Screen Sanity Episode 3: Susan Dunaway

Susan Dunaway is a neurotherapist whose practice has explored the many connections between screens and mental health. On this episode of the podcast, she talks with START co-founder and host Krista Boan about the science of neurotherapy and the effect of screen time and social media on the brain, including the remarkably important roles dopamine and oxytocin play in health and well-being.  

She also speaks from personal experience, describing her own family’s practices, what she’s learned and adapted during COVID, and how she’s seen gaming impact the development of the minds and mental health of middle schoolers.

Executive Produced by Krista Boan and START

Produced and Edited by Mike Cosper and Narrativo


Krista Boan: [00:00:00] Hey, everyone. Welcome to the Screen Sanity podcast. I’m your host, Krista Boan, co-founder of START, where we help families raise happy and healthy kids in a world that is increasingly digital. We’ve had hundreds of conversations with parents everywhere who share that the number one battleground in their homes is screen time. And while we’ve learned that there is no easy button when it comes to parenting today’s kids, there’s also an unbelievable movement of parents who are stepping into the arena and fighting for their kids’ hearts.

Each episode our guests will help us dive into some of the tensions families are facing and walk us through some of the conversations you’ll wanna have to prepare your kids for the road ahead. Welcome to Screen Sanity.

Hey, friends. Well, if there’s anything that is for certain when it comes to being a parent in this digital world, it’s that things are constantly changing and surprises are constantly popping up. And when those things happen, some of us are, you know, the kind of parents who love to dig into the research and get to the bottom looking for answers, while others of us just tend to fly by the seat of our pants and hope for the best. On those days when I am the latter, [laughs] I am grateful for the people who are digging into the research and trying to understand the impact screen time has on our kids’ brains.

Our guest today is one of those people. Susan Dunaway is a neurotherapist. She is the co-owner of Amend Neurocounseling, and she specializes in neurofeedback, which is a tool that helps the brain regulate attention, mood, and energy. Um, her clients deal with everything from ADHD to anxiety to concussions, but a large part of her practice addresses screen-based issues.

Susan, we are so glad that you are here joining us today.

Susan Dunaway: [00:01:55] I just think this gonna be fun. I’m excited.

Krista Boan: [00:01:58] Okay, so we have only been friends for a few short years, but in many ways, it feels [laughs] like a decade.

Susan, you are a neurotherapist.

Susan Dunaway: [00:06:46] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:06:46] Is that… For our listeners, the first time I heard neurotherapist, I actually thought you were a brain surgeon. [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:06:54] [laughs] That is much cooler than what I actually am. [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:06:57] So for somebody who actually hasn’t heard of what a neurotherapist is, could you describe what your practice looks like?

Susan Dunaway: [00:07:06] Sure. So a neurotherapist is- it’s really a fancy title. Um, so by licensure, I’m, uh, a licensed professional counselor, so. But as I was doing therapy, I was doing it more and more on kids, so I started doing therapy in the ’90s. I’m way older than you. Then I started working with younger and younger kids and trying to figure out kind of my theory, and I couldn’t ever land on what I liked the best.

And about that time, one of my colleagues was going through this thing called neurofeedback, um, for a old brain injury that she had had, and in doing that, they asked her, because she was a therapist, whether she wanted to learn how to do this thing called neurofeedback. And so I asked if I could come along on the training because my thought had always been, “We’re blamin’ kids a lot for the things that they are doing, but we’re never able to look into their brains to see, you know, what’s going on.”

Krista Boan: [00:08:08] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:08:09] So I went out to this training at a place called the Institute of Applied Neuroscience and learned about brainwave patterns, and, basically, how to do physical therapy on the brain. So I- I now have this certification that is, uh, in neurofeedback that allows me to look inside brains every day and help people learn how to regulate their own brainwave patterns, which helps a ton with anxiety and depression and ADHD and behavioral issues.

And so that’s what a neurotherapist is. It’s just a- an additional add-on training, but once I started that, it helped change lives so much that now that is probably 90% of my practice. I have some talk therapy, but most of my talk therapy also has neurofeedback components to it as well. So-

Krista Boan: [00:09:04] So when you say you’re able to look inside of people’s brains and see their brainwaves, is it like a magic eightball that you’re using, or what [laughs]-

Susan Dunaway: [00:09:15] Now, that would be [crosstalk 00:09:17].

Krista Boan: [00:09:16] … what [crosstalk 00:09:16] sort of equipment?

Susan Dunaway: [00:09:16] I want a magic- uh, a magic eightball.

Krista Boan: [00:09:18] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:09:19] It’s- It’s much less cool than that.

Krista Boan: [00:09:21] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:09:21] I- I- I put sensors, electrodes, on the scalp, and read their- their EEG brainwave patterns.

Krista Boan: [00:09:29] Okay.

Susan Dunaway: [00:09:29] Um, and- and then, basically, use math to be able to, quote, unquote, see what’s happening with the- the ratios and amplitudes. It’s- it’s all math, which kids really hate-

Krista Boan: [00:09:41] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:09:41] … that- that I tell them that- that I really have to do a bunch of algebra to- to figure out what their brainwaves are telling me- [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:09:46] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:09:46] … that you do, actually, use math in real life. [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:09:48] [laughs] Yeah. [laughs] Nobody wants to hear that when you’re young, right?

Susan Dunaway: [00:09:51] [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:09:52] [laughs] Awesome, so it’s in the context of your private practice that you’ve been able to have a little bit of an up close and personal view of some of the shifts that are happening in our kids’ brains as a result of the introduction of the digital revolution which started, a lotta people say, about 2012.

Would you be willing to kind of walk us through some of the things that you’ve observed and maybe moments when you noticed, hey, the world is changing, and it won’t ever look the same?

Susan Dunaway: [00:10:19] I noticed that kids started talking about their friendships differently, so they started… They talked about, “I texted my friend. We texted about whatever.” And then it started changing to, “We talked.”

Krista Boan: [00:10:35] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:10:35] And there was this shift where I went, “Wait. You talked with your voice? Or you talked, texted?” And they were like, “Oh, I- I talked, texted.” Well, if you talk to people now, they don’t delineate. They don’t say that anymore.

Krista Boan: [00:10:48] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:10:48] They just say talked. And I just know that they probably texted.

Krista Boan: [00:10:52] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:10:53] And so there was this weird shift that started happening in the way that they connected with each other, um, and I watched anxiety go up, and I watched them now come into the session with these devices. I watched sleep get worse.

Um, I watched parents have no idea how to navigate this device that was now in their bedrooms interrupting sleep. So I started watching all of these things. I started watching them not write anymore, but type.

Krista Boan: [00:11:27] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:11:27] And as these things were happening, I watched insomnia go up and anxiety go up, and depression go up. And I thought, “These things are correlated.” And so then I go to a, uh, a conference, a neurofeedback conference, uh, what probably was 2015.

Krista Boan: [00:11:43] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:11:45] And I sat in on one on how smartphones were interrupting brainwave patterns, and how we’ve been taking brainwave data from the whole brain. They have been doing these in-depth recordings of brainwaves since 19- since the 1960s, and there’s these data bases of hundreds of thousands of brainwave patterns. And what they noticed was once the smartphone was introduced, um, and once it tipped that 50% of the population, the brainwave patterns started changing. And they had not changed in- since the ’60s. And all the sudden, they started changing, and they were correlating with what we were seeing with anxiety and depression, specifically.

And this light bulb went off where I was like, “Oh.” And, of course, as a mom, I have two boys, my mama wings went out, and I was like, “I’ve gotta keep this away from them as long as possible.”

Krista Boan: [00:12:42] Yeah, well, I do think it is so overwhelming when you start looking at all of the data. And, of course, as we… That’s the gift of technology, too, is that it allows us to collect-

Susan Dunaway: [00:12:53] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:12:53] … so much more data than we even used to. And-

Susan Dunaway: [00:12:56] Right.

Krista Boan: [00:12:56] … and so you have been a gift in our community in your ability to really take the research seriously, but then also to be able to communicate it in a more simple way for people like me, who are just, like, “Just tell me what to do.” You know?

Susan Dunaway: [00:13:12] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:13:12] And so I’d be curious, you know, at that point that you began speaking, what were you sharing? What was your battle cry or your rally cry? Was it to keep kids mostly off of screens until- as- as long as possible to delay?

Susan Dunaway: [00:13:27] It really did. It depended on the age of the kid, and so what I wanted to do for all parents, because most of the time, of course, parents have kids of different ages and interact with them differently in their professions as well. I wanted them to get an idea of how it impacted the brain, and some of the brain areas that I was most concerned about, and the things that it delayed the most. So what I ended up doing was focusing on, by the time you launch them, what do you want them to have?

Krista Boan: [00:13:55] Yes.

Susan Dunaway: [00:13:55] Um, critical thinking skills, creativity, empathy, good judgment, some morals, a compass, those types of things that seem to be… All parents want these things. They want their kids to be able to be self-sufficient. They want them to be happy. You know, those things that all parents want. And then I talked about how, uh, screens can hijack that.

Krista Boan: [00:14:15] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:14:16] And how, instead, we need to keep these things in our targets. How do I get my kid to be more empathetic? So, yeah, all screens will- will hijack empathy for sure, and we can just talk about that. But what if we talk about what do you do to create an empathetic child?

And my theory was if we concentrated more on how do we develop these things in our kids, then, naturally, we’re gonna do things that aren’t necessarily, “Just go to your room and stare at a screen, or just be on your phone on social media.” If you want to make empathy in your child, then maybe your family’s gonna go volunteer some place.

Krista Boan: [00:14:52] Well, what I love, and I feel like what’s always been aligned about your approach with START, is that, you know, beginning with the end in mind is so critical, and-

Susan Dunaway: [00:15:00] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:15:01] … that is something, I think, that hasn’t changed with COVID, that we can always, when we set out to try to manage our kids’ screen time, that the very first place to start is to say, “Oh, my gosh, I may not have thought about this for a while, but where are we headed? What are our family values? And what do I want to be intentionally building into my children?”

Whereas, like, I think a lotta times we get so distracted and we’re overwhelmed, we have no margin. We’re just so busy that-

Susan Dunaway: [00:15:33] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:15:33] … a lotta times these battles end up creeping up, and we end up dealing with the battle. But-

Susan Dunaway: [00:15:37] Yes.

Krista Boan: [00:15:37] … I’m really excited to talk to you more about what those things can look like in order to build that infrastructure to our kids, in order to build that compass, so that they can have a navigation system throughout the rest of their lives when they’re not- no longer underneath our [laughs]- our own roof-

Susan Dunaway: [00:15:55] [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:15:55] … and the, you know, Curious George is no longer an option.

But before we go there, I would love to hear just… You were out talking to families about just trying to build in these healthy habits from a young age around screen time and trying to limit it, realizing that things like creativity and empathy were at stake for our younger children, as well as our- their brainwaves. Then, six months ago, [laughs]-

Susan Dunaway: [00:16:23] [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:16:24] … we- COVID hit.

Susan Dunaway: [00:16:25] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:16:25] And all the sudden, we saw across the globe that screen time use went- it just skyrocketed. Um-

Susan Dunaway: [00:16:34] Yeah, of course.

Krista Boan: [00:16:34] Yeah. At least two times the amount of screen time as kids were on before COVID. And so, how have you noticed that things have changed for parents, for kids? What are you sensing?

Susan Dunaway: [00:16:48] My, how hasn’t it changed? Yeah, one of my biggest talks that I gave was right before COVID hit, and it was at a mega-church, and I did three different talks. I did a parent one, a middle school one, and a high school one ’cause they’re all so very different. And it’s as though everything that I said almost evaporated-

Krista Boan: [00:17:10] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:17:10] … in a moment, in my household as well.

So I now have a… I had an eighth grader and a sixth grader, um, who now are freshman and seventh grade. And all the sudden, all the things that I said, and all the ways that we had personally lived our lives, vanished.

Krista Boan: [00:17:26] Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Right.

Susan Dunaway: [00:17:27] We opted to have moved during COVID, ’cause that’s what you do during a pandemic is ya move. And so the way that our new house is, for the boys to do their- they [inaudible 00:17:37] at-home learning, they really needed to be in their rooms.

Krista Boan: [00:17:39] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:17:40] And then because, uh, life, um, we also have a really, really big puppy-

Krista Boan: [00:17:46] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:17:47] … who loves to romp into things and grab stuff and disrupt the world. And so all the sudden, in your room with the door closed, uh, made the most sense for their Zoom school-

Krista Boan: [00:18:01] Yeah.

Susan Dunaway: [00:18:01] … weirdness. And the “Don’t look at more than one screen at a time,” which is huge for brain development, so “Don’t have your cellphone with you when you’re on your computer,” goes out the window when my high schooler has to figure out, “How do I log on? This link doesn’t work. I need to text my friend who’s in the same class-“

Krista Boan: [00:18:20] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:18:21] … all the sudden, like, these are just practical things now, and it all goes kinda out the window. And it was so hard. It was so hard.

Krista Boan: [00:18:32] I’ve heard you describe it as, uh, like, cognitive dissonance. Like this-

Susan Dunaway: [00:18:36] Yes.

Krista Boan: [00:18:37] … yeah, this difference between [laughs] what I expected and what- what I hoped for for my kids, and the reality of the way that the normal is right now.

Susan Dunaway: [00:18:46] And cognitive dissonance is like fingernails on a chalkboard of your soul.

Krista Boan: [00:18:51] Yeah.

Susan Dunaway: [00:18:51] That’s how I always described it. [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:18:54] [laughs] Yes.

Susan Dunaway: [00:18:56] And so we do things to resolve cognitive dissonance. We do things… Like, we say, “Uh, well, it’s not- it’s not that- really that bad.” Or, you know, “My kid getsreally good grades, and so it’s fine.”

Krista Boan: [00:19:07] Yeah.

Susan Dunaway: [00:19:08] And the reality is it really might be fine. If it’s short-term, it might be fine. If we’re checking in on them, it really might be fine because for the love, what else can we do?

Krista Boan: [00:19:19] [inaudible 00:19:20].

Susan Dunaway: [00:19:19] Like, all the sudden, we don’t have a lot of choices. And if our kids can’t physically get together but they can socially game, then do you wanna take away their possibility of some sort of interaction? No.

Krista Boan: [00:19:34] Right.

Susan Dunaway: [00:19:34] Do you like that that is their option? No. But our choices have been limited, and so I think that one of the really important things that we remember… There’s a couple different things. It’s still very important to make real-life connections.

Krista Boan: [00:19:52] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:19:53] And it is completely fine if the only real-life connections they get right now are the people who live under their roof.

Krista Boan: [00:20:00] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:20:01] Does something amazing to forging deeper family connections. And so while they were doing screen stuff, we are also doing a lot more hands-on stuff. We… But I have the benefit of having a teacher as a husband, who was then home, and so he made math lessons and, you know, in- in real hands-on ways, and things like that.

Us and everybody else in the world went out and did a lot of walks. Um, we had them doing more, like, recipes with us, and- and cooking with us, and talking with us.

And I don’t have, like, the Van Trapp family that was sitting around singing songs, and they were always so excited to-

Krista Boan: [00:21:00] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:21:00] … be with. Um, we had some eye rolls, and we had some, “I know.” You know? And [laughs]-

Krista Boan: [00:21:05] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:21:06] … so it’s not some picture-perfect Instagram kind of thing. There was rolling around on floor and puppy and all of- all of the things, um, but that’s also the mess of family, and that’s okay.

Krista Boan: [00:21:18] Yeah.

Susan Dunaway: [00:21:18] Um, and- and so knowing, like, what can we do to reconnect?

Krista Boan: [00:21:23] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:21:24] What can we do when they’re not staring at the [laughs] screen to- to have conversations, to have fun, to move? Things like that.

Krista Boan: [00:21:32] Yeah, and as I’m listening to you, I’m reflecting on how just sometimes the biggest step is just to reframe our perspective, and to try to see the opportunity that there is, even in the challenge. And that is a-

Susan Dunaway: [00:21:39] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:21:46] … huge first step. [laughs]

I mean, most days I don’t even get to that first step, right? Of just saying, ” What can we learn? What can we work on here?” But really, when it comes to screen time, there’s never been a more, like, proximate, uh, season where you are so close to your kids while they are on screens for you to have some conversations about exactly what you talked about.

If we could just dig in a little bit deeper on how to talk to my kiddo about the relationship between technology and anxiety, I would love for you to walk us through what actually happens in our brain when we are on devices.

Susan Dunaway: [00:22:27] Well, we’re shifting a little bit from devices that are, like, Zoom and learning-based. So we have devices or ways that we use devices where we’re getting information in an educational kind of way.

But then if we’re getting information or we’re consuming that device, like, in social media or in texting our friends, then we’re using it differently and our brain is responding differently. So every single time there is a text message, or every single time there’s a little heart icon on your Instagram feed, you get this little shot o’ dopamine.

Krista Boan: [00:23:03] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:23:05] Uh, and dopamine is this feel-good neurotransmitter-

Krista Boan: [00:23:08] Okay.

Susan Dunaway: [00:23:08] … that says, “You found it.” It’s- Uh, it’s really this old throwback… I mean, everything’s an old throwback-

Krista Boan: [00:23:14] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:23:15] … neuro- neurotransmitter. But it was supposed to be something we got every once in a while. It was supposed to reward us for finding something.

Krista Boan: [00:23:22] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:23:23] So it’s so fascinating that the way that it was supposed to work is that we’d have the courage to leave our tribe, go out and find a mate-

Krista Boan: [00:23:32] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:23:33] … so that we weren’t all inbred. [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:23:36] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:23:36] Or go out and find the herd that we had to kill so that we had some protein for the winter. Or we found a blueberry bush. And these were, like, big treks, big journeys, where we would, um, eventually, find something. And when we found it, our brain rewarded us for that with this surge of dopamine. “You found it. You did it. Good job. You should be rewarded for that risk-taking of leaving and finding and surviving.”

Krista Boan: [00:24:04] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:24:05] And so it was supposed to be something that was every once in a while.

But now, fast-forward to our current world, we can get it every second. Every time we refresh our feed, every time we get a- a text message, every time we find a meme that’s funny, we get that same thing.

Um, and what they found in these studies of when we get a whole lot of dopamine, especially the younger we are when our brain is still developing, is that we don’t start making less dopamine. The brain starts having fewer receptors of dopamine, called down-regulation.

Krista Boan: [00:24:40] Okay.

Susan Dunaway: [00:24:40] We get fewer of these receptors because the brain is overloaded. It doesn’t know what to do. It’s not supposed to have this much. And so because it can’t get less, it makes fewer receptors.

Krista Boan: [00:24:52] Okay.

Susan Dunaway: [00:24:52] And so the end result then, is that when we take that away, we can’t absorb as much dopamine, and then we need more. And if we need more, we have to have bigger risks-

Krista Boan: [00:25:08] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:25:08] … bigger thrills on things more in order to feel something. And so we can get into anxiety with not having it, or we can get into anhedonia, which is the, like, loss of pleasure. Everything’s boring.

Krista Boan: [00:25:23] Mm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:25:23] Everything’s boring.

Krista Boan: [00:25:24] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:25:24] “Why did you go and do that thing?” “I was bored.”

Krista Boan: [00:25:27] Mm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:25:29] That’s really the brain saying, “I was used to having a ton of dopamine. Now I don’t have it. I have to get it. What do I do?”

Krista Boan: [00:25:37] Okay.

Susan Dunaway: [00:25:37] And so this is what we’re finding a ton of.

So the way that we deal with that is to do a couple of things. One is to do a survey of your own body and feel, like, “When I get this notification, or when I get left out of something, like, what am I feeling?”

Krista Boan: [00:25:59] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:26:01] “Where is it in my body that I’m feeling it?”

Krista Boan: [00:26:03] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:26:03] And allow ourselves to actually just sit in it and name it and be able to be uncomfortable-

Krista Boan: [00:26:11] Okay.

Susan Dunaway: [00:26:12] … even be bored.

Krista Boan: [00:26:12] I’m listening to you and I’m thinking about, as an adult, how hard that is for me.

Susan Dunaway: [00:26:16] It’s so hard.

Krista Boan: [00:26:17] Because now, what’s happened has become the… Whenever something is hard, what do I do? I escape it by picking up my phone and stress-scrolling.

Susan Dunaway: [00:26:28] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:26:28] But-

Susan Dunaway: [00:26:29] ‘Cause it works so well. [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:26:30] [laughs] But this is something that’s important for our kids to understand, that it’s- when something does overload our dopamine, that we have to sit in it and feel it in our body.

Susan Dunaway: [00:26:43] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:26:43] So maybe that means, what? Like, maybe we’ve got a headache. Maybe we aren’t sleeping well. What does that feel like in our body, Susan? What are some…

Susan Dunaway: [00:26:55] Well, it can be those things. It can be more short-lived-

Krista Boan: [00:26:58] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:26:59] … that- kinda that, like, ouch in your- in your heart, or even that surge, where, like, “Why am I on this?”

Krista Boan: [00:27:06] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:27:07] “What am I- What am I avoiding?”

Krista Boan: [00:27:09] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:27:11] And then kinda taking some deep breaths into that.

Krista Boan: [00:27:14] Okay.

Susan Dunaway: [00:27:16] And-

Krista Boan: [00:27:16] Yeah.

Susan Dunaway: [00:27:17] And really this- this thing is an extension of ourselves now-

Krista Boan: [00:27:22] Mm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:27:22] … but what was supposed to be the extension of ourselves are other people.

Krista Boan: [00:27:26] Okay.

Susan Dunaway: [00:27:27] And so what I try to teach people is that when you have that big feeling, that uncomfortable feeling, what you’re supposed to do, what the brain is made to do, is to turn towards somebody else. So when we get stressed, when we get this little bit of oxytocin, which is this neurotransmitter that also bonds us to other people, but when we get it in the very beginning of stress, what it’s supposed to do is it tells us to turn towards somebody.

Krista Boan: [00:28:02] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:28:03] And if we allow ourselves to actually, in real life, turn towards another person-

Krista Boan: [00:28:10] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:28:10] … and even to say, like, “I need a hug.” Or “I’m having a hard day.” Or “I’m feeling stressed or high.” Anything, and that other person responds, our brains then flood us with that oxytocin.

Krista Boan: [00:28:24] Mm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:28:25] And-

Krista Boan: [00:28:26] It’s when the other person responds? Is that right?

Susan Dunaway: [00:28:28] Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Yep.

Krista Boan: [00:28:29] So we turn towards somebody else-

Susan Dunaway: [00:28:31] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:28:31] … and they are not available for us, that’s not the same thing. We have to find somebody who-

Susan Dunaway: [00:28:37] Right. If they don’t respond, then we do not get anymore-

Krista Boan: [00:28:42] Mm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:28:42] … oxytocin.

If they do, then we get flooded with it, and it’s job is to eat all of that stress. The stress hormone’s cortisol. So we- we talk about- we’ve talked before about it being like a Pac-man, that it turns and it eats up all of the- the cortisol in our brains and our bodies, and it helps us feel better. It centers us.

Krista Boan: [00:29:05] Mm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:29:05] But what our kids are doing instead is they’re going towards their screen. They’re feeling that uncomfortable feeling, and they’re looking at their phone instead, and we do this, too. Adults do this, too. And it gives us more dopamine, but it does not take down the cortisol, the stress.

Krista Boan: [00:29:23] Yeah, I-

Susan Dunaway: [00:29:24] And so that cortisol just builds and builds and builds, and what we need to do is turn towards-

Krista Boan: [00:29:30] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:29:31] … but we have to hear somebody’s voice. We have to see their eyeballs. We have to get some physical touch. All of those three things will give us that oxytocin that will reduce that cortisol.

So the thing we have to teach our kids, is to keep turning towards- turn towards, turn towards, other people. Hear their voice. Texting doesn’t do it, unfortunately. Like, it makes us feel heard.

Krista Boan: [00:29:57] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:29:58] It’s not- It’s not unimportant.

Krista Boan: [00:30:01] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:30:01] But the brain hasn’t shifted to say that that will do anything neurochemically to us-

Krista Boan: [00:30:07] Got it.

Susan Dunaway: [00:30:08] … so we need- we need voices, we need eyeballs, we need touch.

Krista Boan: [00:30:12] So the conversation with our kids then becomes when something stresses you to choose technology like Facetime or Zoom or good old-fashioned phone calls, and the best kind would be just sitting on the couch next to somebody.

Susan Dunaway: [00:30:32] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:30:32] Um-

Susan Dunaway: [00:30:33] Absolutely. And it’s important for them to know that we’re not trying to say, “Don’t text your friends, or don’t get on Discord, or don’t socially game.” We’re not saying don’t do that. We’re saying that we have to- just like always, we have to find balance. We have to find boundaries.

Krista Boan: [00:30:51] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:30:53] And that there are some situations where there are better things to choose-

Krista Boan: [00:30:56] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:30:57] … and we’re feeling anxious or stressed, you can get… It’s very much like an adult saying, “If you’re really stressed and you drink, you know, uh, two glasses of wine, you’re gonna feel less stressed physiologically, but it won’t have helped your problem, and it might create a bigger one.”

Krista Boan: [00:31:13] Mm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:31:14] It’s the same thing with our technology. Yeah, if you get on and you just game and you’re really stressed, it might help you feel less stressed in the moment, but it doesn’t solve the problem, and it might create a bigger one.

Krista Boan: [00:31:26] So it’s a little bit like nutrition. I mean, choosing interactions that give you nutrients versus junk food. Empty calories. Uh-huh [affirmative]. [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:31:36] Absolutely.

Krista Boan: [00:31:37] They also-

Susan Dunaway: [00:31:37] Absolutely.

Krista Boan: [00:31:37] … give you a sugar high, and [laughs]…

Susan Dunaway: [00:31:39] Yeah, as everybody wants the doughnut. Of course, you do. You can’t just have the doughnut for dinner.

Krista Boan: [00:31:44] Yeah. Wow. So good. Okay. Susan, that is so helpful.

I’m gonna shift us to [laughs]… So this is the throwback to Dear Abby. Do you remember Dear Abby? It was a column that appeared every week in a newspaper where a person would write in [laughs] with a problem that they’re experiencing, and Dear Abby would respond.

So we’ve actually, um, surveyed our listeners, and this is the situation that one listener shared with us. They said that “We have always held off on allowing our son to play social games, like Fortnite or Roblox, but when the pandemic hit, we caved and we let him start playing with his friends. He’s 13 [laughs], so I like that he has some cool factor, but I’ve also noticed a change in his attitude.”

Susan Dunaway: [00:32:33] Hm.

Krista Boan: [00:32:34] “He seems more grumpy and even aggressive, um, than his normal self, especially after he’s spent hours on screens. I even caught him recently sneaking in a game at night when I thought he was sleeping. How do I navigate this? Is there any way to help him be balanced? Is this an all-or-nothing situation? He’s 13. Help.”

Susan Dunaway: [00:32:57] Hm.

Krista Boan: [00:32:57] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:32:58] [laughs] Well, first thing is he’s 13 so the help is just gonna feel like that for a while.

Krista Boan: [00:33:04] [laughs] [inaudible 00:33:06] solve to 13?

Susan Dunaway: [00:33:07] I can’t solve 13.

Krista Boan: [00:33:08] Okay.

Susan Dunaway: [00:33:08] Um, [laughs] the- it- the important part in that is understanding that it’s not necessarily about the platform, the Roblox or the Fortnite.

And so it’s, again, about balance. Hours is too much for the brain. Both of those games are very over-stimulating, and the way that you know if something is over-stimulating is behavior change.

So what I tell my clients, and what I do in my home, is that as soon as there is a behavior change… So for me, it’s like, “Hey, kiddo. You need to get off. We need to transition towards dinner,” and I get this, like, really irritable or intense response, then that tells me he’s been on too long. It’s too much for his brain.

Krista Boan: [00:33:56] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:33:56] Um, I have been known to just fold down the computer and say, “I said we were done.”

Krista Boan: [00:34:02] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:34:02] I’m not super nice with letting him get to the end of the game, unless when I tell him it’s time to get off, he goes, “Okay, can I finish this up? I think it’ll take a couple o’ minutes.”

Krista Boan: [00:34:12] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:34:13] And he says it like that, I’m like, “Sure.”

Krista Boan: [00:34:15] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:34:15] If he’s like, “I know. I just gotta do this,” then I’m like, “Nope.”

Krista Boan: [00:34:20] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:34:20] “Too much.”

Krista Boan: [00:34:20] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:34:21] And I, literally, will close the computer. And then, if he responds, or if they respond too intensely, then that tells me it was too long.

And so I tell people, like, “However long it was, back it up, and say, ‘The next time you get to play, you’re going to play it for maybe 15 minutes less,” maybe 30 minutes less, depending on how long they were doing it.

But for a 13-year-old, they should never be doing it for hours. The 13-year-old brain can’t handle hours of that much stimulation.

Krista Boan: [00:34:54] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:34:54] So for a 13-year-old, 45 minutes is probably as much as they can handle, and they will be very irritated at that, but they will become more human.

Krista Boan: [00:35:06] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:35:06] And anytime they sneak it in the middle of the night and they automatically lose it for 24 to 48 hours-

Krista Boan: [00:35:11] But then you’d try it again?

Susan Dunaway: [00:35:13] Yes.

Krista Boan: [00:35:13] Is that right? You don’t recommend-

Susan Dunaway: [00:35:14] Y-

Krista Boan: [00:35:14] … You’re not a proponent of, like, “Let’s throw everything, all of the games, in the lake”?

Susan Dunaway: [00:35:20] Um-

Krista Boan: [00:35:20] Because there’s this reality that-

Susan Dunaway: [00:35:22] Mm-hmm [affirmative], right.

Krista Boan: [00:35:23] … at some point, they’re gonna go to college, [laughs] and-

Susan Dunaway: [00:35:26] Well- Well-

Krista Boan: [00:35:26] … they gotta learn how to navigate that, right?

Susan Dunaway: [00:35:28] Before COVID, I was like, “I d-” I actually did not agree with- with that sentiment that you just said. I was like, “Let’s get as much brain development as possible-“

Krista Boan: [00:35:37] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:35:39] … and so that, like, they go to college-

Krista Boan: [00:35:41] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:35:41] … they have now an 18-year-old brain versus a 13-year-old brain.

But now we have COVID, and now we have to have some social interaction, and so now it is finding the balance of how much, and it is- it just cannot be hours.

Krista Boan: [00:35:58] Hm.

Susan Dunaway: [00:35:58] Uh, they need- they need breaks. They need to be back in their own body again. They need to move.

And so I will take it away from them, but not for more than a couple of days, or we’ll do, like, a week of, like, uh, “We’re just not doing screens this week,” and then it’s, generally, it’s the family. It’s not, like, targeted at one individual.

Krista Boan: [00:36:17] Yeah. And we found in our work, just that getting those expectations out ahead of the week can-

Susan Dunaway: [00:36:23] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:36:24] They might- They might throw a fit at the beginning, but, in general, kids seem to respond a lot better to more clear, upfront expectations than, like, reactions when you’re panicking in fear that your kid is on his screen too much all the sudden, because, oh, by the way, you’ve been on your screen too much [laughs]-

Susan Dunaway: [00:36:41] Right.

Krista Boan: [00:36:41] … while he was on his screen-

Susan Dunaway: [00:36:43] Right.

Krista Boan: [00:36:43] … and that kind of setting rhythms and expectations around, like, you know, “Every day at- after you’ve gotten your schoolwork done, you can have a little screen time, and then you’re gonna go outdoors.” Um-

Susan Dunaway: [00:36:55] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:36:55] … and when you can kind of get into those expectations will reduce the battles that we have with our kids because, if you can be consistent, there’s less room to wiggle and argue, rather than this kind of slot machine of, “Oh, maybe today she’ll let me play for four hours. I’m not sure, but…”

Susan Dunaway: [00:37:12] Right.

Krista Boan: [00:37:13] Yeah.

Susan Dunaway: [00:37:13] Um, and we do still have expectations in our house where, um, you don’t socially game during the week. Like, and you can text your friends. You can call your friends. You can ride your bike over to their house. We can interact in other ways, but we’re not going to get on Roblox. It just isn’t because of the amount of screen time that they’re having at school at the moment. That’s where we have landed as a family.

Krista Boan: [00:37:42] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:37:42] And everybody lands in a little bit of a different place.

Krista Boan: [00:37:45] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:37:46] Um, but they have other ways that they’re connecting. They can do… They do Dungeons and Dragons, and they do it over Discord, but it’s still different on the brain than- than, like, playing Roblox.

Krista Boan: [00:37:58] Why is it different? Can you share with us?

Susan Dunaway: [00:38:00] Uh, because it’s a more, um, imaginative-based game where they- they’re creating things. They’re not doing it on the screen, they’re just using the screen to, like, see one another.

Krista Boan: [00:38:13] Okay. But I presume that, in all of these situations, that social pressure… Like, when you have your boys only social game on the weekends, what does that look like for you during the week? What do those conversations look like? Are- Are they getting left behind by friends in the cool factor? How do you navigate that just as a parent?

Susan Dunaway: [00:38:32] Um, we go into different seasons, where sometimes it’s a big deal and sometimes it’s not, and so they have some friends who have parents who think like we do.

Krista Boan: [00:38:43] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:38:43] And so, that is helpful. So they do more texting with other people who are like them.

Krista Boan: [00:38:51] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:38:52] Um, and we talk a lot about what that means. Like, if you’re being left out of something, is it something that maybe we want you to be left out of?

Krista Boan: [00:39:00] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:39:01] There’re a lot of things I- I want you to be left out of, and it doesn’t feel good to be left out, and only in retrospect can you be like, “I’m glad I was saved from that.” And so I say things that they don’t like, like, “I love your brain too much to let you do this.”

Krista Boan: [00:39:15] I love that.

Susan Dunaway: [00:39:16] “And I love your brain enough for you to be mad at me about this.”

Krista Boan: [00:39:20] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:39:20] But I also talk so much about brain development ad nauseum in my house that they know. [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:39:25] [laughs] “We know, mom. You love our brain.” [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:39:29] “I know, I know.”

Krista Boan: [00:39:29] I love your brain too much to let you do this. Wow. I’m always looking for a good one-liner.

Susan, thank you so much. This gives us so much to think about, and, oh, it’s just a good reminder that anything worth doing is a lot of times hard. So thanks for walking us through what it looks like to step into that conversation, and I’m excited to keep digging in with our listeners. Thanks so much for being here.

Before you go, can we do one final segment where we do our rapid-fire? I’m gonna ask you five questions about technology, and we’ll just see what your thoughts are. Are you ready?

Susan Dunaway: [00:40:07] Sure.

Krista Boan: [00:40:07] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:40:08] [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:40:08] All right. Your favorite old-school technology? This is the kind that, you know, you now have to explain to your children because it’s obsolete.

Susan Dunaway: [00:40:16] Like, an eight-track tape?

Krista Boan: [00:40:18] Okay. Fill in the blank. Childhood is…?

Susan Dunaway: [00:40:22] A great adventure.

Krista Boan: [00:40:25] Love it. Favorite app?

Susan Dunaway: [00:40:27] [laughs] Does the Starbucks app count? [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:40:31] [laughs] Absolutely, and I will send you- I will send you a gift card for that after we are done.

Susan Dunaway: [00:40:36] Perfect. [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:40:36] [laughs] Favorite trick you use to keep your tech in check?

Susan Dunaway: [00:40:42] Uh, keeping it far away, so when I put it downstairs.

Krista Boan: [00:40:47] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Susan Dunaway: [00:40:48] Um, and I also have nothing fun on my home [streen 00:40:52]- on my home screen on my phone, just things like Map and Calendar.

Krista Boan: [00:40:56] Love it. Reducing the temptation. Brilliant.

Susan Dunaway: [00:40:59] Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Krista Boan: [00:41:00] Okay. Last one. The internet breaks down for 24 hours. What are you gonna do to unplug?

Susan Dunaway: [00:41:06] Board games.

Krista Boan: [00:41:08] So fun. You’re gonna have to tell us what your favorite one is.

Susan Dunaway: [00:41:12] Oh, we do Ticket to Ride.

Krista Boan: [00:41:15] Oh, we love that one.

Susan Dunaway: [00:41:15] I love Ticket to Ride. Um, and then my favorite card game is… Let’s see if I can get this right.

Krista Boan: [00:41:21] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:41:21] Um…

Krista Boan: [00:41:21] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:41:23] [laughs] It’s…

Krista Boan: [00:41:26] [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:41:27] … Goat… It’s one of [inaudible 00:41:28] Goat Cheese Pizza. Taco Cat and Goat Cheese Pizza.

Krista Boan: [00:41:32] Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza?

Susan Dunaway: [00:41:34] [crosstalk 00:41:34]. Yes.

Krista Boan: [00:41:34] Oh, we gotta get together. Let’s get together and you can teach us that. [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:41:39] Ah, amazing. You throw in a narwhal, it’s really good.

Krista Boan: [00:41:42] Oh, my heavens, now we’re so piqued, our interest. [laughs]

Susan Dunaway: [00:41:45] [laughs]

Krista Boan: [00:41:47] Hey, Susan, thanks so much for joining us. We’re really excited to share this episode with our listeners, and we will be in touch.

Susan Dunaway: [00:41:54] Sounds great. I enjoyed it. Thanks, Krista.

Krista Boan: [00:41:58] Oh, man. Wasn’t that good? I just loved digging in with you today, friends, on neurobiology and what’s happening in our brains with screens and being joined by Susan.

If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we would love it if you could subscribe to the Screen Sanity podcast on your chosen podcast stream, and maybe even leave us a review of what you enjoyed.

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And until next time, keep taking care of those brains, friends. The world is still a really big world, and screens? Well, they’re pretty darn small. Keep lookin’ up.