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Gabriela Paoli: “Parents should use technology as an ally to connect with their children”

Marta Villalba

Marta Villalba

A psychologist who has been based in Spain for the last twenty years, Gabriela Paoli was born in Argentina in 1976 and is the author of the book Salud digital: claves para un uso saludable de la tecnología (“Digital Health: Keys for the Healthy Use of Technology”). This deals with a common grievance among her students and patients in various countries: the experience of living an accelerated existence, with feelings of fatigue, lack of motivation and technostress. 

Written before the pandemic, the work tries to humanize technology so that it improves our lives (and not the other way around). This has taken on particularly relevance now that online education and remote working have become an inescapable feature of everyone’s day-to-day lives. This more intensive use of technology that leads people to become hyperconnected is not without relational and emotional consequences, according to this expert.

In such a context, prevention is even more necessary than before. To create healthy digital habits, Gabriela Paoli emphasizes time management and proposes that readers develop a “personal audit to see how they spend their valuable time. This flags up whether there is a problem and, if this is the case, an action plan needs to be established,” she explains. This involves applying different strategies—such as reserving times for disconnection, planning activities and appointments, and knowing how to prioritize—to regain a sense of control over time and fill it with healthy content.

Rather than connecting with their Wi-Fi, the psychologist suggests that people tune into the world of nature, which will bring numerous benefits, including calming the mind, keeping stress and anxiety at bay, and finding their inner selves. “You may not be able to leave your home, but simply putting your cellphone down, looking out of the window over a cup of coffee or tea and watching the world around you immediately creates a moment of disconnection,” she points out.

Along the same lines of “mental getaways,” Gabriela Paoli suggests “boredom, contemplative life, watching a sunset, rain, seeking a moment of silence, quelling the mental noise to which we are overexposed. Sometimes fantastic ideas come to you in the shower, or your most creative processes are activated in the middle of a walk because the most productive part of your mind is at rest and this allows ideas to emerge.”


How to distinguish between use, abuse and addiction?

Any behavior that creates pleasure is at risk of becoming an addiction, because every time we do it, our dopamine receptors (the pleasure hormone) are activated and can cause us to want more and more.

One of the first alarm signals to detect that we are technostressing is connection time, having a constant need to see whether you have received a new message, the fear of missing information, which is a psychological disorder known as FOMO (fear of missing out). Another sign is the inability to leave home without your cellphone, a psychological problem called nomophobia, which generates nervousness and anxiety.

The real indicator that should set the alarm bells ringing, however, is when there is interference with other areas of your life. This occurs when you start to postpone or delay, usually gradually, activities that normally form part of your regular habits. When this happens, it can be classified as abuse. If the abuse “intensifies and becomes chronic and the person cannot live without the device, then this is an addiction,” says Gabriela Paoli.

At this stage, your tolerance level increases and three hours of screen time, for example, is no longer sufficient; more is needed to get the same ‘buzz.’ Then the withdrawal syndrome occurs: removing the device makes you feel nervous and anxious. “The techno-addict does not recognize the problem, there is denial and underestimation of it. In order to realize this, the grievances you receive from your environment, parents, partner, children, etc. are very important,” says the expert. 

When excessive use of technology interferes in other areas of our lives, “people stop studying or working, or their productive capacity starts to diminish.” In the case of children and adolescents, it means they no longer want to go to sports training or to music classes or other out-of-school activities. A study by the University of Valencia and Fundación MAPFRE concludes that 5 percent of Spanish young people show excessive use of technology and 2.5 percent are hooked.

“Teachers don’t know how to explain things to them and teach them. They see pupils in the classroom that look absent and bored because they are being hyper-stimulated through their screens, with a lot of lights, sound and movement, and where everything is very fast, dynamic and attractive. They then develop a horror of writing, reading, underlining or drawing a diagram. It affects sustained attention and concentration.”

At the social and emotional level, another warning sign that reveals misuse of devices is anti-social behavior, not wanting to go out with friends or engage in family activities. “The vast majority of professionals are finding that face-to-face communication is being lost,” warns Gabriela Paoli.

The psychologist stresses the importance of avoiding another bad habit: going to bed with an electronic device. If you go to bed with your tablet or smartphone, the blue light from the screens confuses the brain because it thinks it is daytime. This therefore slows down the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us fall asleep.

“Technological vamping is an alteration of sleep patterns in which young people go to school the next day because they have stayed up until two or three in the morning playing, chatting or watching videos. They miss hours of sleep, they don’t concentrate, they sleep in class and thus another conflict arises: performance. Their grades decline, they don’t submit their homework. These apps are designed to trap us. You don’t know anyone who is obsessed with Word, or Excel, right? However, we all know someone who goes from one video to another, then follows a YouTuber, then an influencer or binges on series,” says the psychologist.

Parents need to take an interest in what these youngsters are interested in

With the increase in the use of screens due to the pandemic, families are finding it very difficult to curb this excessive consumption, says Gabriela Paoli: “It is a reality and it must be assumed and it will become increasingly prevalent. There are real battles in the home because of it. To remove them from that permanent connection, they need to do their homework first, and pleasure comes later. The first priority is their studies and homework, and then a few hours of digital entertainment, according to the ages and circumstances of each one.”

With the same objective, this expert advises parents to avoid the replacement effect, in the sense that there is nothing wrong with playing a little Fortnite or any other game, but “the problem is when this replaces other activities and they stop reading, drawing, painting, writing and going to ballet, piano or violin classes.” Parents should therefore encourage and motivate them to do the activities they have always enjoyed.

They also need alternatives, such as saying, for example, “You can play for a while and then we’re going for a bike ride.” We must try to be very present, even though this requires extra effort. “There are fathers and mothers who are finding it impossible to fight against the problem, and also, because of the digital divide, they feel they don’t know enough about it. Try not to educate from a place of fear. They need to feel caution, respect and curiosity, because they know more than we do. Parents should use technology not as an enemy but as an ally to connect with their children. This will encourage their children to share their concerns with them. Be interested in what they are interested in.”

Tips for parents who want to instill healthy habits

This psychologist specializing in technological addictions says that it is important to educate digitally. That is, give the same guidelines as they have in real life (don’t talk to strangers, don’t accept candy from strangers, avoid dark streets, etc.), but extrapolated to the virtual world (connection time, privacy, security, etc.).

And if an abuse is detected, “I would have a family meeting to dialog and encourage the teenager to reflect. And try to redirect it, agreeing on connection time and setting timetables so that it doesn’t interfere with other activities.”

When it comes to solving the problem, parents also need a good dose of patience and perseverance. Gabriela Paoli clarifies that it isn’t realistic to pretend that a teenager will take any notice to start with. “It should be kept in mind that, due to their evolutionary development, asking them to self-regulate is very complicated, because the prefrontal lobe of the brain is the last thing that develops in the human being and this is the part that controls impulses and manages emotions. A teenager does not have such a physiobiological structure consolidated and does not have the ability to control that momentum. It is adults who have to teach them how to be more responsible and use devices in a healthy way. That’s why we have to be quite strict with them.”

It’s also important to plan digital disconnect times. On weekends, “it’s good for them to play a little and alternate passive activities with others in the outdoors like going to visit someone, going for a walk, hiking, etc., so that they have disconnection times (there’s no need to take their tablets with them to visit their grandparents). This is a protective factor that you can do together as a family and with no devices for at least one meal a day. This is vitally important for communicating, meeting up and listening to one another.”

As parents you also need to set an example. “Be careful, because what really educates is deeds, not words. Being consistent between what you say and what you do is the most important thing because that’s what will really have an effect.”