“We need to collectively make it a common expectation that education and training in digital literacy are key to healthy living and achieving tech-life balance.”

-Carl Marci, MD

Carl Marci, MD, psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, has spent much of his career studying the neurobiology of empathy and how people connect with objects on a deep, emotional level. He graduated from Harvard Medical School and then did his psychiatry training in the combined Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital program. He maintains a small outpatient practice through the MGH Revere Mental Health Center. Today, his work lies at the intersection of health and technology.

In this Q&A, Dr. Marci shares his current research and insights from his new book, Rewired on the impact of digital technology on the human brain, behavior and mental health and how people can live more balanced lives with the technology that’s become integral to our daily routines.

Q: Tell me about your training, current practice, research interests, etc.?

I describe myself as a physician, scientist and entrepreneur. I started out as an academic and spent 10 years studying the neurobiology of empathy and how talk therapy can have healing powers as powerful as medication. I have co-founded several companies and advise early-stage organizations at the intersection of health and technology.

Q: What does it mean to study social and consumer neuroscience?

Social neuroscience is the study of how humans relate to each other. My research about the neurobiology and physiology of empathy during psychotherapy was key to my thinking about how we can measure and quantify the deep, emotional connections we have with objects.

Working with large media companies and advertisers with the company I co-founded and launched out of the MIT Media Lab in 2006, I had a front row seat doing research on the impact of smartphones and social media advertising on the brains and behaviors of consumers. The more we learned, the more concerned I became about the impact of mobile media, information and communications technology on the developing brain and how its ubiquitous spread into nearly every aspect of our daily life can lead to mental health issues.

As I went deeper into the fields of social and consumer neuroscience over time, I ended up researching the impact of digital technology on human brain, behavior and mental health for my new book, Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age.

Q: Are people addicted to a digital lifestyle?

We have to be careful about how we use the word addiction. There’s a continuum between healthy habits and unhealthy addictions. Habits are routines that we develop to save time and preserve cognitive capacity for more complex tasks. I would argue nearly all of us have changed our habits and behaviors around smartphones and related technologies. And when you change your habits, you change your brain—it’s that simple.

Sometimes those changes are for the better and there are a lot of wonderful things about mobile technology. But we are all walking around with a supercomputer in our pocket with full access to the internet and a world of temptation and titillation. There is more research needed, but we now know that while we are all at some risk, there is a subset of people who have developed problematic and unhealthy habits due to the omnipresence of smartphones and their applications. There is growing understanding that there’s another subset of people who have a true addiction and need serious interventions. We need to be more nuanced in our assessments, we need better tools for screening, and more data to understand the differences.

Q: How do smart phones, media and related technologies make us less connected to each other?

Media consumption has more than doubled over the last 20 years. The previous average for adults was about eight hours a day and now we’re averaging closer to 12 hours and that comes at a cost—most typically that means less time in-person with other people.

I talk about the three Ds:

  1. Distracted: The ever-presence of notifications from our smartphones make us more distracted because we’re so easily interrupted. There are studies that show that the mere presence of a smartphone—not even using it—on a table between two people changes our social interactions. In addition, in order to consume so much media, we are often trying to do something else. This is what I call media multitasking. The consequence is that you work slower and make more mistakes.
  2. Divided: Smartphones have made social media access easier and more frequent. What we now know from research is that more time on social media does not increase well-being. It does often mean that the algorithms push us into information bubbles—politics, news, social comparisons—that are polarized and intensified online. It’s designed to influence and sell, but it feeds into our tendency as social creatures to create a dichotomy of ‘us vs. them,’ especially around politics and hot button social issues.
  3. Depressed: Over time, being more distracted and divided cuts us off from all the things we’ve evolved to need socially: face-to-face conversation and reciprocal social interactions, a sense of belonging, emotional regulation and physical touch. The lack of these combined with our increasing use of media as a mood regulator driven by FOMO (fear of missing out) and the rewards of responding to every app ping and message ring contributes to lower empathy, increased narcissism and ultimately higher rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness.

Q: Are there any groups that are at higher risk for mental health impacts due to the rise of the digital age?

Not everyone is at the same risk—those at a higher risk may include people who have a history of mental health issues or have dealt with adverse life events or trauma are at higher risk; people who are in a negative mood and share it online and those who spend too much time using their devices and media as a mood regulator; and very clearly, people who multitask and use a lot of different social media platforms are at risk.

Young children and adolescents, with their developing brains, are especially vulnerable. Consider how physically dangerous operating a car can be and how many guardrails governments put in place over time to ensure teenagers are educated and prepared to handle the responsibility of driving a car. Given the risk to mental health, why would we give kids free reign of a supercomputer without similar parameters to help ensure they’re equipped with the knowledge, tools and healthy behaviors they need to navigate digital life?

Q: People have long talked about a healthy work-life balance. In our increasingly digital life, how can we find a healthy tech-life balance?

Technology isn’t going anywhere, if anything it’s going to become more of a part of our daily life. We need to collectively develop a common expectation that digital literacy and training on how to stay healthy in the digital age are keys to healthy living.

There are habits we can implement to protect our brains and mental health in the digital age such as:

  1. Minimize media multitasking. Attempting to do two things simultaneously is very cognitively demanding, especially when it’s repetitive. Research shows that multitasking reduces processing speed and increases errors. It also fatigues the brain and reduces executive function. Be careful not to do work on your computer and watch television at the same too frequently—you’re not going to be doing either well. And don’t let children do their homework and check social media. They will learn less, and their grades will suffer as they form an unhealthy habit.
  2. Choose JOMO (joy of missing out) over FOMO (fear of missing out). Digital life means that we feel (and usually are) constantly connected and reachable, and it is instantly rewarding to respond to every notification ping. Research shows a relationship between FOMO and problematic smartphone use suggesting that higher rates of anxiety related to not being online are linked to increased social media use. Pause, disconnect and find joy in missing out on the constant hum of notifications and social comparisons, misinformation and political discord.
  3. Manage your social identity. The ease with which we can curate and transform our self-image online creates as much opportunity as it does peril. Consider who you are in real life (or IRL in digital speak) and make sure that is the person that you present as online—unless there is a clear reason not to do so.
  4. Think before you post. The adage to think before you speak also applies to online forums and social media. Borrowed from a high school that was worried about bullying and microaggressions online, the faculty came up with a mnemonic for questions to help us T.H.I.N.K. before we post (Is it “True”; is it “Helpful”; does it “Inspire”; is it “Necessary”; and is it “Kind”?).  This applies to adults as well as children and teens.
  5. Choose strong social bonds over weak bonds. Social media can be a great way to connect with people with whom you have an offline relationship or share updates with friends and relatives who live far away. Even though today’s digital world has financial incentive to have lots of followers, the brain has limited capacity and we really can only manage a finite set of people in our lives. High quality social relationships prevent loneliness and lead to happiness later in life.