Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Practicing Digital Wellness With Amy Blankson
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for Episode 415 of Live Happy Now. Our digital lifestyles often don’t seem to support our wellbeing. But this week’s guest is going to tell us how we can change it. I’m your host, Paula Felps, and this week, I am sitting down with Amy Blankson, CEO and co-founder of the Digital Wellness Institute. Amy has made it her mission to cultivate and wellbeing in a digital era. On May 5th, Digital Wellness Day, she is unveiling the Digital Wellness University and Digitally Well School to help create healthier digital cultures at school, work, and home. This week, she’s here to share some of her strategies to improve our digital wellness.
[0:00:45] PF: Amy, thank you for coming back on Live Happy Now.
[0:00:48] AB: So happy to be here. Thanks for having me, Paula.
[0:00:51] PF: It has been way too long since we talked and I’m very, very happy to be able to sit down with you again.
[0:00:56] AB: Yes, this is always one of my favorite shows to get to join in. So thank you.
[0:01:01] PF: Well, you have something fantastic going on with Digital Wellness Day, and I think, we’ll start with the baseline. Tell us what digital wellness means.
[0:01:10] AB: Digital wellness is a bit of a foreign term for a lot of people. We know digital, we know wellness, but you put them together, and suddenly, it’s confusing. Fortunately, I think that the world has been more tuned in to really addressing some of the needs of mental health, physical health, burnout that we’re seeing all across the globe. As part of that, digital wellness is becoming a more frequently talked about topic.
Digital wellness is really looking at how technology is impacting our lives for the better and for the worse, and trying to optimize our behaviors to really find a better sense of balance for greater happiness. We know that if we are overusing our tech, it makes us less happy. If we’re not using tech, we feel isolated sometimes from really important parts of the world. What we’re trying to do is find that really sweet spot for what we call digital flourishing, that space where you feel like you’re at your best self, and you’re in control of your tech, not the other way around.
[0:02:08] PF: That’s so difficult to achieve, because I think we all have those moments where we really consider throwing our phone out the window. But then we’re like, we realized we don’t know anybody’s phone number anymore and it would be a bad thing to do. But we just hit that breaking point with our technology. First of all, how did you start discovering how we can find this holy grail called digital wellness?
[0:02:29] AB: Well, it actually started – it’s been a long journey in this field of happiness, and looking at different factors, and cycles that affects human happiness. Back when we started GoodThink back in 2006, we were really responding to economic distress at that time. It was, how do I find happiness when the economy is so up in the air. Then, that morphed over time to – well, robots take my job. Then it became, how do I find happiness in the midst of the pandemic, and then post-pandemic. What I do when I’m speaking to audiences, I do a lot of listening, but before and after too the pain points that people are going through.
I really heard loud and clear that there was a pain point around technology, and happiness, and an uncertainty about the future, and fear about the future, to be honest. I started doing research in this field with the assumption and the hypothesis that our tech was making us less happy. As I started writing, the research didn’t confirm what I actually believed about tech at the time. That was – it wasn’t the tech making us less happy, it was the way we were using tech that was making us less happy, that tech itself is not an animate character that has any sort of preferences. It is designed in certain ways that prey upon our human tendencies to need to check in or fear of missing out. But truly, it comes back to us as humans, being in control of our own behaviors and habits, which comes back to a sense of awareness.
We know when we are in control, we are happier because we have more time to do the things that we really want to do and be the people we want to be. We want to be more connected. We want to be able to look people in the eyes. We want to feel productive at the end of the day and we don’t want to be overwhelmed. These things are topics that I started writing on. I changed the thrust of my book to really work on human agency as a message that we can cocreate the future of happiness together if we are future-focused.
Let’s quit bemoaning the fact that we no longer have landlines because truly, cell phones make a lot of sense. They do and they’re everywhere. I think that that will be the future. But instead, let’s look ahead and say, “Okay. Knowing that this is in our path, what are we going to do to optimize the world? What do we need to put in place right now today to set ourselves up for success for future generations? I think that we have a lot of power. Sometimes we just forget how much power we have to do that.
[0:05:01] PF: Does it change generationally? Is the way that technology stresses us out or makes us happy change with, say, Gen Z to Baby Boomer?
[0:05:11] AB: I think our tolerance for tech changes based on generations. But I think the issues and the struggles that we’re facing are relevant from literally one years old to 101. That we are using tech in different ways, different apps, different functionalities. But I have also found that the capacity to handle longer periods of tech is much more fluid for digital natives and it’s less threatening. We know, and of course, in positive psychology, that anything that feels threatening, that spikes, our cortisol levels to go up. That actually decreases our ability to handle tech for long periods of time. For instance, my mother will be on tech for maybe 30 minutes, and get completely stressed out by it. That is her max limit.
Whereas somebody who is younger, and as a tech help desk agent who’s used to working on devices for long periods of time, and has really positive habits outside of time that they’re working on tech, then they could actually handle up to 12 hours. This depends on your behaviors, your habits that you wrap it around yourself to be able to see how long we can respond to it. What point is a point of diminishing return for you?
[0:06:27] PF: That’s really interesting. Is that something that, say, employers or teachers should be aware of as they’re dealing with people that we don’t all have the same tolerance for technology.
[0:06:38] AB: We should absolutely be addressing this, and I think we are just at the cusp of this conversation within HR departments and wellbeing departments. Because truthfully, we haven’t been really tracking the impact of tech on wellness. There’s been a huge investment in wellness throughout the pandemic, from employers, from gym memberships, meditation apps, stipends to spruce up your home environment. But I think we’re missing the mark on this particular conversation, because we’re not actually opening up to talk about how our boundaries have shifted dramatically as a society.
Since the pandemic started, the amount of time we’re spending on devices has gone up by 30%. We all anticipated that would go back down after we shifted back to hybrid work or back to in-person work. In fact, the levels have actually stayed consistent and even risen just a little bit.
[0:07:30] PF: Really?
[0:07:31] AB: That means, on average, that our dear teenagers are now spending an average of eight hours a day on devices. As adults, we’re spending about five to six hours. Some of the heavy tech users are up to 17 hours on average. That’s on average.
[0:07:48] PF: How is that even possible?
[0:07:49] AB: Which brings us a lot of questions.
[0:07:51] PF: Yes. How is that even possible? Like how can you spend that much time on technology?
[0:07:55] AB: I think that, at first, it sounds like a lot. Then all of a sudden, you think about all the times that we’re carrying our devices in our back pocket, we’re bringing them to the dinner table, we wake up to our alarm clock set on our phone, we’re multitasking all day long. Even when we go to the movies, some people have their devices with them and are checking their devices in the movie. All of a sudden, that makes sense that every waking minute, we have devices with us. That’s a big switch from a few years ago when we use them occasionally, or strategically, or when we were at work. Now, our lives are so blended that they’ve literally become attached at the hip.
[0:08:35] PF: Yes. Yes. With us being so connected to our phones, what is that doing to us? Because you know, to your point, there are very good uses for it. Some of the time when we talk about the time spent online. Well, teenagers and younger users are also using that instead of going to a library. They’re looking up, they’re doing research, they’re doing things like that. We have a niece who’s 18, and she spends a lot of time on her phone, but she is not texting, she’s not playing games. It’s just that’s where she does her research and that’s how it is. But what does it do when we are always on our phones? What’s the price that we’re paying for that?
[0:09:13] AB: That’s such a good question. I mean, as an individual, I don’t have a specific price to tell you. But as an employee, we know that the average cost and retention recruitment is about $6,700 per employee per year. That’s burnout, replacement, and recruitment retention. As individuals, I think the effects of that we’re feeling are back pain, eye strain, text thumb, text neck is an actual indication of overuse of technology. But we are also seeing a lot of mental health issues that are emerging, and they become intertwined with other habits that are happening in life.
In many ways, the tech is exacerbating the underlying issues that are already there. Things like feeling socially isolated or feeling like you’re overwhelmed in general, having a full inbox doesn’t help with that, right? I’s hard to tease out the exact effect and the impact. But I think that from an inherent perspective of an individual who’s living in this time, the fact that this is so widespread, and something that we can all relate to that feeling like we, “Oh my gosh, I left my phone at home. What if something bad happens?” or “I can’t get a hold of so on. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t remember their cell phone number.” These are things that cause us stress all day long.
I think that we are feeling the effects and really needing to dial down our use to really what’s most important for us. That’s what Digital Wellness Day is all about. This is the big holiday, we’re coming up to celebrating on May 5th. It’s our fourth annual digital wellness day. The whole idea is just pause for anything, any time period from five minutes, to five hours, to stop and think about how you’re using tech. We call it practicing the pause. The idea is just to step back from your devices and think about when you’re using them, why you’re using them, where you’re using them, how you’re using them, and with whom you’re using them.
Because a lot of times, we default to certain behaviors, we find actually that we pick up our phone 150 times a day. Half of those times, nobody has texted us or called us or email us. We’re just checking to see if we were needed. So 50% of the time, we don’t need to be on our devices, but we feel like we do. This is a moment to step back and say, “Okay. Am I getting unnecessary notifications? Am I trying to juggle too many apps and gadgets that maybe I don’t need them right now, and stepping back to really focus on what are my goals, my priorities, my values that make me the happiest version of myself, and really realigning your priorities?” I think this is a constant process for us in this digital era, coming back to what is grounding us and who do we want to be going forward.
[0:12:03] PF: Yes. That takes a lot of thought, it really does. Because we’ve become so trained by our phones, like we respond to the bullying. It’s like, you can be in the middle of a conversation. It’s like, “Oh, let me get that.” You would never, if you’re talking with someone face-to-face, and another human just came and interrupted you, and you wouldn’t immediately shift your attention to them. You’d be like, “Excuse me, I’m having this conversation.” Yet, when our device does, it will just shut the other person out and see what our phone wants.
[0:12:31] AB: Exactly.
[0:12:32] PF: How do we retrain ourselves? I know that’s part of what Digital Wellness Day is about. How do we start retraining ourselves? To your point, maybe cut down some of these notifications that we’re getting?
[0:12:44] AB: Absolutely. I always say it comes back to setting your aim. Awareness, intention and momentum. Awareness starts with looking around and seeing what’s happening. That very dynamic you’re talking about, something that in digital wellness, we call phubbing, which means phones snubbing. If you start paying attention today to the number of people who are phubbing each other, it will blow your mind. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It’s that’s pervasive. Sometimes we fall into the habit, because it seems like this is just what everyone is doing these days. Of course, it’s okay to check your phone when it rings in the middle of a conversation, because you don’t know who it is. It could be a spam call, or it could be your mother and you need to pick it up.
One of the things, building awareness and then setting your intention. My intention is, when I have coffee with a friend, I turned my phone on Do Not Disturb, I tuck it in my back pocket or in a bag so that I can give my full attention to the person in front of me. Then, momentum is actually creating the habits that make it possible for you to do this easier in the future. For instance, one of the things I have been doing is telling people what I’m doing. Whether it’s my team, or my family, I say, “Hey, I really want to do this together.” I’ve been noticing there’s a lot of phubbing, so let’s make this something we work on together. That helps provide accountability and keeps making my job easier because self-regulation is hard. We need a lot of people around us, and we need a culture change, which is going to require a huge movement of really aware people to make that happen.
[0:14:23] PF: With a generation that’s been raised on digital, can that be done? Because they are so used to – they’re so attached to their phones. How do you change it if it’s ingrained in them? We see little kids who are using mom and dad’s phone to play a game or do something like that. How do we change that?
[0:14:42] AB: Oh my goodness. You hit on such a great point. Every time I speak to audiences about digital wellness, our mind immediately jumps to younger people, especially teenagers. Oh, those teenagers on their devices, right? There is definitely something there that we need to be paying attention to. Seventy-seven percent of parents are worried that their teens are overly addicted to devices. But interestingly, and that other 40% think their parents are also addicted to their devices.
I actually have a lot of hope for the younger generation because they’ve been raised with language, and teaching in schools, and tools to help with digital boundaries. The group that I worry about the most are the 16 to 24 range, because – I can tell you this specifically, because my daughter was born in 2007, two months before the iPhone came out. [Inaudible 0:15:32] my daughter with the iPhone. I know that all of those who were born beyond her were born before pre-iPhone, and pre-boundaries. As they’ve been growing up, suddenly, they had free rein with the device, and then the boundaries were taken away. They think it’s their right to be able to do whatever they want on their devices. Of course, we’re seeing a lot of young people who are overusing devices. Fortunately, the younger they are, I feel like schools have taught them, “Hey, there’s screen time limits. Let’s be mindful. Let’s do other things. There’s a balance.” That’s great.
I also worry about the older working populations right now, everyone above that 24-year range gap, because I think that they also struggle with trying to integrate this digital world, trying to be part of it, trying to be relevant and responsive. What I see with that group is that they’re not being irresponsible, necessarily with tech, they’re being hyper responsible. They feel like they have to get back to people so quickly. They feel like they have to juggle everything. I know it’s stressful, because we know that the cortisol levels are rising. In this dynamic, I think we really need to pay attention to how can we support different generational needs, and really tune into how we can teach specifically to the troubles that they are facing?
[0:16:54] PF: That makes so much sense. I know you’re rolling out a couple things for digital wellness day that I want to talk about. But first, there’s something that you said, I heard you speak and you talked about how it’s not the amount of time you spend online, it’s the quality of what you do offline. Talk about that. Because we know parents – people, we want a prescription, like how much time should I spend online? How much time should I allow my children to spend online? You have such a beautiful answer for this. Would you talk about that, please?
[0:17:22] AB: I would be so happy to. This is my new soapbox, because the language for us in digital wellness has been dominated by the recommendations coming out of the American Academy of Pediatrics. It used to be one hour of entertainment screen related time was recommended for five years and older. Then, it was two hours, and then the pandemic came, then suddenly we’re like, “Well, just don’t be on devices all the time, okay?”
[0:17:45] PF: Twenty hours is fine.
[0:17:46] AB: That’s fine, we’re good. Well, I think that what’s happening now is that we are recognizing that there’s not defined entertainment time and defined school time, it is all blended. So measuring the amount of time you’re on screens is actually less useful than measuring how you feel when you’re on devices, and measuring what you’re doing when you’re outside of time with devices. I feel passionately that we need to talk as well about, “Are you sleeping well? Are you journaling, and meditating, and hanging out with friends? Are you building up all of those offline habits that help you to be your best self when you’re online? I think that’s equally as important as the amount of screen time you’re spending.
If parents get locked into focusing on, “Well, here’s your two hours of screen time. Now, you’re done.” Then the children are still eating junk food on the couch, just languishing. Then I’m not sure that we’ve actually helped them to thrive in the way that we really wanted them to. Thinking about what we’re doing when we’re online, what we’re doing when they’re offline, and supporting that with really positive habits all the way around.
[0:18:56] PF: That is terrific. Digital Wellness Day, you give us a couple of things that you’re presenting that are going to help us with all this talk about what you’re introducing.
[0:19:07] AB: Absolutely. We have a Digital Wellness Day toolkit that anybody can download for free if you want to hold your own event at your school, maybe in your community, maybe just with your family. There’s a lot of ideas in this toolkit that can be downloaded at digitalwellnessday.com. That is complete with ideas as well for individuals who are thinking, “Okay. What am I going to do? When I step away from technology, what do I do?” It could be, go outside and take a walk, practice meditating, journal, do some reflection time with a friend. Lots of great ideas in this toolkit.
We’ll also be holding two special events on digital wellness day that I think you might want to tune into. One is a panel on digitally well schools and we’ll be announcing the first ever digitally well university in the entire world, and introducing those individuals on the panel. We’ll also have a panel for a digitally well companies. So we’ll be announcing the first digitally well company as well. If you’re looking for ideas either for how to implement digital wellness within a school setting, or within a company setting, that’ll be a great opportunity to get some really tactical strategies for what that looks like.
Otherwise, we actually want people to not be online and to maybe go have some time and space where they can just play and joy, feel like they are thriving and flourishing for the day. My hope is that you will go share the word with other people, encourage them to join you in celebrating Digital Wellness Day. Then, we’d love to hear about the experience. So we will be circulating survey as well to hear, what did you do on digital wellness day? What did you learn? Was it worth it? So that we can continue to iterate and make this day better.
[0:20:45] PF: That’s so fascinating. What does the university entail? Is it like ongoing course? What exactly are the details of that?
[0:20:54] AB: The first Digitally Well University, I can now officially share, is going to be Virginia Tech. We’ve been working with them for the past several months, and they have taken phenomenal level of leadership on campus in order to introduce digital wellness as a topic to raise student health. They have done everything from having on-campus talks about digital wellness. They have PowerPoint slides that have been given to the faculty to play as screensavers while students are walking into the classroom. The dining halls are putting informational little packets on tables in the dining hall. They have residents, real-life teachers who are going to be talking about it with students within the dorm setting.
It’s not just one thing, it’s really the fact that they have taken this to multiple different levels of the university, and tried to infuse digital wellness, and everything that they’re doing. They even created spaces on campus that are designed to be a space where you can step away from your tech and just have a refresher. We really wanted to highlight them, and some of the practices they’re doing on campus because we think that they’re repeatable. That would be really wonderful for other universities and schools to pick up and make their own as well.
[0:22:06] PF: Oh, that’s terrific. Then, for companies, we’ll talk about leaders, and bosses, managers. First, how can they set an example of being digitally well, and being more mindful of not only their own use, but what their employees might be going through?
[0:22:24] AB: Absolutely. The first digitally well company in the world is going to be ATB. At ATB, they’ve done a lot of things within the company to build up digital wellness as a topic. They train the leaders, they appointed one of their chief people officers to be certified in digital wellness, who she then went and trained another manager in the organization who then took the concept of digital wellness to 80 different teams internally, where they completed communication charters to talk about how they were dialoguing within the organization and how they were establishing digital boundaries within their teams for communication. When is it okay to talk after hours, or what’s happening on the weekends? How do you take a vacation, and feel like you don’t have to plug in, which would be amazing. What do you do when your boss is the one who’s creating the issue, and you’re trying to figure out how to hold them accountable.
They’ve created systems, and processes, policies that we’re creating a white paper to document all of these wonderful things, how they implemented it, what did it look like, and then how can it be repeated as well?
[0:23:30] PF: Oh, terrific. Yes. When that is ready, I want to have you back. I want to talk about that. Because I think everyone is affected by this, everyone is concerned with it. Then, so we’ve talked about the schools, we’ve talked about businesses. How about at home? What can we do because we’re all struggling with it on some level? What can we do at home? How do we implement a digital wellness program in our own family?
[0:23:54] AB: Like all great personal change, I think it starts with taking one tiny micro habit and focusing on that in our family. I have three young girls, they’re 10, 13, and 16. I definitely understand the challenge of trying to negotiate school, working on projects in the living room, on your computers. Someone might have a TV on the room, someone might have their phone beside them. We found on the pandemic that we really hit a fever pitch of everyone being online trying to do everything. We made one simple rule. That was, that when somebody new walks into the room, everyone looks out from their device.
[0:24:32] PF: Oh, I love that.
[0:24:34] AB: Such a low bar. I mean, really, it was just like just acknowledge the other human being in the room was the basic rule. But it was a starting place, and I think that it set our intention, that other people are important, and it’s something that we can all do whether you are a toddler or you are a senior citizen. Very simple. Another practice we have is that we try to keep all phones in the kitchen. Rather than having the children charge their devices in their room, we keep them at a central tech hub in the kitchen. Little things like this that I think can be simple actions that signal.
The other important thing that I do as mother, which I think is an important role too is that, when my children come to me, and they’re saying, “Mommy, when are you going to be done for the day on your devices?” What I heard loud and clear was that they’re not asking me, when are you going to be done with work? Because truly, the answer is never, I have so many things to do, right? We all have this long to-do list. What they were really asking was, when are you going to have time for me?
Now, I have started to set my intention, like, “Hey, I have a lot of things going on today, you might see me on screens a lot. But at 2:30, this is going to be your time, let’s go do something special together.” That’s all they needed. They could totally let me work as a – I work from home, and so they were very happy to let me get my work done and not interrupt. That’s important for distraction. By me communicating something of value to them. That was a big lightbulb moment for me that I think is very repeatable for a lot of people communicating when you’re available, and trying to set that time aside to really be device free, so that you can connect very personally.
[0:26:15] PF: That’s terrific. That’s something all of us can do too. I’m glad it wasn’t a complex thing, because homework.
[0:26:22] AB: Absolutely.
[0:26:22] PF: Thank you so much. There’s so much that we could learn from you. I’m excited to see where this research continues to go, and what you learn, because obviously, this is an issue that’s going to continue to grow and evolve as technology, and AI, and everything continues to expand. I look forward to have more conversations about this with you, and we will tell people, we’ll give links on the landing page so they can go discover more about Digital Wellness Day. We’ll be talking about it on our social media and sharing it. But I guess, before I let you go, can you tell us what you hope everyone gets out of Digital Wellness Day, on May 5th?
[0:26:58] AB: My hope is that everybody will step away and realize how much power they do have to control the world around them, particularly around technology. Though we have a lot of fears around AI, we have fears around social media, we have fears around what’s happening with the election, or with what’s happening with work or the economy. That those things all are things that maybe we can’t control the big topics, but we can control our own behavior around them. Digital Wellness Day is a place for you to start and own your own sense of human agency to shape the world the way that you want to shape it using your own behavior.
[0:27:39] PF: I love it. Amy, thank you so much. It was a delight having you here. As I said, we will do this again soon.
[0:27:45] AB: Thank you so much, Paula.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:27:50] PF: That was Amy Blankson, talking about digital wellness. We’d like to invite you, and your school, or company to participate in Digital Wellness Day on May 5th. Visit our website to learn more about it. We’ll also tell you how to follow Amy on social media, discover some of her free resources, or buy her best-selling book, The Future of Happiness. Just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.