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Your Brain on Social Media with Dr. Ofir Turel
This week, August talks with Dr Ofir Turel, a research who studies digital addiction. He shares a simple strategy for helping yourself or loved ones who are spending too much time on social media platforms.
Here's the full transcript of our conversation with Dr. Turel:
August Brice: Okay, Dr. Turel. So you're a Professor of Information Systems and Decision Sciences.
Dr. Ofir Turel: That is correct.
August Brice: That's an incredible title, I love it.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yeah, well. I got used to it.
August Brice: Is there actually a School of Information Systems and Decision Sciences?
Dr. Ofir Turel: No, it's under the business school, the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University Fullerton.
August Brice: Okay, where are you from?
Dr. Ofir Turel: I moved here from Canada.
August Brice: Oh you are from Canada, I think it's so great for Cal State Fullerton to have someone like you. I mean you are one of the leading researchers in social media and addictions, right?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Well, if you say so yeah, thank you.
August Brice: I think so. I'm so excited to talk about the studyn because I don't know if you've looked at my site. If you visited Tech wellness.com, did you get a chance to visit-
Dr. Ofir Turel: Very briefly yesterday, wonderful. Wonderful site. Thank you.
August Brice: Well, as you know, one of my experts is Dr. Kimberly Young, who coined the term Internet addiction back in the 90s. Are you familiar with her?
Dr. Ofir Turel: I am familiar with her work, never met her, but I am very familiar with her works. Yes.
August Brice: Well, she was really a trailblazer back in the day, right? When people thought she was crazy. And the interesting thing is, I think today, we still have a lot of people that really are not convinced that there actually could be an addiction to anything on the internet, including social media.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yeah, I think that the core problem with this statement, or with believing that the reason addiction is that there is disagreement about what addiction means. And it's not just about technology over the internet. It's in general, I mean, people use many term to behaviors, problematic behaviors, and the internet is not just the first thing that raised controversies regarding possible addictions, think about issues such as gambling.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Gambling is not fully accepted as an addiction. I mean, everybody knows that there are people with gambling problems, but not everybody agrees that this should be called an addiction.
August Brice: Well, what do you think?
Dr. Ofir Turel: I have no preference as long as we solve the issue and treat these people, it doesn't matter how you call it. You see there are different stakeholders in this business, of course there is the medical care providers, there is the insurance company, health insurance companies and everything you do has implications many, I guess, broader implications.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So it's not a simple question. I don't think that we could overnight call everything we do an addiction. That would over-pathologize many people who I mean, have some problems or excessively use, let's say video games, but it's not going to be an easy transition. We need to make sure before we put this label on people, you're an addict. We want to make sure that we know what it means. We want to make sure that there is strong science behind it.
August Brice: Yeah, but I think a lot of parents, and a lot of, you know, young women, young men, I know you really highlighted that there was a big difference in the brains of young women on social media versus men. But I know a lot of us are concerned, just what it's doing to us emotionally. And whether you call it an addiction, an obsession, a compulsion.
August Brice: It's the fact that we're a bit controlled by the social media and not controlled in a good way. We're sacrificing maybe other more important things in our life. And so if it's not an addiction, would you just want to call it a social media problem?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yeah, in many of my studies we call it problematic use of social media. And the problems are not necessarily you see, when you say addiction, it means that it manifests itself in typical addiction symptoms, like withdrawal, inability to control your behavior, the constant need to increase the use of social media. And we don't necessarily see all of these problems in many of the users who present what they call social media addictions.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So at this point, terminology is not clear. I'm not advocating any terminology at this point. I just want to say that you know, we should be careful with the over-pathologizing issue. We don't want to call 50% of the population of users as addicted to social media. We know there are issues, we know that we want to fix them. But how we call these issues that's a different story.
August Brice: Gotcha. I'm totally on board. I really am excited though. With your research on what happens to our brains. When you've taken people, did you call them addicted? Or did you call them heavy users of social media? Tell me about the way you define people in the study.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Well, normally when I recruit people and try to find those who are sort of addicted, quote unquote, we look for people who are heavy users. And then we subject them to screening. We give them questionnaires that ask them about withdrawal symptoms and constant need to increase the behavior and problems that may be related to the use, excessive use of social media, for example, deteriorated functioning in school, deteriorated social life.
Dr. Ofir Turel: And based on that we give them a score. So we don't normally classify them as addicted versus non addicted. We use the score as a continuous variable. So some people would have very low scores on the addiction scale, some people may have very high scores on the addiction scale. Where to put the cut off and say, you know, if you are above this threshold, you're addicted. That's a scientific question that has not been addressed yet.
August Brice: Right? So you took people that were basically heavy users, and compared them to people who weren't. And you looked at their brains and then you try to find-
Dr. Ofir Turel: It's not just heavy users. We made sure that they meet common addiction criteria, or they have very high score on these addiction criteria.
August Brice: Okay, so you were looking for people that were heavy users and that we don't like to use the term addicted, but quote, unquote, addicted?
Dr. Ofir Turel: What I call them is present addiction like symptoms, like withdrawal symptoms, for example. But withdrawal symptoms in the case of social media may be just feeling agitated a little bit when you're prevented from accessing your social media as opposed to, you know, foaming and having headaches and physiological symptoms, when you're prevented from using illicit substances in some cases.
August Brice: Okay, and that's what you tried to do, because a lot of people compare like you said gambling addictions, drug addictions, internet addictions, they compare the different symptoms. And so and that's how they try to identify the quote unquote, addictions or how did you say it people... addictive like qualities?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Who present addiction like symptoms.
August Brice: Addiction like symptoms, okay. So you were looking because we've done studies of brains of people who are addicted to chemicals, and so you were looking for the difference or the similarities in brains of people who were presenting addictive like symptoms.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Correct.
August Brice: Got it? Okay. Okay. So what did you find out?
Dr. Ofir Turel: We found that there were some similarities. But importantly there were also some differences between the brains of people are addicted... so called addicted to social media and those who are addicted to substances. The similarity relates to being or having hypersensitive reward system in the brain. So this is the system that releases dopamine makes us feel good, every time we experience something pleasurable.
August Brice: Yes, we've heard a lot about dopamine, in relation to everything about our devices, right in relationship to likes, notifications, even texting can release dopamine in our brains, and it's very exciting. It's a feel good chemical. Correct?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Correct. So every time we for example, eat a cake or something that we enjoy. The brain releases dopamine, it makes us feel good and basically trains the brain to want more of what we just experienced.
August Brice: Okay, so you looked at the dopamine in the brains of these heavy users of social media, and compared it to, what? To people who are addicted to other chemicals?
Dr. Ofir Turel: No, we didn't. That would be an interesting study. We compared people with low scores on the addiction scale, versus people with high scores on the addiction scale.
August Brice: Okay. Go ahead.
Dr. Ofir Turel: And what happened? I mean, there are different levels of differences. So, one type of studies is functionality or functioning studies, where we look at activity in these brain regions. And this brain region was much more active in response to social media images, compared to people with low addiction scores.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So that means it's more sensitive. It responds faster to these social media cues, so, whenever you see someone using social media or even someone using a cell phone, it triggers this cue in your brain and basically the system creates motivation to want or desire if even this behavior.
August Brice: So, really these are the people who are enjoying it more.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yes, yes. But you know, it becomes out of control in some cases. So, and the system is also smaller meaning it has lower gray matter volume in people who present higher addiction scores.
August Brice: Okay, so let's talk a second about what is gray matter? Why is it important that we have more of it versus less of it?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Okay. It's, basically the number of neurons and it defines your computational capacity of a certain brain region. So-
August Brice: It's important.
Dr. Ofir Turel: It is important. Having less or more though, is not always, does not always carry the same meaning. Sometimes having more is better. Sometimes having less is better. In the case of the reward system, having less means that you need to think about it as having a smaller engine in a car. So you need to push more gas into this engine to produce the same acceleration as you would have with a larger engine or power, I guess. Right? So what it means in the case of the brain is that we need more of the activity, social media use in our case to release the same amount of dopamine that you would have or expect with the larger brain region.
August Brice: Okay, I get it. So this creates the compulsion and the obsession because we want more and we have less gray matter to push it through.
Dr. Ofir Turel: We have lower capacity to produce dopamine, to release dopamine, so we want more of the activity to produce the same level of dopamine that would satisfy us.
August Brice: And so, do you conclude that they started with less gray matter-
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yes.
August Brice: And so they need more or do you conclude that we actually had a decrease in gray matter because of the social media use?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Very important question. We don't know. Because most of our studies are correlation in nature, meaning that we don't, we cannot infer cause and effect in our studies. So, we do not know if some people had in advance a priori lower gray matter volume and this is why they developed addiction, in our case sort of addiction to social media.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Or it could be that excessive use of social media created such level of enjoyment, that basically this brain region adapted and became smaller so sometimes neurons die in this being trimmed, or what we call pruned. And this happens in many cases when there is over excitement, at least in substance use, this is what we see. So with substances, we know that this brain region changes in many cases.
Dr. Ofir Turel: But one explanation does not disqualify the other, it could be that both explanations are valid. There is a third explanation, by the way, that is some... And this has some evidence for support in the literature, that there are some genetic mutations that basically affect the reward system for some people.
Dr. Ofir Turel: And these are the people who are more likely to become alcoholics or addicted to substances and possibly also use social media. And if you think about it, using social media or video games is a relatively healthy addiction compared to the other substance addictions out there.
August Brice: Ah, that's true. So I think it's more about how either parents you know, of young kids or even of adolescence, teenagers, how the parents might feel about the way the kids are using it and thinking that it might be interfering with other healthy aspects of their lives. Or it's how we feel about it, ourselves if we feel that we're too obsessed, so when do you know? And what do you suggest people do?
Dr. Ofir Turel: You are right in saying that, it's not about how much you use the technology. Some people may use technology all day like I work on my computer all day doesn't make me an addict. Things become an addiction or a problem, if you will, if they interfere with normal functioning, and to what extent they interfere with normal functioning.
Dr. Ofir Turel: That's a medical question, I guess that is not well defined. So if you look at the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual, they don't explain what it means to have important impairment in normal funct... or large impairment in normal function. What is large, what is meaningful, it's not well defined.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So for some people minor reduction in grades in school may be major influence of a major reduction in normal functioning. For others, it may require more than that. So I think we all need to just pay attention. Just be more aware of what technology does to us and when it interferes with what we want to see as normal functioning.
Dr. Ofir Turel: If our normal functioning is sitting and playing video games all day then, that's fine. But if you see that, basically you lose your job, your grades deteriorate if you are a child, if you lose social contact with other people that you wanted to stay in touch with. That means that there is some negative influence of the way you use technology on normal functioning and this is where things get unhealthy and require some intervention.
August Brice: Okay. And then what are those interventions? Because see, I get a lot of requests from moms, and a lot of concern parents who talk to me about the fact that they see their children obsessed with their technology, they see that their children are quickly turning to their phones, any second that they get. And once they're in a game, or once they're on their Instagram of their Snapchat or their TikTok, they just can't get them off of it.
August Brice: And their joy, and their intensity is so great, when they're actually interacting with their device, but then they seem almost depressed or not able to interact on just the normal, you know, level that you would with friends and family. So that's where I see the concern. And I hear what you're saying that it's not, you know, keep it under control.
August Brice: It's fine as long as it didn't affect your health. So their health isn't being affected, but they just don't feel that it's healthy, normal behavior. So what do you do to prevent it? And what do you do once you get to that point?
Dr. Ofir Turel: It's not about health, it's about normal functioning. The other part of the set of studies I started mentioning about the brain is the self control system in the brain. So it's not just about rewards that motivate behavior, we have another system in the brain that governs self control.
Dr. Ofir Turel: And basically, this is the system that tells us when we see a piece of cake, it's yummy, we know, we know it's going to release dopamine in the brain. So that creates motivation to consume the cake. But then there is the other part of the brain that tells us you know what, that's not good for you. That's unhealthy. You already have enough sugar today.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Don't eat this piece of cake. So this is the self control system. And in many cases of addiction this system is hypoactive, meaning it's less active, it's weaker, it doesn't have the control abilities that we would like to have. In the cases of social media addiction, we did not find impairment in the system, which is good news.
Dr. Ofir Turel: That means that if people have strong enough motivation to self control their behavior, they could do that. It's not that their brain is not in order and things need to be fixed, they have the capability they just need to have the motivation to do it. So-
August Brice: That's huge. This is really important.
Dr. Ofir Turel: I'm not saying it's relevant for everyone, I'm sure in extreme cases, there are people with impairments to their self control system, but on average, even excessive users have self control abilities. And that means that having a talk with your child is important. Just explaining these are the risks. This is what happens.
Dr. Ofir Turel: We don't want to prevent the use of technology and it's healthy to use technology to some extent. But at some point you need to sort of self regulate and control your behavior. It can work in some cases, not in all cases. So I'm sure you discussed it with Dr. Young as well. I mean, she is probably more severe cases where other treatment approaches are needed.
Dr. Ofir Turel: If you look at the average person that is slight excessive gamer or excessive social media user, in many cases, just trying to self control the behavior through understanding, rationalizing that this is unhealthy is going to be good enough. And there are many ways to do it.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So now, if you think about not all of them, but many technology service providers now allow you to view how much time you spent on the technology. So iOS 12 in iPhone, yeah, Facebook gives you that. So it's easy to sort of monitor how much time is spent on these activities. And it's also easy to restrict them.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So there are many applications out there that would allow you to block content of certain types after certain hours allowing you only to spend certain amount of time with certain activities. But again, these are just technical solutions. I think that the first step is basically understand that this is a bit unhealthy, therefore you need to control it.
Dr. Ofir Turel: I like to see many cases or I always say that technology is like food, we cannot live without it nowadays. It's not that we expect people to go back to the woods and, you know, do-
August Brice: Of course.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Avoid technology at all. We cannot do that. At the same time like food, we need to be mindful of what we intake or about our food intake in this case about our technology intake or technology diet and try to control it.
August Brice: I love the findings. I love what you have explained to us about the control center. I think that's huge. And I think a lot of parents will feel really encouraged by that information, because then it more of a learning for the child, instead of oh my gosh, this is a medical issue that we need help for. And yes, Dr. Young talks a lot about the digital diet. She brought it up 20 years ago, and I think it's amazing. And it works. Just like food, just exactly what you're saying.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Not just the intake, it's also the schedule.
August Brice: Right.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So you could say, okay, social media, just from 7pm to 8pm. That's it.
August Brice: I'm with you. I get it. There's this uprising, though, of this idea that parents should mentor versus monitor. And it really seems to be, because I was fortunate enough to bring up my kids partially without technology when they were little. And then as they got older, of course, there was a lot of technology around, I could see that really being a parent was being a very involved parent.
August Brice: And so the mentoring versus monitoring approach means that you're with them all the time going through their technology with them. You're looking at the social media feed with them. You're talking to them about what they're seeing. You're talking to them about how they feel. You're talking to them about bullies and not bullying and appropriate behavior online. And that's a great idea.
August Brice: But I think it's difficult when that third person in the room, of course, is the phone. And you can't really be with your child 24/7 to mentor them through everything. So what do you think about that approach?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Oh, it's wonderful if it's feasible, so not all children, depending on the age, right? So not all of them would let you get involved in their social media activities or video gaming activities. But certainly anything that is tilted toward mentoring more than monitoring is better but I think a little bit of both is good.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Like you want to monitor, you want a mentor, you want to do everything you can to make sure they develop healthy behaviors. At the end of the day, it could have long, long term consequences. In one of our studies done in Canada, we looked at video games addiction in children, young children, nine to 17 years old.
Dr. Ofir Turel: We looked at their sleep habits, their levels of obesity and basically excessive video gaming was linked to poor sleep and poor sleep, sleep regulates the release of hormones that govern appetite in the stomach. So poor sleep basically lead to increased obesity and cardio metabolic risks.
Dr. Ofir Turel: When children develop these sort of cardio metabolic risks, it's very difficult to eliminate them later on in life, they develop higher risks of having heart attacks before the age of 50. And so there are many statistics about it. There are many facets that you know should be controlled and...
August Brice: I think you just made a huge case for monitoring, right?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yes. That's why I'm saying, you need to balance monitoring, you need to balance mentoring, you know. In reality, not all parents are capable of monitoring, some of them have to work like three jobs. And you know, they're not always there in their children's lives. So it's not feasible to mentor all the time.
August Brice: But Dr. Turel, you're leaving me to ask the question that every parent really wants just the hard answer to which is, well then how much? How much is too much video gaming every day? And at what age should we start letting the kids play?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Let me start by saying that I'm totally not against video games, I think a little bit of video gaming is healthy actually, because there are studies showing that it displaces other relatively undesirable activities. For example, children who play a little bit of video gaming use less substances, illicit substances compared to children who do not play video games.
August Brice: How old are these children using illicit substances how old?
Dr. Ofir Turel: In this study specifically, it was 13 to 16 years old or 13 to 17.
August Brice: Okay, big kids.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Teenagers. So what happens basically, when you think about it playing video games, in many cases, if you live in a rough neighborhood, it's a good displacement. It's better playing video games at home than hanging out on the streets and getting exposed to substances, violence and so on. So video games by themselves, and also there is much evidence that video games help with certain skills. So there was a large study showing that actually one hour of video gaming helped improve motor skills, hand-eye coordination, which is important, especially if you want to play baseball and things like that.
August Brice: Fly a helicopter.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Fly a helicopter. Yeah, I mean, there are lots of be a surgeon, be a dentist. I mean, there are a lot of jobs that require good hand-eye coordination.
August Brice: An hour a day.
Dr. Ofir Turel: A hour a week actually. It was one and a half hours a week or something like that. So it wasn't much. So little bit is okay and it improves certain skills. After that it doesn't contribute much. So if you play three hours a week or five hours a week doesn't do much in terms of further improvements to hand-eye coordination, but it creates school problems if you play more than 40 hours a week.
August Brice: It's just like we say all the time, at Tech Wellness, it's about balance. It's about balance with every aspect of our technology. It really is.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yeah, to your question before there is no like magic number, this is what's working for you. It really depends on your school load on your social involvement and other things. So I think the where you need to put the cutoff is where things get a little bit messy in terms of normal functioning. And what is normal functioning depends or varies from one family to another.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So you should look at things like school performance, social performance, things like that. And basically, consider if they're healthy or not, and if they're not healthy, then it's time to have this discussion with your child or stronger mentoring and monitoring activities, like you mentioned.
August Brice: We hear a lot from parents about how their children seem to be more in their zone, when they're on social media and when they're playing games than they are in normal functioning life. And so seeing that, I can understand how it's difficult for a parent to say, "Get off your social media, no more Instagram today, no more Snapchat today. No more selfies today. And no more gaming today."
August Brice: But at the same time, it's when the kids are actually laughing and smiling and, and having great energy. What do your studies say about that? About behavior and emotions? And like I said, normal communication because technology is like really their vehicle where they're feeling normal.
Dr. Ofir Turel: We're having the first or even second generation now that basically grew up with technology. And they start using iPads by the age of one and, and play games and watch videos, and they're very tech savvy, certainly more tech savvy than many of the parents. They know what to do, and they feel natural with technology.
Dr. Ofir Turel: But at the same time, it doesn't mean that they should use it too excessively. Think about the generations, like 100 years ago, food was scarce, people grew up with not much food then, if you think about after the 50s we are the first generation that abundant of food and that no need to look for extra food. It doesn't mean that they need to eat more.
Dr. Ofir Turel: It just means that now they have access to food and they know how to find good restaurants but they just need to decide to what extent they want to eat and how much they want to eat, where they want to eat. So they have more flexibility. And I think this is like the young generation nowadays. So they have access to technology, they know how to use it, they're very comfortable with it.
Dr. Ofir Turel: But it doesn't mean that they should use it excessively and rely solely on technology. There are many other things in life beyond that.
August Brice: So what was the biggest learning from your study? I... do you have kids?
Dr. Ofir Turel: I am a parent. Yes.
August Brice: Okay. So how does this apply to, what you do as a dad? And what you allow your children to do on their technology?
Dr. Ofir Turel: So exactly like you mentioned, there is a little bit of mentoring. There is a little bit of monitoring but there is also some hands off approach in many cases because it's impossible to be fully involved in whatever children do with technology especially since it is weaved to many other aspects of life like school work.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So a lot of school work is now done via computer. So on the cell phone, children could compare answers or discuss assignments over social media. So it's impossible to totally be involved in it or eliminate it. But I try to make sure that I know what is done. And when things are a bit excessive and you could see it through our grade and social activity.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Grade reductions and social activities that you could sense that things are a little bit off and then you could increase monitoring, even prevent technology use in some cases.
August Brice: Yeah. So it's just, you're just being a mindful, intuitive parent?
Dr. Ofir Turel: I guess so, yeah.
August Brice: Yeah. It's good. Well, you know, I feel if you've looked at Tech Wellness, I have a really strong feeling about the electromagnetic energy that comes from the device, and the blue light that comes from the device as well as all of the other emotionally addictive components of our devices.
August Brice: So I think the combination can be harmful. So to me, if we're going to use technology, we use orange glasses and we use a stylus. So that we're not as close to the energy and we put the phone on airplane mode, or we connect it the internet so that we're not exposed to RF radiation.
August Brice: So I think all those things in combination add up to good healthy use with our technology. But particularly with social media, I just did a story on how selfies actually decrease a woman's self esteem and confidence and anxiety, just by virtue of taking them. How do you think that compares to what you found out about gray matter and adaptation in your study?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Well this is just... it's not directly related to the findings of my studies. But certainly, it's another problematic aspect of social media. Because people compare themselves I mean, it's a natural thing. We always compare ourselves to others when we grew up, we had our friends so we had like a small circle to compare ourselves to.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Now people have thousands of friends for potential comparison or reference points, and many of them are things that you could, I guess personalities or individuals that you could easily envy if you have millions of followers, and you are Kim Kardashians and so on. You compare yourself to these individuals.
Dr. Ofir Turel: And that puts you in a very defensive, weak spot. And of course, this is unhealthy. So again, being mindful can help with this regard as well. So, you know, there are a lot of influential people on social media, a lot of people with a lot of wealth and better pictures, better selfies than yours.
Dr. Ofir Turel: But if you're mindful of how social media works, and how it promotes these individuals, and you train yourself not to feel bad about it, that's going to be, you're going to have a healthier relationship with your social media. If not, you're going to develop things like envy in others, and obviously this is very unhealthy because you set yourself goals that are unattainable.
Dr. Ofir Turel: I mean, most people are not going to reach the level of influence, or looks or number of followers whatever metric you want to use, of the big names on social media.
August Brice: If they task.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yeah, if that's your goal, you're set for failure.
August Brice: Yeah. Well, did you see that in your homeland, Canada, Instagram has a pilot study where they are taking off the like button for all followers to see. So you go on and you look at Kim Kardashian, but you don't see how many likes she has. And they're thinking about rolling this out all of Instagram. What do you think about that idea?
Dr. Ofir Turel: I mean, it has advantages and disadvantages. First of all, they just rolled it out on experimental basis. So I don't know if they're going to continue with that. We shall wait and see and we want to see if it works for them. So basically, they're portraying themselves as well-being conscious, they realize that you know, chasing likes is unhealthy and therefore they try to eliminate that.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Is it good for the bottom line? I don't know. I mean many people may appreciate that but at the same time keeping on scrolling for likes, checking social media again and again to see if you have more likes, creates traffic for them and traffic is their source of revenue eventually.
August Brice: Yes, but you're not questioning whether or not it's actually good for the psyche or the soul right? You're saying it's probably good.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yeah. So from an Instagram standpoint, I don't know if it's good or bad. But from a user standpoint, it's excellent. Because basically, it eliminates this temptation, this chase after likes. People constantly keep on checking likes because it's like gambling.
Dr. Ofir Turel: You post a picture you don't know if you're going to get five likes or 100 likes and you keep on checking. If you have more likes and more likes. It's very tempting. This is a very unhealthy behavior, especially when you compare yourself to other people who have more likes than you have.
August Brice: And that's where the gray matter comes in.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yeah, so it's all about the reward system in the brain. So this is where it ties to my studies, I guess. The use of social media is driven by rewards by social rewards that every time we get like, dopamine is released in our brain. And every time someone comments on our post positively, I guess it releases dopamine in our brain. Our brain is trained to look for more of these dopamine releases. And therefore we repeat this behavior again and again. It's sometimes excessively, sometimes in very dangerous situations, by the way. Like using social media while driving is very common nowadays.
August Brice: Right. That's huge. That's a whole separate idea. But as far as this gray matter goes, and we know that lack of gray matter, and what appeared to be social media addictive symptoms correlated. So little brain matter more social media addiction. How can we increase the gray matter?
Dr. Ofir Turel: So that's a very medical question. The intent is not necessarily to increase gray matter. So we have in addicted individuals, we have lower gray matter in the reward system, but their self control system is intact. Which means that they just need to activate whatever motivation to activate the self control system, and that's it.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Growing gray matter that's... there are many solutions, ranging from pharmacology, to, but again, you have to targets very specific regions. Or maybe if you stop rewarding behaviors, if you train yourself, you could grow neurons in this region. But again, I don't think that should be a target.
Dr. Ofir Turel: The target should be basically to activate your self control system. It's not bad to have craving to use social media, that's okay. As long as you can control it. So craving by itself is not bad. If you cannot control it, that becomes an issue.
August Brice: Tell an addicted person, how to control.
Dr. Ofir Turel: First of all, it's like the first step in any addiction treatment, I guess. Just acknowledge that you have an issue. In many cases, people just don't realize that they have an issue because the symptoms are so benign. I mean, what happens if you play video games excessively. You still enjoy with a bunch of friends online, by the time your school grades deteriorate, it's too late. It's like two years down the road. So you don't or many people don't feel the symptoms immediately. It's not like substance addiction.
August Brice: Right. Let's take it back to social media. So how do you tell somebody who's looking at their feed 20 times an hour that it's time to pull back and have some self control?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Well, again, it goes back to whether it interferes with normal functioning and it varies from one individual to another.
August Brice: You might not think it is, if you're doing it yourself, you're like, hey, it's fine. It's the people around you who will say, "Hey Lizzie, that's a little too much."
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yeah. So this is where parents have a discussion. And there are many ways that people could basically help themselves with this. For example, when you work on school assignments or work assignments, just put the cell phone away. It's very distracting to have these new message beeps from friends all the time, or eliminate notifications on my email. I don't have notifications because it's almost impossible to work with new emails pop up every second, put the phone away. That's the easiest way to control it. You don't need any technical measure. You work in a particular room, put the phone somewhere else.
August Brice: And that somewhere else is very important. I'm sure you're familiar with that study from Texas, the Distraction Study. How they put the phone down right in front of you and your cognition was impaired. They took the phone and put it in another room away. And that was the only way that it didn't interrupt your cognitive function.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So even if the phone is next to you, always I mean, it's a cue. It's associated in your brain with dopamine release. So you're always busy, your brain is busy trying to self control the temptation to check your phone. So the easiest-
August Brice: Even if it's off, that's the important-
Dr. Ofir Turel: Even if it's off face down, you just need to like put it in a different room.
August Brice: Yeah, exactly. Okay, so I think we covered the most fascinating thing that you found about the study, right was the control?
Dr. Ofir Turel: To summarize this point again, and better or more directly address your question. The fascinating thing was that self control abilities are intact, which means that a lot of people could actually self control their behavior. And if you think about it, think about kids who started using social media three, four years ago, and people may have thought that they're addicted, most of them, I guess, I speculate here, overcame their addiction.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Because they sort of understood that this is too much and they had enough motivation to self control their behavior. Some cannot I understand that. But most people who may be termed as addicts are not actually addicts. They're excessive users that present addiction like symptoms, but can still self control their behavior or if they have sufficient motivation to do so.
August Brice: That's such great news. Do you want to give us any ideas of motivation?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Parents to create motivation, for example, through other activities, alternative activities like sports, sometimes it's just a discussion about the future. So you need to make sure that the motivation of children is steered toward more positive outcomes, not necessarily just social media and video games.
August Brice: And do you let your kids use all the social media that they want?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Not necessarily no, too young.
August Brice: Okay. Will you? How about it?
Dr. Ofir Turel: I don't think I will. But again, it's not something that is easy to control. I think eventually they have to understand on their own that this is not necessarily good for them and they understand eventually, you know, sometimes they use it excessively and do poorly in exams or do poorly in sports and they adjust their behavior. They can do that in most cases.
August Brice: So with everything you know, what age will you let them have a phone?
Dr. Ofir Turel: I don't have a magic number. I think it depends on the situation. If you know a child takes the bus to school and it's safety issue versus developing an addiction issue. Having a phone by itself is not necessarily bad because you could basically prevent access to many applications or control the usage time of certain applications.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Everything in moderation is okay. But the American Medical Association just issued two, three weeks ago or last month, I guess, recommendations for parents. So basically, I think it's no technology until the age of two, then there is very limited, they call it screen time.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So including all technologies, television, iPads, cell phones, basically they provide very strict limits, recommended limits given not just the addiction aspects of the technology and the emotional aspects but more so like you mentioned the blue, the mission of blue light, messes up sleep and sleep that regulates the ap... regulates appetite and regulates sedentary time and activity and all these things that influence obesity and physical health beyond just the mental health that we're talking about.
August Brice: Yeah, you know, we actually have the Tech Wellness technology guide that includes Dr. Young's screen time recommendations and building biologists and just a whole public policy scientists and people who create toys for children. All the experts got together and we came up with age recommendations actually, for parents, for all technology, it's just fascinating to see the importance of, you know, all the great minds coming together.
August Brice: And everybody's pretty much on the same page that kids really shouldn't even be exposed to technology in a great way before they're three. There's just so many other things that their mind should be doing as their brains are developing. What is your opinion about that? Because like you said, the APA came in with I think it was no younger than one not two. Dr. Young has always recommended three, no technology until you are three.
Dr. Ofir Turel: I don't know, because I do not work in clinical settings. So I don't see children, one, two or three year olds, and how it affects their brains or its cognitive performance. We all have a sense. I mean, we could throw numbers and say one, two, three. It really doesn't matter the exact number, I think at this point.
Dr. Ofir Turel: I think families could have a sense of what's right and wrong for them. Or maybe we should talk about a range of numbers. But certainly we know that it's regardless of the age, we know that it's unhealthy to give children, young children below the age of three, screen time. And if it's zero or one hour, it's still okay. But if certainly it's like four, five hours a day, it's not okay. So it doesn't matter-
August Brice: Yeah, it's crazy.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yeah. So I'm saying we have an agreement, I think, across the board, that this is an unhealthy activity, for very young children. What exactly is the cutoff? It really depends, because it's not just, if you think about it, you know, general recommendation is not very useful, especially when you have different genetic variation. Some people are more sensitive to rewards than others. Some people have higher risk for developing quite a metabolic syndrome than others. So I guess depending on your risk profile, people could adjust their screen time cut offs or when they start giving the children more screen time. But again, it's not my area of expertise, so I cannot comment on exactly what's the cut.
August Brice: Okay, so Dr. Turel, what are you working on now? Any research that we can look forward to?
Dr. Ofir Turel: I work on many aspects of social media use, and video gaming as well. I tried to see some positive aspects of video gaming, like I mentioned before, preventing substance use or keeping children busy with a little bit of video gaming, not too much is actually healthy. In terms of social media try to see the other side of social media use. So one recent trend, I guess, in the last couple of years is that people try to quit social media. So I guess it's more relevant for adults, but also, I guess, to some extent, children.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So I'm trying to see what happens when you terminate social media use, are you going to feel more stressed or less stressed? Is the well-being going to be improved or not? Are your perceptions going to change? You're going to feel bad or feel positive about it. Things of this nature. Because eventually people will, I mean, at least some people try to terminate or quit social media use. And it's important that we understand the implications of doing so, what happens after?
August Brice: That's so good? Yeah. Because all the sudden you're disconnected completely.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yeah. I mean, people are not fully disconnected because they still have email and other ways to connect with friends. But instead of being connected to 5000 friends, you don't know you're connected to the 30 friends, you know, and that's it.
August Brice: You know what I do? And I've always done this, first of all, my niece gave me my first Facebook account, it was about gosh, it's just been eight years since I've had a Facebook account, and she signed me up and got me going and, and I realized immediately it was a huge time suck. So I give myself one hour every other week, and I just get on, and I look at and see what everybody's doing.
August Brice: I post something occasionally. And it's kind of fun that way. It's really sort of like, how do I feel when I do it? I feel like, it's like reading the news. Really. It's like having a bit of a connection, knowing what's happening, but it's not my life. You know, there's people who just put every single thing that they do out there. For me, it's always worked.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Yeah, no. That's a very healthy way to use it. And I wish all people were like that, but you know that this is not the reality. In one of our studies, with university students we found that 40% reported on using social media while driving at least once in the last week, and 5% reported doing it every time they had driven in the last week.
Dr. Ofir Turel: When you think about it, these are very scary numbers because the use of social media it's not like texting even because texting is like very simple. You read like, you know 100 characters and that's it. Social media is scrolling, looking at pictures, it takes much more processing from your brain and distracts you much more from driving.
August Brice: Wow!
Dr. Ofir Turel: There are many people who are not like you and do not use it once a week for an hour or once every other week.
August Brice: Hey, that's just Facebook, I use Instagram, when you have to have something important, like my site is very important and what we're talking about spreading awareness that we need to have balance with technology. I actually need to post on Instagram once a day. That's a chunk of 15 minutes that I have to take out of my life to make that post.
Dr. Ofir Turel: The question is how much time you spend looking for likes and checking again and again, how many people viewed the post and liked them. So this is where things become unhealthy what you're describing is normal work behavior. So using social media for conducting work is okay. Getting sucked into checking social media again and again 200 times a day is unhealthy.
August Brice: Right. I think to your point about the phone use in the car at all. That's something that's definitely going to have to be discussed and we'll probably get some direction from the Department of Transportation eventually, that we probably can't even use a phone while driving.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Maybe, or maybe it's going to be so integrated in the cars. So, we're not going to even touch it. You could just speak to it, and that's fine.
August Brice: Yeah. That's fine. I'm sure. Yeah. That's has to happen.
Dr. Ofir Turel: The future and driving and phones is a different topic.
August Brice: Right, a different topic. Thank you so much. And I'm so excited for the next research project. And you really haven't told us what it is. Is there something that you're working on right now that we can look forward to?
Dr. Ofir Turel: We looking at other aspects of social media like believing fake news or not? There are many like you mentioned, there is like, self image type of line of work that we are exploring. So there are many bad things that stem out of excessive use of social media. There are some positive things and we try to keep it balanced. We look both at positive and negative aspects of technology use.
August Brice: Wait, you said something that I wasn't expecting, the fake news. You're studying how people react to fake news or whether they believe it or how they can discern if the news is fake or not.
Dr. Ofir Turel: So, this is in very preliminary stages. We try to study the brain mechanisms that underlie believing fake news and acting upon fake news.
August Brice: What do you know so far?
Dr. Ofir Turel: Not much, it's in preliminary stages.
August Brice: Because especially in the world of electromagnetic radiation there, there's a lot of fear, and there's a lot of myth and I see people gravitating toward, you know what they hope and expect to be actual mitigation for the issue. But it really doesn't work. People are spreading fake news all over the place about EMF. And it's so interesting to watch people gravitate toward it.
August Brice: And I think, of course they are because it seems like it's something that is going to hurt them and they need to do something about it right away. So of course you would look for the thing that's going to work. And maybe that's the way it is with all the fake news. It's just so fear based and often fallacious, that you have to read it.
Dr. Ofir Turel: People believe what they want to believe so they, in many cases, they have a gut feeling up front that you know, something is fake or something or they know it's fake, but they want to believe it, so they keep on believing it anyhow. But again, this is not my findings.
Dr. Ofir Turel: This is just general findings about fake news. We're trying to look more specifically about the learning mechanisms in the brain and if we could train the brain to detect fake news. It's a more complicated problem, but I guess it's a topic for a different discussion.
August Brice: That's huge. I can't wait. You have to call me right away when you've released it.
Dr. Ofir Turel: When it's ready.
August Brice: Okay, well, thank you so much Dr. Turel. It's just been fascinating and fun and good luck to you. Best wishes.
Dr. Ofir Turel: Thank you so much and thank you for having me over.