S2E7 Screen Fatigue

Did you ever imagine that most of your human interactions would be two-dimensional? 2020 saw the transition to connecting with others through predominantly digital means to increase safety during the covid-19 pandemic. In this episode, Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin discuss the impact this significant increase in screen time has on our mental well-being, our ability to feel connected to others, and how to mitigate the effects of screen fatigue.




Pete: Recently, Nikki, they invited me on to Fox five again to talk about screen fatigue, which has now become a term that is all too common in our language. Right, Nikki? Hey.

Nikki: I suffer from serious brain fatigue, as I'm sure many of our listeners are these days, just living in this two dimensional world. Even right now, Pete and I are talking over zoom here.

Pete: You look great today.

Nikki: So do you, thank you.

Pete: Yeah, I mean, I noticed myself imposing my fatigue on others. So like any of the groups I'm a part of. I'm an advisor to one of these student groups, and I was like, “Guys, I don't think we should be doing any more meetings online. Like, let's wait for the weather to get better”, or whatever. But then they were able to give me some feedback of like, “well, for childcare, it's a little bit easier”. And so some of the benefits of being in front of the screens in the virtual world that we're living in. But today, Nikki and I, let's discuss the impact of screen fatigue on us today in 2021.

Nikki: Yeah, of course, what you're saying is important there, Pete, because you're highlighting a dialectic, which is nothing is all good or all bad, and so I don't think that what you're saying, is you imposing your fatigue on other people. I think what you're saying is that, there are also benefits to the virtual world. Like some people are saying it's maybe easier with childcare, I'm thinking of this very psychologists specific thing, but there was like a conference over the summer I attended, that was virtual, that usually is international that I would never normally go to, because it's just not something I want to spend my money on. I don't want to spend thousands of dollars to go to a psychology conference, though, I've always been bummed I couldn't go and like now I could go because it's virtual. There's benefits in that way. And even though there are benefits, our brains are still being impacted by literally looking at a screen.

Pete: Because I don't even want to go to those conferences. I know it is nice that we could maybe save some money, but I don't know. Again, I might just be stuck in the old time, but it's just not the same. And I just don't want to do it. I don't know. That's just me.

Nikki: I hear that. So it's like using that example, for me, I'm the opposite. I'm like, I don't want to go in person usually, so I like the access of being able to hear speakers. I mean, this is such an LA thing, over the summer I literally attended the conference from my phone at the beach. I was like, I'm at the beach, and I [inaudible 2: 56].

Pete: You and I have had several conversations like that, actually.

Nikki: Yes, we have.

Pete: And I’ve enjoyed every moment of them.

Nikki: Yeah, we have. So that part's of benefit, though, I think maybe what you're saying is like, ‘I don't want to do it’, it's like because we're missing… I mean, again, I don't miss the conference part of this. But just in general, we're missing being in the room with other human beings. And I think that's something a lot of people kind of…I mean, not leave out completely in the pandemic, we're recognizing we're missing being around other humans. But they're forgetting that that's part of screen fatigue, that we derive energy from being in the presence of other humans. And while it's great to be able to, just like right now, Pete and I are looking at each other, and that's wonderful, it's not the same as getting to be in the same airspace as you. Like it's a two dimensional version of you, like my brain did not evolve to feel connection through a flat screen.

Pete: So a definition from Psychiatric Times, and they call it zoom fatigue, I wanted to generalize it and call it screen fatigue. That's what I did for my piece on Fox five New York, because it's not just zoom. I feel like…

Nikki: Yeah, phones, yeah.

Pete: We’re all improving zoom’s stock, which I'm okay with because I own a little bit. But yeah, so zoom fatigue describes the tiredness worry or burnout associated with overusing virtual platforms of communication. Like other experiences associated with the coronavirus pandemic, zoom fatigue is widely prevalent, intense and completely new.

Nikki: Well, that part, I'm going to say I disagree with that last part a little. I think we have an…

Pete: We know, Nikki.

Nikki: Yes. I'm going to disagree a little only in that because we've been moving towards this in the digital era. I think that now obviously, just like this is the only way pretty much that we're communicating with other humans. Of course, the pervasiveness of it is just like, there's no way to ignore it. Though we've been experiencing this like ever since the invention of the smartphone, or just any kind of, like we've been moving towards this

Pete: Not to this level, that's why intensity is there.

Nikki: Correct, yes.

Pete: In fact, the reporter for our segment focused on scheduling, and how challenging scheduling gets, and I'm wondering if you feel that or have clients that do. I know, I certainly feel it where you're squeezing things in because you can because you're virtual.

Nikki: Yeah, right. Because you just click on the next meeting, yeah.

Pete: Because you click on the next meeting, and then you're ending up having to go like jumping from one screen to the next. Many of us, we're privileged enough, we have several devices. And so we're going from one device and one platform to the next. And even as we started today's recording, trying to get some new technology up and running. I mean, these are all barriers of, it's like using a new part of your brain.

Nikki: Yeah, it is. And a part of our brains, again, I'm going to bring it back to the evolutionary component here, is that evolution did not create human brains that were meant to be interacting with technology in this way. This is a very new contextual experience that we don't have historical, ancient precedent. We talk a lot on this podcast about like, 40,000 years ago, like what was happening. There's no like, ‘40,000 years ago, when our brains were in two dimensional communication with other humans’ like that didn't exist. And that's what's so exhausting to our brains.

Pete: New Nikki, maybe.

Nikki: Okay, that part, yes. Only I was saying the pervasiveness is new. But yes, new? Yes.

Pete: Do I hear you're retracting your defense of that definition from Psychiatric Times?

Nikki: Just amending, just flexibly amending. But you know what I mean? Like that, there's…

Pete: Beautiful modeling, thank you. Well, we’re on our phones a lot and so I think it'll be interesting to see the research come out post pandemic, in terms of maybe increase of usage. Because before the pandemic, the data indicated that people use their phones, on average, around three hours and 15 minutes a day, with millennials about 5.7 hours a day. There is no doubt that that has increased.

Nikki: Oh, I mean, I can tell you from my own personal one, it's showing me how many hours, I'm like that is...

Pete: Screen-time?

Nikki: Yeah, that is horrifying. Yeah.

Pete: And I really encourage people and listeners use screen-time. Many of us are vulnerable, or we're afraid to do so. And when you do you realize how you could likely intervene in your own life very easily. I joke and say to some folks that I work with that I got a PhD just to help people not use their phones.

Nikki: Right, which when you started your PhD, that wasn't something that you would…

Pete: That wasn’t a thing.

Nikki: That wasn't a thing, right? That wasn't a thing.

Pete: We so old.

Nikki: I know. I'm like, yeah. Elder millennials, as they refer to us.

Pete: We, we are [inaudible 8: 01]

Nikki: Yes. As I said before, I still prefer Gen Y. But anyway, back to screen fatigue here.

Pete: Back to screen fatigue.

Nikki: So, so look, I think that another piece of this that's really important to bring in here is also how screen fatigue is impacting, concentration, our ability to concentrate. Because I know something I've personally experienced, and I've definitely talked about with patients and friends, is like I've been having… I love to read and I have degrees in literature, I love I love books. And I've been finding, and I'll say I don't have ADHD, I treat a lot of ADHD, I don't personally have it. And I have the experience of like, high distractibility when I'm trying to read now in a way that like ADHD patients will report and it's just, I think being on screen, it's like, it's changing how my brain is able to focus. Do you know what [inaudible 8: 59]…

Pete: Well I noticed that quite physically where if I'm on my phone, and I look up to like, watch a basketball game that's on, or a soccer match or something, it takes me about 30 seconds for my eyes to readjust to the TV. And those are some symptoms of screen fatigue, so like eye strain, blurred vision, headaches, neck and back pain, and of course, issues with concentration and tension that we see a lot, especially from the neuro psychological literature. So yeah, I mean, who's not feeling that these days?

Nikki: Right, and I think it is of course important to weave in here, like a degree of acceptance around the context that we're in. That this is not forever, there is, to bring in the Buddhist concept of impermanence, this is temporary. And, to come back to my argument from before, it's also not totally going away, that we've been moving towards this. That as the digital world just is a part of our human experience, it is important for us to understand the impact that is going to have on our functioning and how are we going to both accept that that's going to impact us in ways that aren't helpful, and also try to mitigate it.

Pete: Well even like, just telemedicine. I mean, watching my mom's husband be able to go to the VA, virtually, we had to set up a computer for him to do that. And that's wonderful. So I think that there are certainly going to be benefits coming from this. One of the things that you and I talked about, pre-recording was like the sleep issues that this is creating. So what are you seeing in your clinical practice around the impact of screen fatigue on sleep?

Nikki: Well, I definitely would say it's… we talk a lot about sleep hygiene on this podcast, just the negative impact on sleep hygiene, because there's less to do. So in phones and computers, and obviously, just being on screens, most of the day, people are spending more time interacting with blue light. And so those listeners that aren't familiar with that, blue light is what is emitted from our devices. And there's research that shows that it basically, correct me if I'm wrong here, Pete. It basically hits a certain part of the eye, then sends a signal to the brain to release a wakefulness chemical. And so that is why, if you ever read sort of like basic sleep hygiene recommendations, they tell you to turn off your devices, at least an hour before bed. So your brain is not telling you to wake up when you're trying to wind down. So pre pandemic, pre living on zoom, we were already experiencing more time with blue light than we were before. But now it's like way turned up. So I'm seeing that as a huge impact, are you?

Pete: Yeah, well, the blue light, the blue wavelengths, and what it does is, neurologically, it boosts attention in reaction times and mood. And I'm going to put this out there that maybe like 90% of people, one of the last things they look at before they go to bed is a phone or a device?

Nikki: Well, absolutely.

Pete: It’s probably higher.

Nikki: It's probably higher. And that's where you and I really work with patients to say, like I tell people, “Look, if an hour is too much, try to turn off a half hour before”, right? Anything to decrease the time that you're looking at screens before going to bed just in the service of orienting your brain back to the way it was designed. We're not designed to interact with these devices. And again, that doesn't mean that we can't learn to interact with them effectively, though we do just want to understand, I'm going to keep it like say the evolutionary history or the biological function of how the brain [inaudible 12: 45]

Pete: Well biologically, which is really interesting about blue light, because again, 40,000 years ago, there were not this level of light. The blue light suppresses melatonin for about twice as long as a green light. So it really affects the circadian rhythm double. So three hours versus one and a half hours is the impact that that has on our circadian rhythm, which is our sleep wake cycle. And that's the cycle that's been totally hijacked…

Nikki: Yes,

Pete: In life, and certainly during a pandemic.

Nikki: Yeah, like way turned up, is what you’re saying. Well, and this kind of makes me think about like, something we say a lot as well, which is like, this is why it's so helpful to understand how our brains work, because if we're not aware of how our brains work, we're not as equipped to interact with them more effectively. So again, Pete and I aren't saying on this podcast like, “Don't be on the computer ever”. Or “don't use your phones,” like no, we radically accept that's a part of experience of life now.

Pete: But don't do it before you go to bed at night. I do say don't be on your phone, at least an hour before your bedtime.

Nikki: Yeah, and same. And that's where if somebody was really pushing me on that, I'll say, “Fine, let's split the difference and make it a half hour,” sure.

Pete: Exactly, it’s better than nothing.

Nikki: Yeah, absolutely.

Pete: You’re such a good bargainer. I’m sorry go ahead.

Nikki: Was like, ‘little pack here’. So what else are you doing clinically with people, Pete, to help reduce screen fatigue?

Pete: Well, the self-care is critical. Sleep hygiene, I don't care how many times we say it on here, we'll keep saying it, boundaries around the phone. So definitely, no matter if you have an android or an apple using some sort of screen-time app, or measurement so that you can really boundary how much time. It's scary when you look and see, and then just, even if you can, like, pick your top two or three apps that you're spending the most time on and just reduce an hour, reduce 30 minutes, take small steps, remembering to celebrate the small victories, big piece of the mindfulness practice. And then just find… One of the things I keep hearing myself say recently, and we say that a lot here and this is perhaps that the eastern spin that I bring is just really connecting with your spirit. Because what is this all about? Why are we doing what we're doing? And I think that that piece, that spiritual piece, whatever it is, so for listeners, what is that spiritual piece that allows you to really create meaning in your suffering, we all suffer sufferings natural. And you know that we want to just try and find a way to suffer in a way that it makes sense to us.

Nikki: Well I think that's very lovely. And what was coming to my mind, as you're saying that, was two things. I was thinking, both how might I connect with my spirit, which of course, I also hear in that like my values, both when I'm needing to engage on a screen, and then also when I want to step away from it, and I was thinking that, for me personally, and hopefully this resonates with those listening, even when I'm having moments of like, feeling the physiological impact of being on a screen all day and feeling tired, my eyes are hurting, and feeling less energized. When I'm working with patients or like, even again, right now, I'm going to keep coming back to this example, with Pete, it's like I'm connecting with gratitude that I'm able to have this connection, like I keep thinking, like in 1918, and the influenza pandemic, like, I go, “gosh, wow, no one had that kind of option,”

Pete: I tell that story all the time, because it's helpful for, especially in certain age groups to think about that. And I think I shared that here that my grandma was born in 1918.

Nikki: I don't think you have, I don't know.

Pete: Oh, Well, she's like part of my passcode, so now you’ll know. Just part so you don’t know all.

Nikki: I was just going to say you better change that now.

Pete: Better be careful.

Nikki: Yeah, better be careful.

Pete: My mom and dad listening, they won't be able to. So like thinking, what did they do? And I think that's what I'm at least hoping for some perspective taking with people today, when they’re like, “this is so terrible, I'm locked up”, like “you're taking my rights away”. And it's like, and yet we're still meeting right now over video. A hundred years ago, we wouldn't have been able to do that.

Nikki: Right. So it's that dialectic of like, ‘yes, it's hard’. And, this is where we can connect. And then I would say that on the other side, though, is like, we also do need to get away from the screens. I mean, I tell people even like, go outside for five minutes, even just go to the window. Like in my office, I have a like a very sunny office with a lovely view at the building where the windows are open. But it's like sometimes in between patients, I'll just like stand at the window and just like enjoy the sunshine. I mean, it's like,

Pete: That's beautiful. And that's all it was, that's so much. That's mind, that's body and that spirit right there. Because you're able to really just let go of whatever maybe you were holding from that last session, you're able to really see like, there's this whole thing going on outside my office right now, which is so beautiful and stunning. In Buddhism, as we've talked about the Eightfold Path a lot, I'm going to take a moment to talk about right effort, which is one that I haven't talked about. Because I think that that's what this takes right now. It's like, what's my commitment? What is my effort right now to say, I'm going to let FOMO (fear of missing out) or something else go and just really say I need this for me right now. So before all this screen time was increasing, we knew social media and screens were increasing depression and anxiety, there's a clear connection. And yet, we continue to increase our usage.

Nikki: Yeah, because it's easier. This goes back [inaudible 18: 26] just it's so available. I mean, we've obviously, in our social media episode, we talked about this, like, these are how these things are designed, it's like a dopamine shot to the brain. So we do it because it's easier, it's available and our brains like convenience.

Pete: It’s so quick too, it’s immediate, and that's what the brain really, that's the pleasure of the brain seek. So the right effort is trying to, like prevent unwholesome states and all of us that have been in front of that screen have felt unwholesome in a moment, because we're not doing something like genuine.

Nikki: Yeah, so say more about that. I like that phrasing ‘unwholesome’. It's an interesting phrase or word.

Pete: Yeah, the Buddhist have a way with words.

Nikki: Yeah. Well, I love me some words.

Pete: you love you some words.

Nikki: Yeah, I do.

Pete: My little wordsmith over there. Yeah, well it's when you've gone down a social media or news rabbit hole, you feel dirty. I mean, I'm being a little provocative in that.

Nikki:  You are, yes. Or I would say maybe the word I would use is icky,

Pete: Icky, alright.

Nikki: So sometimes I’d say this to patients, I'll go like, “it's not a very clinical world. I'm like,

Pete: Icky.

Nikki: It’s icky

Pete: Yeah. So that is unwholesome. And so just reset to the next moment. And so that's what I often will share that with clients where I'll say like, “I'm not judging myself when I'm going down the rabbit hole, I'm noticing it and then I'm committed to the next moment and I get out of it”. So my screen-time is low, because I'm able to notice when I'm getting pulled in, take a step back out and find something that's wholesome.

Nikki: [Inaudible 19: 56] connected, yeah. You know, Pete, because I know we're coming up on time here, though, I do really want to hear your perspective on this, something I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, which is, again, this concept of being on screens all the time is taking away this very literal experience of being around other humans. And something I talk about with patients quite a bit, I always say, “Look, we don't have the western scientific tools to measure this yet”, though, I suspect we will be able to at some point, which is like the vibes we get from other people the energy we feel, which ask any human and we know that that's a real thing, and not having that decreases our energy. I certainly feel that at work, not seeing patients live, I miss seeing my people in my office. And I'm just so curious if Buddhism has anything to say about that, it's this both tangible and intangible experience of energy of human connection. Is there anything you're aware of that speaks to that?

Pete: So our reporters, and our engineers gave us some good literature on that to report, so no. I mean, I think what we would say in the eastern tradition is that like, everything is energy and everything's connected. And it really depends on the lineage that you're studying. So like, my white plums, and lineage is really about more untangling silence, whereas some of the Tibetan literature is about connection, so that when I'm walking in the park, I am the tree. I am the ants that I'm walking on. And I think that that energy is what we're calling out to, what we're just asking listeners to really consider. So I think as we… screen fatigue is real. It is intense, contrary to what Dr. Nikki said, it is new in a very proverbial way. But to think about your Duhkha, and that's the word of suffering in Sanskrit and that there's meaning in all of our suffering, and that just create some right effort as you're trying to step away. And notice what it is about your Duhkha and why you're here.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, I'm Dr. Pete Economou.

Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin, be present be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki:  Content is for informational and educational purposes only.