Parenting IRL: Setting Digital Boundaries with Bob Hutchins & Jenny Black

Parenting IRL: Setting Digital Boundaries with Bob Hutchins & Jenny Black

by Chris Tompkins | May 3, 2023

As a trained therapist and organizational psychologist, respectively, Jenny Black and Bob Hutchins took what they know about human behaviour and mental health and applied it to their experiences with technology. Bob is a tech trend expert with a 20-year career in digital marketing and media culture, and Jenny has observed what she calls, “media trauma,” in her Tennessee-based family counselling practice. They teamed up to co-author Our Digital Soul: Collective Anxiety, Media Trauma, and a Path Towards Recovery, which provides ways we can help children thrive in our new digital reality.

The changing face of trauma

Jenny says that because of the timing of her career, she has had the unique perspective of being able to observe what trauma used to look like and what it looks like now.

“When I first became a therapist, [people] came into my office with a specific issue, a specific named issue,” Jenny explains. “Then there was … this phase where all of a sudden everybody just wasn’t okay.”

She noticed that people were exhibiting symptoms of PTSD and, working backwards, connected it to our collective use of smart devices. Our phones allow us to live in two worlds — the real one and a limitless virtual world. The limitless virtual world is problematic because, inherent in being human, we are limited physically, mentally, psychologically, emotionally and by our resources.

“We weren’t made to live in a world that was going to constantly require more of us than we would ever have to give to it,” Jenny says. “And so … it starts creating anxiety because I don’t have enough for this. That anxiety turns into depression. That depression turns into apathy. That apathy ultimately turns into the symptoms of trauma.”

Not anti-technology, but pro-human

Regarding our kids and their use of technology, Bob explains that kids don’t get much from it, citing a demonstration he does with students when he gives talks at schools. He asks students to tell him about three TikTok videos they had watched that day and most can only recount one, despite spending six to seven hours a day consuming it! As such, Bob positions the various social platforms as economic models designed to “capture, steal, and own [their] attention” without giving them anything back. And even though he thinks kids being brought up in a world where it feels natural to plug in and give away their time to something that they don’t get much back from is problematic, he’s also quick to point out that Our Digital Soul isn’t anti-technology, but rather, pro-human. In setting boundaries for his own kids and their phone usage, his aim is to demonstrate the benefits of the human experience without a phone along with the benefits of using it.

Likewise, Jenny talks about the idea of an “inside treat” — doing something nice for another person in the real world and thus fulfilling an innate human need for the do-er. This simple act far outweighs the personal benefits of a “like” on social media and is critical to building society.

The virtue and the vulnerability of technology

Bob explains that “ultimately all technology, going back to the beginning of time, is created … primarily as a way to become the best part of us as humans.” He uses the example of creating fire as a way to help humans flourish. But he also quotes biologist E. O. Wilson, who said “the real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.” As such, Bob says that as humans, our challenge is discovering how to get out ahead of new technologies (that are lightyears ahead of our psychological capabilities), so that they don’t harm us. He adds that minimizing the adverse effect of technology on us, takes effort.

“I think we have to teach [our] kids how to be healthy, flourishing human beings that use technology and screens and phones, but you have to bring in the human element to say, ‘you’re limited, honey,’” Bob says. “You don’t have the ability to process this. I don’t have the ability to process this.”

Bob demonstrates to his kids that he needs time away, time to be in nature, time to move his body, time to have a hobby and even time to practice being bored and not pulling out his phone when he’s standing in a line.

Jenny points out that some technology, like the social platforms, have a more predatory nature than others in that they steal and captivate and don’t let you go. FaceTime, alternatively, is a more ethical technology that is in the hands of the user.

To help navigate the vulnerabilities that lay in kids’ use of technology, Jenny recommends buying kids what she calls “a dumb phone” so they can stay connected without having to be confronted with things that are beyond their ability to deal with.

“You cannot put boundaries around your kids’ technology if you do not model it first,” Bob says.

To hear more about what Jenny and Bob have to say about setting digital boundaries for your kids, listen to the full episode at the top of this post.

Visit our website to discover a variety of other guests that we’ve had on the show. Shaping Our World episodes are also available wherever you get podcasts.

Transcript

[00:00:12.540] – Speaker 3
Well, hey, everyone, and welcome to the Shaping Our World podcast. I’m Chris Tompkins, your host. And today we are having a conversation that I know will be thought provoking, will be really interesting and maybe even challenging for so many of us who have young people in our life that we really care about, whether we’re a parent or a youth worker or a teacher, because today we’re diving into the topic of technology and digital media. I know it’s a topic that so many of us have opinions on, and maybe we’ve paced the floor on and we’ve tried to work out and figure out. And so in order to go deeper into this today, we’ve invited two guests to the show. The first guest is Jenny Black. Jenny is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Tennessee, the founder of Media Trauma Care, the co-author of Our Digital Soul: Collective Anxiety, Media Trauma, and a Path Towards Recovery, and is in production on Lose the Phone, a podcast series that follows an artist on their journey of replacing their smartphone use with creativity. She also made waves with a thought provoking TED Talk called The Slow Drip of Media Trauma.

[00:01:20.310] – Speaker 3
Our other guest is Bob Hutchins. Bob is the other author of Our Digital Soul. He has also authored a book called Finally Human: How to Use Digital Media to Restore Culture and Better Our World. Bob is an organizational psychologist with a 20 year career in digital marketing and media culture. He’s a subject matter expert in digital technology trends, marketing, consumer and organizational psychology, and leadership. He’s consulted with Fortune 100 and 500 companies like Disney, Warner Brothers, Sony, and General Motors. He’s also been interviewed and featured in the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, Inc. Magazine, The New York Times, and Fox News. Bob has his own TEDx Talk in 2019 called Ambitious Loss and Tragic Optimism, Our Journey through collective grief. It’s currently been viewed almost 500,000 times today. Two incredibly wise and experienced people in this world. And we get into a really deep and really interesting conversation about how technology and digital media affects us, affects our young people. And you’re really going to want to listen to this episode. Welcome to the show, Bob and Jenny.

[00:02:47.620] – Speaker 2
Thanks. Thanks for.

[00:02:48.780] – Speaker 3
Having us. Yeah, it’s great to have you. And typically we would have one guest. Once we had a panel, but now we’ve got two of you. And so before we get going and get to know you, we’ve done the bios. But let me even just start, how do you two know each other? What’s your context?

[00:03:04.850] – Speaker 2
Well, I’ll jump in and let Jenny fill in the blanks. We met, gosh, it’s been what, three, four years ago now, Jenny? I think so.

[00:03:16.080] – Speaker 2
Yeah. Through a mutual friend, Jenny was actually speaking for a small gathering of people around the subject that we’re going to talk about today. My background was in the digital marketing and advertising space, and we can get more into that later as well. But I had also been thinking about this exact subject, and we began to compare notes. And then we ran into each other. I think, Jenny, at a coffee shop not long after that, you were with your kids and maybe I was with mine. And make a long story short, we had the idea of writing a book together.

[00:03:58.820] – Speaker 1
Yeah. I actually didn’t know what I was supposed to do next with this concept. And I met with Bob and I was like, What do you think I need to do next? And he said, I think you need to write a book. And I was like, Okay. And then a week later, he called me and he said, Hey, I think I want to write that book with you. And I was like, Oh, good. Okay, we can do this. Yeah.

[00:04:17.210] – Speaker 3
Well, that’s great. And I’m really looking forward into diving into some of the things you both uncovered and share through your work and through the book. But let’s get going just to get to know you a little bit more individually. When you were growing up, and maybe, Jenny, we’ll start with you, what shaped your world when you were a kid or a teenager? What are the big influences in your life?

[00:04:34.910] – Speaker 1
Yeah. So I love this question so much. About a year ago, I was going through a big box of letters, all the letters I’ve kept throughout my life. And I have this one letter from my uncle’s girlfriend who just entered into my life. I mean, she just changed my whole life, just a big sister. And I found a note that she had written me. And at the end of the note, she said, Write me when you can. I want to know everything you have to say.

[00:05:06.430] – Speaker 3
Wow.

[00:05:08.810] – Speaker 1
I think I was 13 when I got that letter. And 13 year olds don’t hear that. They don’t hear from an adult. I want to hear everything that you have to say. And I think she actually made me believe I had something to say. And by far the biggest influence on my life in that way.

[00:05:25.900] – Speaker 3
It’s amazing when we’re young, we can remember when older adults speak into our lives. I can still remember my grade eight gym teacher that really shaped the trajectory of my life with just a simple conversation. So that’s amazing. Bob, what about you? What were your influences growing up?

[00:05:42.900] – Speaker 2
Oh, gosh, I was thinking about this question, and I would boil it down to two skateboarding and playing music. I’m a child of the 80s, late 70s, 80s. And for me, I remember growing up in Puerto Rico and in Miami and reading surfer and skateboarding magazine and West Coast culture fascinated me because I think at core, my personality has always been a little bit disruptive and creative simultaneously. And so I spent a lot of time alone as a younger person because I did grow up in different places of the world and moved around a lot. So building strong, permanent, long term friendships and relationships in my younger years was hard. But I had this desire for creativity and out of the box thinking. So playing punk rock, riding skateboards, West Coast culture, it really influenced the way I think about life and do it yourself thinking. So those are probably the biggest influences in my teen years.

[00:07:02.350] – Speaker 3
Yeah. Well, let’s stick with you and keep going. Are you still skateboarding and playing music? What’s shaping your world today?

[00:07:09.190] – Speaker 2
Believe it or not, I am. Good for you. Yeah. So I’m a big believer in keeping your mind pliable and staying curious. It’s just something that’s just hard wired in me. So yeah, I’m still reinventing and being creative in my late 50s.

[00:07:29.600] – Speaker 3
Amazing. Jenny, what about you? What’s influencing, shaping your world today?

[00:07:34.000] – Speaker 1
I always get on these little kicks of a new obsession, and my current obsession is handwriting. I am changing the shape of my handwriting. Interesting. And I It is the most fascinating thing that I have come upon in my life of exploring new things because we all know that our handwriting communicates something about our personalities or even our trauma. Well, what I didn’t know is that you can correct, so to speak, you can start changing your handwriting in the reverse way as a form of therapy. And it is blowing my mind. It is blowing my mind.

[00:08:10.760] – Speaker 3
That’s fascinating. People would say who know me well enough say that if you looked at my journals, I look like a serial killer because my font is perfect. You know what I mean? It’s so precise and perfect.

[00:08:26.570] – Speaker 1
Do you print?

[00:08:28.860] – Speaker 3
I print, yeah. People have said to me, people can recognize my handwriting. It literally could be a font. It’s interesting you say that. I think the three of us could talk forever, so we got to be careful. But I was doing some therapy work, and my counselor had me write with my left hand with a crayon in my journal. It was a traumatic experience for me because I was like, What is this messy crayon left handed writing that’s in there? But I could see how that could be therapeutic. So that’s fascinating. So why don’t you both, and maybe we’ll start with you, Jenny, again, because you were just going, tell us about what you’re doing today, your work, your role, what you’re doing in life. We’re here to talk about young people. What’s the connection in some of the things that you’re doing that would be interesting to our listeners?

[00:09:22.120] – Speaker 1
Well, I talk to groups of people as young as fourth graders. So that’s like 10 years old. That’s pretty young. I actually have, I can sometimes, most of the time, have better conversations with that age group than I can with CEOs of companies. You’d think that, Oh, I have to alter what my talk is for these groups of people, which, of course, I do for different reasons. But it’s fascinating to me how if a kid is not totally addicted to their phone or iPad, they know everything in a way that most people older than them don’t because they’re lost in that other world. I feel like what I am doing is letting them know that there’s nothing wrong with them.

[00:10:15.590] – Speaker 1
When we look at the kids of the Great Depression, that generation didn’t think, What was wrong with me? They thought, Oh, I grew up during the Great Depression. It explains everything. W e knew that. Didn’t you know that? You’d look at people and go, Oh, that’s right. They saved their foil because they grew up during the Great Depression. I think the message that I have to communicate to really anyone under the age of 30 is you have been in another version of the Great Depression. It’s not you. This is hard. There is a battle going on. There is stuff you’re facing every day that no one, no generation has ever had to face before. No one your age has ever had to face before. It’s not you.

[00:11:03.360] – Speaker 3
That’s great. And we’re going to get into that as we talk a little bit, I’m sure. But Bob, why don’t you let us know what are some of the things you’re doing with your life right now?

[00:11:13.570] – Speaker 2
Yeah. My day job is a marketing and branding consultant, a fractional chief marketing officer for different clients that I have. I bridge the gap between human behavior and cutting edge innovation. That’s my sweet spot. But I also do a lot of writing, obviously, this book with Jenny, and I’ve written three other books. I do speaking around the subject of everything from the intersection of technology marketing, psychology and human flourishing. That’s the pool I swim in. So you can usually find me swimming in the deep end there in some panel, blog, discussion. That’s most of my work.

[00:12:03.500] – Speaker 3
All right. Well, when we wrap up, I’m going to get both of you to point people to where our listeners can find out more about you. I do think it’s really interesting, from a therapy background and working with young people in a marketing background, you guys have merged your interests and the work that you’re doing together into this really important work. So I’d love to dive into it a little bit. So we really want to focus on the impact of technology on the lives of young people today. Specifically, Jenny, as your role as a family therapist, you talk about how you have the perspective of treating families, both pre smartphone and post smartphone. C an you talk to us a little bit about the ways that you think the infiltrations of, particularly our smartphone devices, have impacted young people today. And are they victims of the slow drip of trauma that you talk about in one of your Ted Talks? Because that’s one of the things that we are looking at as we’re preparing for today.

[00:13:07.390] – Speaker 1
I’m so thankful that I’ve had that opportunity to have seen what trauma used to look like versus what it looks like now or how it’s changed. Because people, when I first became a therapist, they came into my office with a specific issue, a specific named issue. Then there was just this phase where all of a sudden everybody just wasn’t okay. I was seeing that in my own family, too, like, Wait, this is these… Really, people would now say, I’m just not okay, or I’m dealing with my trauma, or stuff’s coming up for my child, or I don’t really know what’s wrong with me, but I keep getting triggered so easily. What I finally ended up seeing was the average person is really suffering from the symptoms of PTSD. If you go through that list of, I get angry really fast, I cry really easily, I’m not sleeping well, things that are now just a normal part of life. T hat’s what prompted me. I was working backwards from that. I was like, Why am I seeing all these symptoms of PTSD in people with no named trauma? Because that wasn’t happening before. Before that, people could tell you.

[00:14:17.380] – Speaker 1
They could say, I have issues with my parents. I had this accident when I was a teenager, whatever. I had to get off of my phone. I think that, and that’s a whole other story we don’t have time to get into today, but I didn’t have a phone for four years. It wasn’t until I got my relationship with reality realigned that I realized how much I was suffering from all of those symptoms, too. What I’ll tell people now is the fact is when we enter, we live in two realities. We live in the reality of our real, tangible life, and then we live in our virtual realities that have these personal worlds that have been curated just for us, positively or negatively. Those two worlds have very different rules. The virtual world doesn’t function with gravity and cause and effect and things that the natural world has. When we enter into that space, we enter into a limitless world, and yet we are still a limited person. We’re limited physically, mentally, psychologically, emotionally. As soon as any time that we spend in that world, it truly does, in a very practical way, it taps into the truth that we are not enough because we are not enough.

[00:15:45.750] – Speaker 1
We don’t have enough time, enough energy. We’ll never be rich enough. We’ll never be attractive enough. We’ll never be included in everything, whatever the thing is, because it’s a limitless world. And so that triggers, and the book goes on to explain why that triggers all these things psychologically. First of all, we weren’t made to live in a limitless world, but also we weren’t made to live in a world that was going to constantly require more of us than we ever would have to give to it. And so it taps into our resources, even if you’re talking about the best possible content, which unfortunately, we’re not. It taps into this, it starts creating anxiety because I don’t have enough for this. That anxiety turns into depression. That depression turns into apathy. That apathy turns into ultimately the symptoms of trauma. So the average person is living in a world where they don’t understand that they don’t have the resources for the challenges they’re facing every day and they never will.

[00:16:48.120] – Speaker 3
I’m assuming what you mean by the slow drip of trauma, right? Every time you pull something up and scroll something, there’s just this subtle, sometimes avert, but sometimes subtle, like you said, comparison or reminder of what you don’t have or what you’re trying to acquire or what you’re trying to purchase and all that stuff. But, Bob, can you add, maybe from your perspective, from a marketer, even, what do you see now with young people and just being involved in phones? Because you hear parents say all the time, that kids are on their phones and it’s bad for them. But what does that look like? What have you uncovered and what are you seeing in the world of young people around just this being immersed in the smartphone or technology world?

[00:17:38.880] – Speaker 2
Yeah, for sure. I have three children and they all exist. They’re six and a half years apart, each one of them. So they range from 30 to 23 to 16. And so it afforded me the ability to see basically almost like three different generations or at least different ways that they were brought up because my oldest remembers a time where the Internet and smartphones weren’t the thing that you lived on. But then his formative years had them. My daughter was in the evolution of it, and my son never knows no different. I would say it like this in another way. This is, Jenny and I talk about this, but another way of saying what she said is that living online and existence online is another reality. But it’s driven by the economics of attention. And what I mean by that is when I go on Netflix and watch something, it’s not trying to pull me in and give me suggestions and reward me for staying online. It’s basically we create good content, you pay a fee for it, and you can use it as much you want. So the poll is, does it create really good content that I want to engage in?

[00:19:14.030] – Speaker 2
We can get into a discussion on the value or not of streaming videos. But all other platforms that we as humans engage in, and specifically our kids who are brought up in it, are designed to capture and steal the most valuable thing that we have in this world, which is our time.

[00:19:37.190] – Speaker 1
And the.

[00:19:37.900] – Speaker 2
Reason they do that is because it is an economic model that says, if we can get your attention, we can sell that attention to advertisers, and then we can make billions of dollars and our stockholders and our board is happy. And that’s how we grow in a capitalistic society, our market share. So if you look at it, simply stand back and look at it like that, is these algorithms, these platforms are all designed to do one thing really, really well. That’s capture, steal and own your attention. And I illustrate this with kids many times. I’ll go into a college or high school setting and I’ll say, let me show you what I mean. Tell me, over the last three days, three TikTok or Instagram posts that you engaged in and give me the description of it.

[00:20:37.590] – Speaker 3
They.

[00:20:38.550] – Speaker 2
Think for a moment and they might be able to tell me one that they just saw, but they can’t tell me any more than that. And then I say, most of you in here spend an average of 6 to 7 hours a day on these platforms, many of you much more than that.

[00:20:56.780] – Speaker 3
And.

[00:20:57.070] – Speaker 2
You can’t even… What do you get from them? Because you can’t even remember it. What do you get from them? The answer is you get nothing.

[00:21:04.740] – Speaker 3
They.

[00:21:05.670] – Speaker 2
Get your attention, your time, and then they resell it. So you are the product. So all of that to say, I think our kids are being brought up in a world where it feels natural to plug in and give away their time to something that they don’t get much back from. So that’s the way I would.

[00:21:30.540] – Speaker 3
Say it. That’s really good. So it leads me to think about, and maybe, J enny, you can start with this, do you think our kids know the role that digital media plays in adding stress or anxiety to their life? Is it apparent to them the attention thing? How do you think that plays out?

[00:21:50.910] – Speaker 1
What I hear from everybody is we knew it was wrong. We knew something was wrong, but we didn’t. One, no one feels like they have any choices. And that I feel like is when I tell people that I don’t have a smartphone or I lived without a phone for four years, they’re like, Well, that’s impossible. And it’s so interesting that that belief makes people think that the only other option is completely being lost in it. So there’s this when I’ll talk to people about… So that’s what I do. I do the social media recovery coaching sessions that help people change their relationship with their phone. And people think, Well, I guess you just have to move to the woods. There’s so much almost brainwashing that a different relationship is that you actually grow your own food and you don’t live in society. That is what most people of any age feel like they don’t have any choice about. Parents feel like they don’t have any choice about it. That’s part of my mission is showing there is a way to exist in this world and be successful in this world and thrive in this world without this toxic dysfunctional relationship that I actually equate very similarly to slavery.

[00:23:13.900] – Speaker 1
It is a modern form of slavery. I saw one of those famous pictures of the child labor. Have you all seen that? Of all the little kids lined up with their dirt all over their face and been working. I was like, I want to do some version of that with kids and phones in front of their faces because it’s somebody else’s making money off of nothing. And like I was saying earlier, in the real world, when you give your time and attention to something, it actually gives you something back, even if it’s not money. Even those kids who were the child labor kids were actually learning something. They had they had skill, their bodies were moving. They actually did get something back from it as abusive as it was. That’s not the case now. It really is giving nothing back. And yet, I think what happens is people lose connection with that, when I do something, it gives me back something. The sowing and reaping that is inherent in our biology and our development, when we lose touch with that, we start thinking, what I do doesn’t make any difference.

[00:24:21.030] – Speaker 3
Yeah, that’s really good. I noticed I have a teenage daughter, and I obviously work with a lot of young people. One of the things I noticed, too, and this goes back to I think your trauma thing earlier, Jenny, is just the pervasiveness of social media is kids don’t actually get a break from what… Yes, there’s the whole attention thing, but then they’re also… They know where all their friends are and what’s happening at a party and who’s saying what to whom. When we were a kid, unless you figured out how to call someone to talk to them and had to go through their mom and picking up the other line on the phone, kids don’t even have to manage that anymore. You didn’t really know what was going on when you’re at home and outside of your world. And so this just pervasiveness of all of the angst and developmental issues of adolescents and identity and belonging is just like constant bombardment of that.

[00:25:16.040] – Speaker 1
Well, I want to speak to that specifically because what happens when you put a smartphone into anyone’s hands, but let’s say whatever the average age people are doing it now, if you give your kid who lives at home a smartphone, that’s the moment that you have put them in charge of their own life.

[00:25:35.910] – Speaker 3
The.

[00:25:36.720] – Speaker 1
Reason that parents feel like they don’t know what to do is because they’re not in charge of their kid’s life anymore. It really functions as the parent, as the access to the world. And the kids I’m talking to about what… I don’t know, it’s this privilege or something to have a phone. But what they don’t realize is now their kid’s making all the plans now. Their kids facing that their friend said they wanted to commit suicide, and it’s the middle of the night, and they’re having to manage that. They’re given this responsibility with absolutely no authority or power to do anything about it. So it’s a very real… That feeling that I’m not in control and I don’t know what to do with my kid’s life is true because that phone has taken over that role. And it’s beyond what kids ask me all the time, Well, how old do you think you should be? I was like, Well, how old do you think I had to be before I would get a call, a text at midnight that someone wanted to commit suicide? When is someone qualified for that? And you’re just 12 and you got that text.

[00:26:43.560] – Speaker 3
I’d love to marry a couple of these ideas. I love what you said, that young people, then they could take control of their own lives. And earlier, Jenny, you talked about this paradigm between, well, it’s either fully immersed or not at all. And maybe, Bob, I’ll go to you first. Talk to us about how setting boundaries and better habits. How important is it to have conversations that aren’t just like, Well, just go and use it whenever you want, or it’s locked in the closet all the time, how do we work with kids? How do we set boundaries? How do you have that conversation? And does this evolve as kids get older? How does this emerge at different stages of development?

[00:27:29.630] – Speaker 2
I think that you have to set boundaries. And remember that you are the parent. You know what’s best for your own child. Having said that, it’s not easy. I recognize that we are living in an age, as Jenny said, where it’s an all or nothing type mentality of going, well, I can’t. My child has to have a phone. And that age is getting younger and younger. And the logic is because they’ll be left out. And that’s true. I want to say really clearly, we are not against technology. And what I always say is this book is not an anti technology or anti phone or anti screen social media book. It’s a pro human book. I always start from that and go, okay, what’s the best for our psychological wellbeing as human beings and our thriving and our flourishing? And so in the context of your question, I would say, here’s what I have done for my three kids, and it’s not perfect, but I do think it’s helpful. Phones are not going away and you need them to function. But here’s the job as a parent. You need to teach your kids moving forward that in their lives, this is the proper place and time and tool that you can use this technology.

[00:29:02.450] – Speaker 2
And so the way you do that is you show them what it’s like with a phone, what it’s like without, where it’s proper and appropriate to have a screen, and where it’s not appropriate to have a screen. And here’s the benefits of human experience without a phone, and here’s the benefits of using it. And so you do that at a young age by saying, I didn’t give my kids a phone until they were about seventh or eighth grade. I’m seeing it now in third, second, and third grade. And then from there, just simple things like no phones ever at the dinner table when you’re eating with people. Your phone stays downstairs when you go to bed. It does never go up in your room at night time. You don’t turn your phone on or have it at school. You can take it, but it stays in your book bag or somewhere else. When you’re out with people at a restaurant or you’re out at a friend’s house, put your phone away. I see my millennial older son, they have a practice when they go out with their he’s married now. But when they go out with their friends.

[00:30:16.090] – Speaker 2
One thing they do is they stack all their phones in the middle of the table and whoever grabs their phone during dinner before it’s over has to pay for the meal. Things like that, you can use you can put some real practical things around your kids. They’re not going to die. They’re not going to be disconnected. And the best thing, honestly, and I’ll close with this, you cannot put boundaries around your kid’s technology if you do not model it first.

[00:30:50.450] – Speaker 3
Yeah, absolutely.

[00:30:51.560] – Speaker 2
You have to model it. You have to put your phone in another room before you go to bed. You have to not be looking at it when you’re all together at a table. Otherwise, it’s useless to be honest with you. You can’t look at it while you’re driving and tell your kids not to do that. So those are some just real practical things that I think are super helpful. That’s great.

[00:31:16.580] – Speaker 3
We in our family, as a Christian, we wanted to practice Sabbatheth more regularly. And so we decided that we were going to go tech free from Saturday to Sunday evening. And I can tell you, it was a bigger challenge for my wife and I to start than I think, well, my daughter didn’t love it. But it was a challenge because you’re just like, oh, I don’t even realize how much I just reached to grab for it on a weekend. And then you’re like, why am I even looking at this? So when you start to build that in. So I love having specific times and helping and young people see that how do we appropriately use our phone and what context it’s used. That’s really good. So, J enny, maybe even add, how does this change as kids get older? Is there different for… You said you used to talk to 10 years old fourth graders to 16, 17 year olds. And then I would also just get you to add to, let’s say there are parents who are listening who are like, oh, they’ve just had phones for years. How do I start that? How do I begin there?

[00:32:23.140] – Speaker 3
Yeah.

[00:32:25.260] – Speaker 1
So I feel like part of my role in society right now is casting a vision for what things could be and seeing how we can get there. I really believe that everyone who under a certain age, definitely under 16, but probably even under 18, if you’re still living at home with your parents, if you’re still a dependent, I would absolutely replace a smartphone with a dumb phone. The phone that I partner with is called a Gab phone. You call, you text on it. I don’t know anyone whose life has not been greatly enhanced by that. A lot of times I’ll say you start by buying a second phone, you start with two phones and so you start shifting. The goal is that that relationship with your smartphone has become the most important thing that you orient yourself around. It’s your primary relationship, it’s your God, it’s your parent, it’s your best friend. It’s your job, it’s your entertainment, it’s everything. It’s about breaking up that relationship. That relationship has to… It can only get healthy if it is not you, if it is not directly you. A lot of it is physically separating from that phone, but replacing it with the other phone.

[00:33:48.540] – Speaker 1
And the Gab phone is super affordable. So it’s not a difficult thing to add on to your finances. I think it’s like anywhere… Sometimes they give away the phones for free. It’s $20 a month. So then you get to start taking this phone and you get to make that phone, put the numbers in it of the people you actually want to talk to every time you have a chance. And then you simply start by spending less and less time connected to that smartwatch. Start staying home, it starts staying in your car. And you have this phone that actually when you’re lonely, you can call someone and they’re someone who answers. The people who reach out to you are reaching out to you. So it communicates to you that you matter. And it’s not overwhelming. There’s only so much trouble you can get into on that phone. And also for adults, for parents, it separates their whole job from the rest of their life. It’s not all in this one thing. So physically getting away from the smartphone is a huge thing. If you can’t taking all… Get social media off of your phone, get YouTube off of your phone.

[00:35:03.440] – Speaker 1
Don’t put anything on your phone that you can just kill time with. That’s also a way to put some internal boundaries in place. But also that doesn’t mean you have to go off social media. Go to your laptop when you get home. You can still log on and see and you realize, Oh, I got a message or I get to see that. But it’s this intentional move as opposed to it just stealing your moments from you and your reality and the possibilities you had to interact in the real world. So after a thousand different things that I’ve tried and research that I’ve done and practiced, my number one advice is the least amount of time you can spend on a screen a day, the better your life will be. So really, the number one boundary is time spent on it or connected to it.

[00:35:49.730] – Speaker 3
That’s really good. Just want to press in on a little bit there, J enny, how would a parent who goes, Okay, I get it. I’m going to get a lot of resistance. Kids are used to it. Is there a way to w ade into this?

[00:36:03.310] – Speaker 1
Yeah, there really is. The company that I work with is called Gab Phone. They went to a high school. They’re doing a big experiment with a high school. I think 100 kids got Gab Phone, so they didn’t even get rid of their smartphones. They just got Gab phones. When they came back to check in on the kids, two weeks or a month later, I don’t remember how long, 70 more kids had signed up. Just give them the, hey, use this today. Just put it in their hands and be like, okay, who are the 10 people you want? Hey, I’ve got a new number. This is my number. This is the phone you can have with you most of the time. You can start by giving something before you take something away.

[00:36:49.840] – Speaker 3
But.

[00:36:50.790] – Speaker 1
More significantly than that, we talk about this in the book, there’s a concept called trauma bonds, which is that we get very closely bonded to the thing that causes us the most trauma because that’s the way we feel in control of it. And that is most kids’ relationship with their phone. Every single kid I know would give anything for their parents to take it away. But we have not had a viable solution for how they could still stay connected to people who mattered. And that’s why I feel like having that old fashioned phone is the answer, because you’re still meeting that real deep need for belonging and connection without all the trauma. That’s great.

[00:37:30.870] – Speaker 3
I’ll just give a quick anecdote to this part of the conversation. We are wrestling with this in summer camp, where you would have… We, for a time, allowed kids to bring their phones with them to camp, and you had every spectrum from there should be no phones at camp to absolutely the kids need phones because how else could I text them at Wednesday night to see how their day was thing. And so we would get both extremes. So what we discovered along the way, because I think probably similar to what you’re saying here, we want to help kids discern how to use these things in the world they live in. And so we’re like, Okay, how do we come up with a way that parents can feel comfortable sending phones if they want, but we can monitor and give boundaries and guidelines to how phones are used? We partnered with this organization called Yonder, and they have Yonder pouches. So every kid, the default is don’t bring your phone to camp. But if you feel like you need to, you need to get one of these Yonder pouches. And they’re like a neopreen thing that the counselors close them and they automatically lock.

[00:38:36.920] – Speaker 3
They have a tag from clothing tag so you can’t steal them. T hey automatically lock. T he kids keep the phone because we didn’t want to be accountable for phones. So kids keep their phones with them in the yonder pouch, but they can’t access them. And then at a certain time of the day after dinner, they can unlock their phones, they can say hi to their mom, they can text, they can do whatever they want. And then they get locked up again. The phones can be charged through the yonder pouch. You can still charge it overnight without having to unlock it. And so all of a sudden, just to give some parents the anecdotes, what you started to see is like, Oh, my goodness. Kids are now sitting in a circle talking to one another as opposed to sitting side by side on a bench staring at their phone when they have the most beautiful lake in front of them. So there are ways to use tools and technology around you to be able to think through and help kids navigate it in.

[00:39:35.280] – Speaker 1
The world. My frustration with that is that there’s still so much harm that could happen in that quick time they got on their phone because of all the things that are possible that they didn’t have to be exposed to when they could have had a break from it. And I feel like as adults, we are the ones in charge of saying that’s not safe, that’s not okay for you. And a Gab phone could have provided the same thing without any of those harms, without those harms. And also they have just invented a watch. I just got two products in the mail. They have a watch for kids, and I’m letting my 10 year old niece explore with it for exactly what you’re talking about. And where they can only, like it’s only their parents. Although that’s a whole other conversation we could have about that phones allow some micro parenting that makes people feel like they’re parenting. And that’s not really parenting. Just because you know where your kid is doesn’t mean you’re connected to your kid. I think.

[00:40:37.070] – Speaker 3
That’s a whole other episode, Jen, that I’m fascinated to talk about. It is a.

[00:40:40.690] – Speaker 1
Really fascinating episode.

[00:40:42.000] – Speaker 3
Yes, absolutely. I would have lots of anecdotal stories from my work to add to that conversation. But okay, I really appreciate that. I want to get going on a couple more things just looking at our time. And man, this is so good. It’s flown by. So we’ve talked about, and I know both of you in your Ted Talks, the imagery that we’ve talked around about our phones developing a slow drip of trauma. We’re talking about that, the idea that we’re having our time and our attention being captured and sold and fed to other people. Bob, you’ve talked about our bubble of privacy being breached by the portals that opened up our home through Zooms and pandemic. I think we’re all aware of the interesting tension with technology around virtue and vulnerability. There’s a lot of vulnerabilities to it, but there can be some virtue, like even with Zoom, the ability for kids to continue to learn and to be in class while at home and tablets, ipads, being face timing your grandma when through the pandemic, we couldn’t see each other and all that stuff. So can you talk a little bit about how we reconcile this vulnerability and virtue and trauma?

[00:41:55.410] – Speaker 3
Talk to us a little bit about that. And what are some of the virtues with where our world’s moved with digital media right now? Yeah, I’ll.

[00:42:04.090] – Speaker 2
Speak to that. This has been my career and it’s actually my passion is how do we use technology for human flourishing? Because ultimately all technology, going back to the beginning of time, is created, thought up primarily as a way to become the best part of us as humans. It is extensions of us. So for instance, when people created and knew how to create fire, it was to promote human flourishing. How can we stay warm, stay alive? How can we use it to cook meat? How can we use it to warm our homes so that we don’t freeze to death? On and on it goes. Now, certainly it can be used to burn down things and destroy. People then invented the wheel and said, Wow, we can leverage this and move things further and faster. We can create vehicles that get us to places quicker. And on and on it goes. The invention of the printing press, Guttenberg printing the Bible, printing books and distributing knowledge that propelled forward the age of enlightenment. In every one of these examples, as we go forward, you can say there have been negative ways to do it. I always cite the example, Jenny’s probably tired of me abusing it, but it’s the quote by the biologist E.

[00:43:42.100] – Speaker 2
O. Wilson that said the problem with human beings is that we have Paleolithic emotions or Paleolithic brains, medieval institutions and Godlike technology. The challenge always for us as humans is that technology is always going to be way ahead of what our psychological and physiological confinements allow. Because we don’t really change as human beings. If you were to look at the emotional psychological makeup of a human being 10,000 years ago, it’s very, very similar to the psychological and physiological makeup of a human being today. We are smarter, we know more information, but I respond in my psychological needs, desires for love, for my family, my need to survive, my need to provide, my need of anger, of jealousy, of love, of kindness. They pretty much stayed the same, but the technology that I engage in has evolved light years ahead of that.

[00:45:07.150] – Speaker 3
And so.

[00:45:07.890] – Speaker 2
The challenge is always how do we take a technology? And now we’re dealing with AI and chat, GPT, and that’s the whole new thing. How do we get out ahead of it so that it doesn’t harm us? And so that Jenny and I don’t have to write books like this, right? How do we do that dance? And so that 100 years from now, we look back and go, remember the days when they were just figuring out social media and it caused all these issues. So it can be used for good, but it takes effort. I think we’ve demonstrated that on this call is you can teach your kids how to be healthy, flourishing human beings that uses technology and screens and phones, but you have to bring in the human element to say, you’re limited, honey. You don’t have the ability to process this. I don’t have the ability to process this. I demonstrate it and I show them that I need time away. I need to get out of nature. I need to move my body. I need to have a hobby s. I need to practice being bored and not pulling out my phone when I’m standing in line.

[00:46:20.530] – Speaker 2
These are all things that we know intuitively are good for us as human, and we need to practice them and create spaces for all of these things in our world, this technology, to have its place so that we can flourish as human beings. And it can be things that enhance those, not detract from us. We can go through a list. There’s some great companies out there doing this. Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Technology, on and on it goes. And there’s great advances in mental health and health care that’s really utilizing this. But we have to do the work and we have to think hard about it. Yeah.

[00:47:00.490] – Speaker 3
And that’s in your book you talk about despite the trauma, like you were just mentioning, we can thrive around it. And you use the idea or phrase around like embracing humanity as a means to end, which is what you’re saying here. Jenny, can you elaborate off of what Bob’s saying a little bit more? And can you explain what you mean by the term inside treat? Yeah.

[00:47:24.520] – Speaker 1
Thank you for reminding me of that. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that all technology is not created equal. And a lot of the technology that we’re talking about being harmful is actually predatorial technology. It was designed in that way to steal and captivate and not let you go. That’s why we have such a difficult time with most of the social media platforms that we use. That is different than FaceTime. Facetime is more like Bob’s talking about. It’s more like fire. It’s a tool. It could do something great. It could be something awful. It’s a little bit more in the hands of the person who’s using it. So understanding that, too, is the technology I’m engaging with predatorial or ethical technology? Facetime is a very ethical technology, and you get to use that on your own terms. That being said, you also have to understand the difference between primary needs and secondary needs. And our primary needs, that thing that we do gives us that. I go to the grocery store, I get food, I have food. I t’s my primary need was met by the action that I took. Secondary needs are I did this job to get this money that’s going to buy me the food that I’m going to eat.

[00:48:40.070] – Speaker 1
It doesn’t give me the direct access to the thing I need, but it gives me something that I need out there.

[00:48:47.000] – Speaker 3
Technology can never.

[00:48:48.590] – Speaker 1
Meet a primary need.

[00:48:49.910] – Speaker 3
It is a.

[00:48:51.080] – Speaker 1
Secondary need arena. We go to it to get a need met. It does not meet the need. Primary needs are met in reality. They’re met in real life. When our primary needs are being met, we then have the capacity to go to technology and use it properly. But if we skip over reality and go to technology to meet our primary needs, they’re never going to get met and we won’t use it properly.

[00:49:19.330] – Speaker 3
The inside.

[00:49:20.860] – Speaker 1
Treat thing is that when we, in real life, those interactions that we have, if any person spent 6 to 7 hours, let’s say 4 hours a day, giving their attention to one thing in real life, it would give something back to them. That is, even if it was sleeping, it would give something back to them. Even if it was staring at a wall, it would give something back to them. Nothing. If they did nothing for 4 hours a day, it would give something back to them. And the example that I give in the TEDx Talk was that my daughter held the door open for a guy at the gym and his son. S he came home and was like, That was the best morning I’ve had in so long. I was like, What do you mean? S he was like, I mean, he was so nice to me. He and his son were just smiling and thanked me. I was like, One of my friends had given me this idea to ask, So how many likes would you have to get on a picture that you posted to equal that feeling you got of that man and his son smiling at you opening the door?

[00:50:31.060] – Speaker 3
And she.

[00:50:32.240] – Speaker 1
Was like, Mom, there’s no number of likes, but that’s not the issue. The thing is that that feeling will never go away and the likes instantly go away. T hat’s when I came up with the idea of that was an inside treat. And we can do those things for each other in the real world and they last forever. They build something up inside of people. And that’s how we build up things in society. And if we are not on our screens and we are doing that in our reality, even if it’s to ourself in the mirror, we’re going to heal. We’re going to heal. And we’re going to hopefully have what we need to be put back in the role of being able to take care of our kids again and for our kids to feel safe and loved and enough.

[00:51:19.960] – Speaker 3
Which would be huge, especially, most of the episodes we get in and we talk about the mental health crisis for young people today that we’re seeing everywhere. And what you shared, I think, would be powerful steps forward in helping that. And I love what you’re saying there, Jenny, too, even just about reframing, like, what’s gained from the time, not just the discipline of putting it away or moving it aside. I love that for sleep. I’ll remind myself when I shut down Netflix or turn the tutor off an hour before I normally would have to go, My body is getting an hour of sleep. This is good. And if you could.

[00:51:59.390] – Speaker 1
Say to a teenager, if you could do anything in the world that you wanted to do for four hours every day, what would it be? Anything. And you said, Guess what? You can do that. You just have to give me your phone and you get four hours a day to skateboard, to learn how to draw. I don’t know, whatever your dream thing is, it’s available to you. As long as.

[00:52:19.330] – Speaker 3
The answer isn’t Snapchat, we’d be fine.

[00:52:21.980] – Speaker 1
That’s great.

[00:52:23.450] – Speaker 3
So I think we’re going to wrap this conversation up, but maybe we’ll start with you, Bob. You mentioned earlier some resources places. Everyone should go to our digital soul. Com to check out the book. But Bob, are there any other resources or things that you know? And, Jen, I’ll ask you the same that you can direct parents to this. This is a great conversation. How do I dive in more? Yeah, there.

[00:52:49.520] – Speaker 2
Are so many good resources out there right now if you want to educate yourself. I have a podcast called The Human Voice. And I recently interviewed a doctor out of Los Angeles, Dr. Brian Boxer Waukler. He is an eye doctor, world renowned. And he wrote a book called… Gosh, I knew I was going to forget the name of it. Maybe somebody there can do some research while I’m telling you about it. But a fascinating book. Man, middle aged, famous eye doctor, pioneered interesting surgeries. He docked his twin daughters, teenage daughters, encouraged him to go on to TikTok about a year and a half, two years ago. And because it said, dad, you should get on there because there’s a lot of people putting out information about health. And on TikTok, you can do these things where you can show yourself watching and listening to another person’s TikTok side by side, and then you can respond to it. So he thought, oh, that’s pretty cool. So he saw it as a tool to do good as a doctor and help to people analyze what is really good information and not when it comes to health and wellness.

[00:54:18.150] – Speaker 2
So he started doing it and he got hooked and he got addicted and he got up to 3 million followers and his family had to do an intervention. And so it’s a fascinating book from the perspective of an adult with a family being very vulnerable and then him looking at it scientifically of what had happened to him. So I really encourage you to get that book if you want to know more from an interesting angle.

[00:54:46.180] – Speaker 3
That’s great. That’s amazing. Jenny, do you have any to add?

[00:54:49.780] – Speaker 1
Well, I obviously really want everyone to get a gap phone. So they just recently gave.

[00:55:00.290] – Speaker 3
Me a.

[00:55:03.520] – Speaker 1
Code that I can give out that will guarantee whatever the lowest prices that they’re selling for. It’s like a coupon code. And it’s just my name, Jenny Black. But also, especially for children, if you’ve given a child a smartphone, take it away today and get the Gabwatch is so fun and clever and interesting the way that they have a game on it that it’s like either a plant or an animal that you as the parent set up what that plant needs to grow. And it’s like, make your bed, brush your teeth, take your vitamins or whatever. They’ve done so many clever things to game and make kids feel connected technologically, but that really feed the real world.

[00:55:47.080] – Speaker 3
And I’m just really.

[00:55:48.970] – Speaker 1
Proud of it. So I think that’s the easiest way to change your life. The book.

[00:55:56.730] – Speaker 2
I mentioned is called Influenced by Brian Boxler Wachler. But yeah, there’s lots of great resources and there’s so many books coming out. Even since we wrote our book and released it just a few months ago, there’s been several that have come out around this whole subject.

[00:56:14.850] – Speaker 3
And for listeners, if you missed it earlier or want to go back because you already heard it, this topic is really interesting. In our season two, we had Richard Colata who wrote Digital for good, raising kids to thrive in an online world. So there’s more conversations there, and you can pile all these resources together and continue to work out how to navigate this ever changing world that we find ourselves in with digital media and phones and everything going around. So I really appreciate this conversation. As we wrap up, let me start with you, Bob, first, and then Jenny. Just like any final words of encouragement for parents who are sitting there going, I just feel so overwhelmed with this, what would you say to a parent if you’re sitting with them right now who’s going like, this is too big of an obstacle for me to tackle? Yeah, it’s hard.

[00:57:09.660] – Speaker 2
I get it. I’m a parent and I have friends that are parents, and we talk about this a lot. Here’s the good news. When it comes to the human brain, when it comes to our attention, when it comes to our way of being, we are extremely resilient and we’re learning more and more each day that the brain is very plastic, it has plasticity. You can change, you can change habits. Jenny has lived this, and we all can make a difference in our kids lives and our own lives. So it’s not a point of I’ve gone too far, I’ve done too much damage, I regret this. The great thing about technology and screen life is you can change your pattern and your habits. And so I would just encourage parents, no matter where you are in your parenting or your grandparenting or whoever’s listening to this, you can change at any moment. They’re resources. Our brains have plasticity. Your kid’s brains have plasticity. You haven’t ruined them. There’s opportunity to make things better. And I would say start in those small ways. Educate yourself, get our book, our digital soul. Education is the main thing. Starting with knowing about this and educating yourself is the key.

[00:58:35.640] – Speaker 2
And then once you know, you can begin to take those baby steps to make those transitions. Yeah, that’s really good.

[00:58:42.270] – Speaker 3
Jenny? Yeah. I mean, my.

[00:58:44.290] – Speaker 1
Conversations with parents always start with you really can’t even worry about parenting until you have regulated yourself. And that’s not even about technology. It is for most everybody now. But that’s just about, are you getting your needs met? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating three meals? Are you exercising? Does your job fit into a beginning and ending of a day? Start taking care of yourself. I have found the number one way to do that is don’t be on a screen if you don’t have to be on a screen. Then if you’re finding yourself having to be on a screen a lot, then you need to deal with some boundaries of work or boundaries in relationships. But the reality is we’re not as parents, we’re not well resourced right now for ourselves. We’re not taking care of ourselves. We are overwhelmed by everything and exhausted and stressed and overreactive. And so we will be a mess if we try to parent from that place. So you’ve got to spend… I mean, you could spend a year taking care of yourself, and that will translate so quickly in a very direct way to your kids.

[00:59:56.640] – Speaker 1
You don’t even have to work on parenting because their parent is okay. That’s the first thing a kid needs. I need my parent to be okay. And so that’s where I would put my energy. Yeah, that’s great.

[01:00:07.900] – Speaker 3
I’m definitely been thinking myself, I’ve learned so much from this. And I think for a lot of parents, I’m sure it’s not knowledge per se. To me, what I’m taking away from this is just the role discernment. I think we’re such quick adopters to things. And even going back to what you were saying, Bob, the technology gets so far ahead of our own confinements and limitations, but how do we slow down and think about it and process the virtue, the vulnerability, whatever that is? Is this a good decision? What’s the consequence of this? And even, Jenny, when you’re saying, What do I gain from this time? I think part of it is just this mindless adoption and usage of technology. Take a step back and think through it and process it and have conversations about it. I think that’s what I’m picking up for that. So really thankful for what both of you shared today and the work you’re doing. I want to encourage you to keep going and we’re going to spread the word and get your book out there. So thank you so much for your time today as an encouragement to me and to the parents and youth workers and teachers who are listening to this, a really helpful interview today.

[01:01:18.640] – Speaker 3
Thank you. Absolutely.

[01:01:20.680] – Speaker 1
Thank you, Chris. It was quite a pleasure. Yes, thanks for having me.

About the Author

Chris Tompkins is the CEO of Muskoka Woods. He holds a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Guelph, a teacher’s college degree from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Youth Development from Clemson University. His experience leading in local community, school, church and camp settings has spanned over 20 years. His current role and expertise generates a demand for him to speak with teens and consult with youth leaders. Chris hosts the Muskoka Woods podcast, Shaping Our World where he speaks with youth development experts. He is an avid sports fan who enjoys an afternoon with a big cup of coffee and a good book. Chris resides in Stouffville, Ontario with his wife and daughter.
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