small things and that’s because the upstairs part of your child’s brain is still being built. In fact, it won’t be finished being built until the mid twenties. Sometimes, when I want to emphasize this point, I ask kids this question:

Have you ever seen your Dad or Mum lay on the floor in the supermarket screaming that they want chocolate buttons?

They often giggle, and giggling is good because it means it’s still playful, so they are still engaged and learning. I tell them parents actually like chocolate just as much as children, but adults have practiced getting Calming Carl and Problem Solving Pete to work with Big Boss Bootsy and can (sometimes) stop him from sounding the danger alarm when he doesn’t need to. It does take practice and I remind children that their brains are still building and learning from experience.

Ultimately, this is about enabling children to learn functional ways to manage big feelings, and some of that will happen from conversations about the things that went wrong.

From a Shared Language to Emotional Regulation

Once you’ve got all the characters in the brain house, you have a shared language that you can use to help your child learn how to regulate (manage) their emotions. For example, “it looks like Big Boss Bootsy might be getting ready to sound the alarm, how about seeing if Calming Carl can send a message saying ‘take some deep breaths.”

The language of the brain house also allows kids to talk more freely about their own mistakes, it’s non judgmental, playful and can be talked about as being separate (psychologists also call this ‘externalized’) from them. Imagine how hard it might be to say ‘I hit Jenny today at school’ versus “Big Boss Bootsy really flipped the lid today.” When I say this to parents, some worry that I’m giving children a free pass. “Can’t they just blame Bootsy for their misbehavior?” they ask. Ultimately, what this is about is enabling children to learn functional ways to manage big feelings, and some of that will happen from conversations about the things that went wrong. If children feel able to talk about their mistakes with you, then you have an opportunity to join your upstairs brain folk with theirs, and problem solve together. It doesn’t mean they escape consequences or shirk responsibility. It means you can ask questions like “do you think there is anything you could do to help Bootsy keep the lid on?.”

Knowing about the brain house also helps parents to think about how to respond when their child is flooded with fear, anger or sadness. Have you ever told you child to calm down when they have flipped their lid? I have. Yet what we know about the brain house is Calming Carl lives upstairs and when Bootsy’s flipped the lid, Calming Carl can’t do much to help until the lid is back on. Your child may have gone beyond the point where they can help themselves to calm down. Sometimes, parents (teachers or caregivers) have to help kids to get their lids back on, and we can do this with empathy, patience and often taking a great deal of deep breaths ourselves!

Where to Go from Here?

Don’t expect to move all the characters into the brain house and unpack on the same day; moving house takes time, and so does learning about brains. Start the conversation and revisit it. You might want to find creative ways to explore the brain house with your child.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Draw the brain house and all the characters
  2. Draw a picture of what it looks like in the house when the downstairs flips the lid
  3. Find a comic, cut out and stick characters into the downstairs and the upstairs
  4. Write stories about the adventures of the characters in the brain house
  5. Use a doll’s house (or if you don’t have a doll’s house, two shoe boxes, one on top of the other works just as well) and fill it with the downstairs and upstairs characters.

If you find other creative ways to explore the brain house, I would love to hear about them.

Make it fun, make it lively, and kids won’t even realize they are learning the foundations of emotional intelligence.

 

Subscribe to support Mindful.
Hazel Harrison

Dr Hazel Harrison works as a Clinical Psychologist in England. She is passionate about finding playful and creative ways to share the science of psychology to enhance our every day lives. She also works with schools and businesses, teaching on topics relating to well-being.