Dr. Guenther interviewed nationally published author and Washington University St Louis professor, Dr. Tim Bono about his book When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness, about how social media and the internet affects your mental health. Original airdate September 18, 2018.

Disclaimer: This show is not a substitute for professional counseling, and no relationship is created between the show hosts or quests and any listener. If you feel you are in need of professional mental health and are a UA student, we encourage you to contact the UA counseling center at 348-3863. If you are not a UA student, please contact your respective county’s crisis service hotline or their local mental health agency or insurance company. If it is an emergency situation please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Hey, it’s six o’clock, and time again for Brain Matters, the official radio show of the UA counseling center. We are broadcasting live from the WVUA FM studio, 90.7 The Capstone, on the campus of the University of Alabama. Good evening. My name is Dr. B.J. Guenther, and I’m the host of the show. If this is your first time listening, you probably don’t know that this show is about mental and physical health issues that affect college students, and in particular our UA students. You can listen to us live each Tuesday night at 6:00, on 90.7 FM or online at WVUAFM.ua.edu, or you can also download The Crimson White app and click on the 90.7 live streaming link. And as always, we will be taking questions via email.

Dr. BJ Guenther: So if you have questions for myself or my guest about the topic tonight, you can email those to Brain Matters radio at WVUAFM.ua.edu, and I’ll give out this address periodically throughout the show. I forgot to do that last week, because last week was our first show back for the fall semester, so I’ll try to remember to do that. So if you have questions, send those to me also. If you have any ideas for upcoming shows for the remainder of the fall or the spring shows, send those to that email that I mentioned before and of course I’ll consider using your idea for a show topic.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Tonight’s topic is an interesting one, I think; I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time. We had some shows last spring that kind of touched on technology and mental health, but tonight the show is about how the Internet affects your mental health. Technology has improved the lives of many people, with almost half of adults in the United States unable to imagine life without their smartphone. Communication outlets are changing every part of our lives so rapidly that it can be tough to adjust. And the question I have is, are technology and media affecting our physical and mental health?

Dr. BJ Guenther: And to help us answer this question tonight is Dr. Tim Bono. Dr. Bono is a faculty member in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, where his teaching and research focus on positive psychology and college student development. His work has been featured in a number of national media outlets including NBC News, CNN, Fast Company, and The Associated Press, and over the last decade thousands of students at WashU have taken his popular courses on the psychology of young adulthood and the science of happiness. He summarizes the research from those courses, along with how his students have put that information into practice in their own lives, in his new book entitled When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness.

Dr. BJ Guenther: And I’ve just been notified by Katherine and Lizzy, those are my production assistants, that we lost the call with Dr. Bono, so hopefully we’ll get that back in just a few minutes because this is a very … this book that he has written is so interesting to me, with regards to the science of happiness. I didn’t realize there was a science of happiness. So we’ll probably take a break right now, and then we’ll try to get Dr. Bono back on the telephone. We’ll be right back. You’re listening to Brain Matters on 90.7 The Capstone.

Disclaimer: This show is not a substitute for professional counseling, and no relationship is created between the show hosts or quests and any listener. If you feel you are in need of professional mental health and are a UA student, we encourage you to contact the UA counseling center at 348-3863. If you are not a UA student, please contact your respective county’s crisis service hotline or their local mental health agency or insurance company. If it is an emergency situation please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Hey, we’re back. You’re listening to Brain Matters on 90.7 The Capstone. I’m Dr. B.J. Guenther, and we were just giving a wonderful introduction to our guest tonight. Our show is how the Internet affects your mental health, and my guest is Dr. Tim Bono. Dr. Bono, are you on the phone? Can you hear me? Nope. Hello? This is the beauty of live radio; we get to enjoy the effects of sometimes having dead air, which is really bad for radio.

Dr. Tim Bono: Hello? Can you hear me?

Dr. BJ Guenther: Are you there? I can barely hear you. Can you hear me?

Dr. Tim Bono: Hello?

Dr. BJ Guenther: Dr. Bono? Hello? I think I can hear him, but I don’t know if he can hear me. So I’m just gonna try to talk a little bit more about some of the questions that I’ll have for Dr. Bono. One of the question that I did … I always do a little bit of research before the show, and I found a couple of research articles about how the Internet affects mental health. And a lot of the more recent research articles focus specifically on social media. And social media, understand, we’ve had a show about how-

Dr. Tim Bono: Hello?

Dr. BJ Guenther: Hello? Doctor. Bono, are you there? Can you hear me? I keep hearing him say hello, but then he can’t hear me. So like I was saying just a minute ago, I know that there are a lot of negative ways that social media can affect mental health, but there’s some positive ways too. But I wanted to kind of focus on some of the negative ways that social media affects mental health, and we probably don’t even realize it, because one of the things is it’s highly addictive. And if we finally get Dr. Bono on the phone, maybe he can clarify a little bit about some of the negative effects.

Dr. BJ Guenther: But one of the things that sticks out with me, I guess because I have a history with working with individuals that have an addiction issue, that social media and the Internet are highly addictive. It’s an easy place to go when you need to kinda chill and relax a little bit, but sometimes it has to opposite effect on you and it makes you more stressed out. Some of the negative effects that I’ve read about, it can also make you jealous by seeing some of your friends’ posts; it can also ruin relationships. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students come into the counseling center, and the first thing they say is they talk about something they’ve seen on Snapchat or Facebook. Dr. Bono, are you there?

Dr. Tim Bono: Yes. Can you hear me?

Dr. BJ Guenther: Yeah, I can hear you now.

Dr. Tim Bono: Oh, good.

Dr. BJ Guenther: I’ve been kinda carrying the show myself. I gave you a fantastic introduction, and I wanna ask you before we start off … thank you for being on the show, first of all.

Dr. Tim Bono: Oh, my pleasure.

Dr. BJ Guenther: This is the beauty of live radio on a college campus.

Dr. Tim Bono: Great. Hello, everyone.

Dr. BJ Guenther: One of the things that I introduced in your bio is the courses that you teach in Washington University in St. Louis, and I’m interested in the psychology of young adulthood. Tell us a little bit about that course.

Dr. Tim Bono: Yes. It’s a class that I’ve been teaching for 10 years now. It started back in 2008, and it is a survey course. It’s open to all incoming first-year students, and each week in the course my co-instructor and I, we will choose a topic that has become relevant to the transition that new college students are making into university life. We talk about everything from family relationships, to learning and memory in the college setting; how that often is different from high school. We talk about the emotional experiences, kinda the roller-coaster ride that many first-year students will experience as they’re making that transition to college.

Dr. Tim Bono: And then as part of the course the students are also completing weekly surveys where we ask them to report on, “What was it like to be a first-year college student this week? How did you get along with your roommate? What did you think of your academics? Did you have any surprises? What were some of the challenges that you had to overcome?” And then we will pull all of that data in aggregate and share it out with the students, and then help them understand how their own personal experiences are consistent, or in some cases maybe inconsistent with what the [inaudible 00:09:06] says. That’s been nationally, and in peer-reviewed journal articles.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Yeah, but … well, this is very timely, it being the beginning of the fall semester. And coincidentally, our show next week will feature … well, the title of the show is, Why Am I Not Adjusting to College? Because I think it’s important to talk about that at the beginning of each year, because we have a lot of students who have difficulty adjusting not only to the social aspect, but time management. Just balancing their life out. They’ve never really had to do that before, and it’s hard.

Dr. Tim Bono: Yes. Yeah, and a lot of students experience that, and unfortunately it’s something that’s not talked as much. So I’m very heartened to hear that this will be a topic on your show, because I think a lot of students will experience difficulty. They have difficulty adjusting, and they think they’re the only ones.

Dr. BJ Guenther: That’s right.

Dr. Tim Bono: They don’t realize that many, many other students, even though it might look based on Instagram posts of Facebook updates that everybody else is having the time of their life, it’s actually much more common than people realize in terms of the real difficulty that is associated with moving to a different place and living with a bunch of strangers, and then having to take course that are perhaps more challenging than what you’ve had before, those are hard things to do. But we live in a culture that propagates this idea that college is the best four years of your life, and it’s a constant party, and you’re happy all the time.

Dr. BJ Guenther: For sure.

Dr. Tim Bono: And that’s simply not true. Yes, there are wonderful times, there are lots of happy times, but there are also lots of times that are difficult, that are filled with anxiety and questioning and other struggles, and it’s important for people to know that it’s normal to experience that, and that there are resources at the university and elsewhere to help people navigate that transition, and sort of cope with the adversity that will likely come along the way.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Well, with regard to the show tonight … which, I’m gonna announce the topic again; how the Internet affects your mental health. The way I found out about you is from a Psychology today article that I was researching, and it’s called The Common Denominator of Happiness. It’s less about Instagram likes, and more about liking that you already have. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about how you became involved or interested in the subject of happiness. Because another course that I mentioned in your introduction is a course you teach on the science of happiness.

Dr. Tim Bono: Sure. So the way that I became interested in those topics in general was actually when I was a PhD student and I started working in the office of residential life, just really as something to give myself kind of a break from the research I was doing in psychology. I thought that would be kind of a fun activity to have on the side.

Dr. BJ Guenther: That’s right.

Dr. Tim Bono: But while I was working in the residential life office, I was working very closely with a lot of incoming students, and one of the things that I noticed was that there was a huge amount of variability in terms of the experiences that they were having. Some students were transitioning very successfully into university life, and they were happy, they were doing well on their classes, and others were really struggling. And I just became curious about that; I wanted to know what predicts the likelihood that a student has a good time and they’re successful academically during their transition into university life. I sort of just had that in the back of my mind, and I kind of mentioned it in passing one day to my advisor in graduate school, and as any good graduate advisor would, he said, “Well, those are questions you should pursue. You clearly have an interest in that.”

Dr. Tim Bono: And so I just started collecting some data. I started running focus groups and administering surveys to students, and that ultimately became the focus of my dissertation as a PhD student in psychology. Wanting to know, what are the primary predictors of happiness and success during the freshman transition into college? So that’s what really turned it on to me; it was just a natural question that I developed sort of by happenstance, by way of the fact that I had this part-time job in the office of residential life. And then from there I just continued to build a research program around that, and that was around 2008, and that was right around the time when smartphones came on the scene. It was right around the time when Facebook was becoming very popular. It was shortly before Instagram became a means by which so many people come to find out about what everybody else is doing, and the great vacations they’re taking and what they’re having for lunch and everything else.

Dr. Tim Bono: One of the things that I came to find is that if you’re gonna study young adults, social media and technology and the Internet plays a large component of their lived experiencing today. And so I started asking questions about that, finding that there were some interesting relationships. That the students who were using it the most, that the heaviest users were often the least happy in the studies that I was conducting. So I just kinda kept pushing that forward, and finding sure enough that there were some ways in which technology … which can be a wonderful thing … if it’s used incorrectly it can be a real barrier. It can be a detriment to overall happiness [inaudible 00:14:22].

Dr. BJ Guenther: Well, in the article I mentioned that you wrote, the very first paragraph has a scenario involving two college students at an ice cream shop. Can you tell the listeners about this scenario? Give an example of what we’re kinda talking about here.

Dr. Tim Bono: Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, that scenario … I recently released a book earlier this year called When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness, and I actually pulled that vignette in the Psychology Today article from the book because I think that it illustrates the way that a lot of people are using social media. So the story is … and this is a real story, that one of my students shared with me. She had an internship in New York City, and this was a couple summers ago, and a friend of hers was also in New York City and so they decided to meet up for ice cream one day. So they go and sit at the ice cream shop, and she’s watching her friend look at all the different options of ice cream, and she points to one flavor that was a green color, and another one that was a pink color. She said, “Oh, those look really good. What flavors are those?” And the friend looked back at her and said, “Oh, I have no idea. But these are beautiful colors. It’s gonna make for a great Instagram shot.”

Dr. BJ Guenther: Oh, my gosh.

Dr. Tim Bono: And so she gets the ice cream cone, and she’s just walking all around the ice cream shop for the best lighting, and taking selfies making it look like she’s eating the ice cream. But she wasn’t even eating the ice cream, she was just making it look like she was eating the ice cream. Eventually the ice cream started to melt, and so she threw it away, because she only wanted to go there to make it look like she was having this experience that she wasn’t even having. And the really sad thing is that the reason why they were getting together was so that they could catch up with each other.

Dr. Tim Bono: But the other student was so consumed with taking this perfect picture, in the interest of getting this notoriety on Instagram, and getting lots of likes, and making it look like she was having this amazing experience that it actually prevented them from having a meaningful experience, to actually spend time with each other and catch up and enjoy that social connection that is actually important to happiness. That was the thing that they couldn’t have, or that they didn’t have, so that she could get this amazing picture, this amazing selfie. And, yeah, that is ultimately the culprit, that what seems to be the reason why excessive use of social media is associated with such negative outcomes, it’s because of the way people are using it. They’re using it as a vehicle for social comparison, and for trying to make it look like their experience is so much better than everybody else’s. But that’s just not a good recipe for happiness, especially if it comes at the cost of authentic connection with your true friends and family.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Yeah. And I think probably some of our listeners, this resonates with them because it doesn’t just have to be an ice cream shop; it doesn’t just have to be ice cream. It can be a sunset. It can be something you see in a parking lot. It can be anything. But the whole thing, what caught my attention is that people are really creating notoriety.

Dr. Tim Bono: Yeah, and that’s so often what people are doing. Instead of just enjoying the sunset or enjoying the ice cream, it’s, “Oh, I’ve gotta get my phone out and I’ve gotta document this, and I’ve gotta make sure that everybody else knows about the amazing experience I’m having.” And that is actually interfering with our ability to enjoy the experience, because then we got caught up with the question of, “Well, what is everybody else gonna think about this? And how can I make it appear that I’m having an experience that’s so amazing, that others will become envious of?”

Dr. Tim Bono: And again, one of the big detractors from happiness is a sense of social comparison, and this is something that psychologists knew even long before the advent of social media and smartphones and everything else. That the people who seem to have the most difficulty achieving happiness were those who constantly had their head over their shoulder wondering, “How do I measure up to everybody else? And how can I make it seem like my life is better than everybody else’s?” Now, it used to be the case that you might overhear people at school or at work talking about the amazing vacation they went on, or the raise or the promotion that they got or something. And then you would hear that, but then you would go home and you wouldn’t have to think about it until you saw that person the next day.

Dr. BJ Guenther: That’s right, that’s right. You don’t dwell on it.

Dr. Tim Bono: The problem with social media is that these days we are inundated with it 24 hours a day. At any moment you can reach into your pocket, pull out your phone, and have constant information. It’s just inundating you with all these updates that people are posting about how amazing their life is. And too much of that, again, is just fueling this vicious cycle of social comparison. Which, again, that is what we’ve known for a long, long time is one of the biggest barriers to a sense of happiness, but now we have that barrier on a constant loop every time we scroll through social media.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Well, you mentioned your book … and by the way, I love the title … When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness, and you mentioned this scenario came from the book. When we were trying to fill in some time when we were trying to get you back on the telephone a few minutes ago, I began talking about some of the negative … all the ways that social media is affecting your mental health negatively really is what I was starting to focus on. Do you talk about that at all in your book? Do you have a list of some of the negative things that it affects the mental health?

Dr. Tim Bono: Yeah. Well, so there is a chapter that’s dedicated to that, and in fact I think it’s the chapter that you are referring to, where there’s the opening vignette of those two students in the ice cream shop. And I kind of walk through the toll that technology can take on our psychological health. But really, throughout the book, there’s research and other information that’s presented on, number one, the toll that misuse of technology or social media can have on us, but then also some solutions to what we can do. One thing that I do wanna be clear about is that in no way am I trying to say we should get rid of technology, or that we should get rid of things [inaudible 00:20:39].

Dr. BJ Guenther: Right, right. Because there’s positive ways too.

Dr. Tim Bono: [crosstalk 00:20:40] social media and technology can be used for many wonderful things. It’s all about the way that we use social media and we use technology, because if we use them correctly it can actually increase our happiness. But unfortunately, we know that many people are using them in ways that do not lead to such good outcomes, and so this is a book that’s simply saying, “Let’s take a look at some of the research that’s been done on college students, user studies that have been done on thousands of college students all across the country in many universities from coast to coast, and many schools in other countries as well. Let’s see what researchers have found about the appropriate use of technology, and the appropriate other behaviors that young adults can incorporate into their lives that truly can bring a sense of happiness and wellbeing, even during a really stressful time like the college years.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Dr. Bono, we’re gonna take a quick break right now. But when we come back, I’ve got a list of some specific ways that social media affects mental health. Can I go through that list with you and get your comments on each of those?

Dr. Tim Bono: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll look forward to that.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Okay. Stay on the line, and we’ll be right back. You’re listening to Brain Matters on 90.7 The Capstone.

Stelth Ulvang: Hey, my name’s Stelth Ulvang from The Lumineers, and you’re listening to 90.7 The Capstone.

Ham Bagby: Hey, what’s up. This is Ham Bagby, and you’re listening to WVUA 90.7, The Capstone.

Disclaimer: This show is not a substitute for professional counseling, and no relationship is created between the show hosts or quests and any listener. If you feel you are in need of professional mental health and are a UA student, we encourage you to contact the UA counseling center at 348-3863. If you are not a UA student, please contact your respective county’s crisis service hotline or their local mental health agency or insurance company. If it is an emergency situation please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Hey, you’re back, and listening to Brain Matters on 90.7 The Capstone, and my guest tonight is Dr. Tim Bono. He is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and we’re talking about his most recent book. I don’t know when it was published; it was within the last … what year was it published, Tim?

Dr. Tim Bono: This year, so it’s pretty new. It was in March of this year, about six months ago.

Dr. BJ Guenther: This year, very new. It’s called When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness. Tonight’s show topic is how the Internet affects your mental health. And before we go on, Dr. Bono, I wanna ask my production assistant Lizzy [Zeman 00:25:05] if she can hear me. Can you hear me? And I wanted to ask her … she’s a college student. She’s a senior, is that right Lizzy?

Lizzy: Yes.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Okay. So what we were talking about … I don’t know if you heard the scenario about the ice cream shop, but I’m gonna tell you in a nutshell. Basically, are people your age, do you know people … or, maybe you’ll admit this on live radio. Do you know people who actually spend more time trying to take perfect Snapchat photos, perfect Instagram photos, and they lose the happiness of the moment? I mean, Dr. Bono and I were talking about missing out on a beautiful sunset because you wanna have the perfect picture, because basically you wanna make everybody jealous who follows you, or you want more likes.

Lizzy: Yeah, for sure. Definitely with dinner. Like if you’re at a dinner-

Dr. BJ Guenther: Oh, my gosh. I do this. I do that too.

Lizzy: Everyone will be on their phone, and then they’ll stop and make sure they have the perfect picture of their meal.

Dr. BJ Guenther: And that’s [crosstalk 00:26:04].

Lizzy: Then once they post that, but then it’s straight back on their phone, on likes and everything, or who looked at it.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Oh, my gosh. Yes. So it really is happening. This is crazy. So, Dr. Bono, when I … thank you, Lizzy. I might pull you back in in a few minutes. What I wanted to ask about was the list that I have found in an article. It’s called All the Ways Social Media is Affecting Your Mental Health. And by the way, before we move on, I want to mention our email address in case you are listening and you want to email us a question, or email a question for Dr. Bono. It’s Brain Matters Radio at WVUAFM.ua.edu, and I’ll check the email in just a minute and hopefully we’ll have some questions for you, Dr. Bono. But here’s one of the first ways in the article. What about, it creates unrealistic expectations about life?

Dr. Tim Bono: Yes. That is, I think, a huge problem for a lot of people. In fact, one of the ways that psychologists think about happiness is that it’s a simple formula. So if you can imagine a math formula where the end result is happiness equals, and then a fraction of what we have divided by what we want. So if you think mathematically, the way to make a fraction large is to make the numerator, that top part really large, or to make the denominator, the part that’s on the bottom, really small. And one of the things that social media seems to have done is that it’s actually done the reverse of that. It’s made the denominator, what we want or what we expect, really large. And if we go through life with inflated expectations of how amazing everything is supposed to be, and how beautiful every sunset is supposed to be, or like your production assistant with the picture of the perfect dinner and all that, that that creates an expectation. “Well, if everybody else is having an amazing dinner with their friends right now, I should be out having an amazing dinner with my friends right now.”

Dr. Tim Bono: But maybe tonight is one of those lonely nights. Maybe they didn’t have anybody to hang out with tonight, or maybe for whatever reason I went to dinner, but we had an argument, or the food wasn’t as perfect as I wanted it to be. That can affect the expectations that we have, and if those are unrealistic then we start to compare reality against this very lofty set of expectations. That even if we have lots of happiness in our lives, even if we have lots of amazing things, it’s the expectations are even greater, that those things are supposed to be even more amazing, then that ratio gets a little bit out of whack, and that can ultimately drive down our happiness. Not because we don’t have things to be happy about, but only because our expectations have become too large.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Okay, so that kinda feeds into the next thing, and it’s kind of the gist of what we’ve been talking about with regards to happiness. But, social media makes us sadder. And I wanna read a little excerpt from this part of the article, and I think you’ll be able to make a comment on this, and here it goes. “While social media definitely plays at least somewhat of a beneficial role in helping maintain our psychological wellbeing, the studies are becoming increasingly clear that these social connections actually increase our mental anxieties and stress. What do you think about that?

Dr. Tim Bono: Yeah. Well, I think that it kinda goes back with that earlier idea, that there’s certainly a certain level of anxiety or stress that comes from this heightened sense of expectation about how amazing things are supposed to be. And that’s especially the case for college students when they’re transitioning into a new place. One of the strongest predictors of happiness … really at any stage of life, but especially during a major life transition where you’re in a new place trying to find yourself, like a college freshman … one of the biggest predictors of their happiness has to do with the strength of their social connections.

Dr. Tim Bono: Are they meeting people? Are they getting to know people? And that doesn’t happen instantaneously. It takes some time for people to really establish meaningful social connections with other people, and so often in those moments of loneliness or sadness the easiest thing to do is to log on to Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat or whatever it is. And then what do you see? You see all these other people who seem to be having lots of friends, or they’re standing with a bunch of people at a party, or they’re out at restaurants or something.

Dr. BJ Guenther: That’s right.

Dr. Tim Bono: And that can create that sadness and anxiety that you are talking about. It’s sadness that they’re having an experience that I wish I was having that I’m not having, and it’s also anxiety about, “Oh, gosh, what do I need to do to ensure that I can create this? And this loneliness that I’m feeling right now, is this going to be a permanent thing?” And it can sort of generate these racing thoughts. And so yeah, that’s another problem, is that people are posting pictures that are not necessarily true to form, as your production assistant mentioned. People will sort of pose for the picture at the restaurant, make it look like they’re smiling and arms around each other and having an amazing time. But then as soon as they take the picture they’re back by themselves on their phones, or doing something else where they’re not actually having the experience that they’ve just posted for hundreds or potentially thousands of people to see.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Well, and I-

Dr. Tim Bono: So again, it’s that these posts are out of touch with reality very often, but nonetheless may become the barometer that other people are using to decide how they should feel about something, and that is what can often create that sense of sadness and anxiety.

Dr. BJ Guenther: And not only anxiety and stress; it makes us irrationally jealous, too. I mean, many time-

Dr. Tim Bono: Yeah. Yeah, and we know that that is one of the biggest predictors of whether a person is using social media in a way that can be detrimental to their psychological health, is to what extent to they have feelings of envy after they have looked at other people’s posts?

Dr. BJ Guenther: That’s right. I’ve-

Dr. Tim Bono: And for some people, they are posting things only so that other people will feel envy about the kind of experiences they’re having.

Dr. BJ Guenther: And that’s exactly what I was gonna say. I’ve seen students come into my office and say that they purposefully post something to make somebody jealous.

Dr. Tim Bono: And it gets back to the earlier point that we discussed before the break, that idea [crosstalk 00:32:09]. When you’re posting something in the interest of making other people envious, that’s only fueling that vehicle, that engine of social comparison, which again psychologists have known for a long time is a real barrier to happiness.

Dr. BJ Guenther: I’ve got an email question, if you’re willing to take it. Can people … and I kinda talked a little bit about this when we lost you on the telephone, but I didn’t get into it. Can people become addicted to the Internet?

Dr. Tim Bono: Can people become addicted to the Internet? Yes. That’s a great question. Thank you for sending that, because it’s an important one, because not only can they but they do. Because even though most of us know on an intellectual level that we might be spending too much time on social media, very often we nonetheless feel this compulsion to open up Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat time and time again, even against our better judgment telling us to stay away. And that is the nature of an addiction, where we feel compelled to engage in some behavior even though we don’t really want to, or we know that it’s not gonna be good for us. And it’s really the same neurochemistry that leads a gambler in Las Vegas to empty their wallet into the slot machines, that they know are not likely to yield the jackpot, but nonetheless they keep going back for more and more.

Dr. Tim Bono: That’s the same region of the brain that will make people addicted to the Internet, because they keep wanting to go back for updates or for pictures from friends and relatives even though they might know, “Hey, the last time I did this I felt all this envy,” from the vacation pictures that they posted, or they felt anger about their crazy uncle’s political rants. Nonetheless, they keep going back and back. And I contend that part of what makes those behaviors so addictive, whether it is being addicted to a slot machine in Vegas or being addicted to posts that people are putting on Instagram or Facebook, it’s the uncertainty factor that is addictive. And the engineers at Facebook and Instagram know this.

Dr. Tim Bono: If every post and if every picture that came our way was pleasant, we would actually spend less time on it. But because we never know if the next post is going to make us feel good … maybe it’s a cute video, or a funny joke or something … or if it’s gonna make us feel bad because we feel envious about what amazing things other people are doing, or because of some offensive comment that somebody makes. Because there’s that uncertainty, we actually become even more motivated to keep scrolling through, because maybe the next picture or post will make us laugh. Maybe the next post will make us cringe. Maybe the next pull of the slot machine will hit the jackpot, maybe it’ll come up empty. And there’s only one way to satisfy maybe, and that’s to keep going back for more and more.

Dr. BJ Guenther: It’s the curiosity factor, yeah.

Dr. Tim Bono: So that is what actually makes it addictive. When there’s only maybe the possibility of something good happening, that is addictive like nothing else, and that is really what’s driving the addiction that many people will have to the Internet and social media.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Okay, here’s my next question. Can the Internet, can social media ruin relationships? Ruin them.

Dr. Tim Bono: Can social media ruin relationships? Well, I think it’s all a question of how much information is posted about the nature of the relationship. We do know that many people feel a certain level of anonymity about posting information, because maybe they’re doing it in their own private office or their private dorm room where nobody’s around. But they neglect to acknowledge that other people, tons and tons of people potentially, including perfect strangers, are gonna end up seeing that information, which could then get back to their relationship partner. So I think that depending on the nature of the information that is shared, that is one way it can ruin a relationship. The other way that it can ruin a relationship is that … and this kinda goes back to the earlier idea that so often you will see couples together, but they are not actually meaningfully engaging with one another.

Dr. Tim Bono: They’re on their phones the whole time, and then they pause for a second to get the selfie to make it look like they’re having a great experience, and then they go right back to their phones. And so they’re so distracted by that that it’s preventing them that opportunity for authentic connection with each other, and that can prevent the relationship from being as strong as it could. In fact, I recently read a statistic that among couples that live together, that the majority of them when they wake up in the morning actually reach for their phone before they reach for their partner. And that, I think, is very telling about just how addictive those phones have been, and how they are kind of replacing authentic social connection. So again, if technology and social media are not used correctly, yeah, it does have the potential to be harmful to [crosstalk 00:37:10] relationships.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Okay, I’ve got several more email questions. Are you ready? Several more email questions. Do you think the Internet can be a viable tool for self-help for mental health issues? Instead of, like, seeing a live therapist, almost like a substitute.

Dr. Tim Bono: I may have missed a word or two. So is the question that they’re using some tools for self-help versus seeing a therapist?

Dr. BJ Guenther: Yes. Do you think the Internet can be a good tool for self-help for mental health issues, instead of seeing a live therapist?

Dr. Tim Bono: Oh, I see. Can the Internet be a good tool? Well, I think that one of the great things about the Internet is that it does make it very easy to access information. And I can tell you that there are lots of great resources that provide an overview of the research that’s been conducted on psychological health and on the behaviors that are important for psychological health. Now granted, with the Internet, any random person can post things and make it seem like they’re an expert when in fact they don’t have any credentials to back up their ideas. So I think that you have to be careful about which resources you’re accessing. But to the extent to which you’re using the Internet to learn about information that is from a credible source, yes.

Dr. Tim Bono: I think that the Internet can be very helpful in helping you start an exercise routine, or teaching you how to meditate. There are lots of good YouTube videos on that, teaching you how to manage your time or how to get ideas for how to create and start a gratitude journal. And in that way, yes. If that’s how you’re using the Internet, to get those ideas, to get resources, absolutely. But I’m not sure that I would suggest it as a substitute for therapy, especially if you’re going through a really difficult time. One of the most important things we can do is talk about the issues or the challenges that we’re facing with another person, and in fact there’s a huge body of research on it, then when our own psychological distress is sort of left to its own devices those thoughts, those feelings can sort of start to blow themselves out of proportion because they just turn into this vicious thinking cycle in our mind.

Dr. Tim Bono: And the act of talking those feelings and thoughts out with a trusted person, especially a therapist who’s trained to listen and respond and help us process those things, that can be a powerful way to develop a more rational perspective. So I wouldn’t say that the Internet could be a good replacement for therapy, or for [inaudible 00:39:45] distress. And in that way, talk to a therapist if you can, or at least a trusted friend, or at least journal about it. Because again, the act of translating those emotions into language in whatever form we can is very helpful. But if you’re just looking for resources, as long as you’ve got a good, credible source, the Internet can be great.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Okay. We’re gonna take another break. When we come back we’ve got one more email question, and then I’ve got several more questions related to your article, the original article that you wrote that got me interested in this topic. So if you’ll just stay on the line we’ll be right back, and you’re listening to Brain Matters on 90.7 The Capstone.

Speaker 2: You’re listening to 90.7 The Capstone, the voice of the University of Alabama.

Disclaimer: This show is not a substitute for professional counseling, and no relationship is created between the show hosts or quests and any listener. If you feel you are in need of professional mental health and are a UA student, we encourage you to contact the UA counseling center at 348-3863. If you are not a UA student, please contact your respective county’s crisis service hotline or their local mental health agency or insurance company. If it is an emergency situation please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Hey, you’re back listening to Brain Matters on 90.7 The Capstone. I’m Dr. B.J. Guenther. We’re talking tonight about how the Internet affects your mental health, and my guest is Dr. Tim Bono who is a faculty member is the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s written a fascinating book entitled When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness. We left off talking about some of the negative effects of social media on your mental health, but I’ve got another Internet question … excuse me, another Internet question. Another email question. Dr. Bono, do you feel like the Internet has truly had any impact on bringing mental health services to rural communities? Wow, that’s a good question.

Dr. Tim Bono: Interesting. So it sounds like the question is, has the Internet had any effect on bringing mental health resources to rural communities? Well, one thing that I am aware of, and it’s not anything that I have personal experience with, is I understand that more and more people are using things like Face and … or, I’m sorry, like Skype and FaceTime, and other means of communicating instantaneously with people who are potentially thousands of miles away for all sorts of things, whether that’s singing lessons or instructions on how to fix your sink or therapy potentially. And so in that way, yeah, I think that’s a great example of how technology can be a useful tool in helping give people resources that otherwise they might not have had access to because they lived so far away of them. Yeah, I have heard of people providing healthcare of all sorts, even physical healthcare but especially mental healthcare. Yeah, as I understand it there are some rural communities who have benefited from that, that they’re able to find therapists online who specialize in some topic they need to process. And yeah, I think that’s a great example of how technology can really be a contributor to psychological health, by providing access to people who otherwise might not have it.

Dr. BJ Guenther: I find that, yes, here in Alabama I think it is a positive side effect, I guess you could say, of the Internet. Because these people who live way out and don’t really … I mean, it’s an hour or two to the closest city for any kind of medical or definitely psychological help. Yes, I think it has been wonderful. We have not used that at the counseling center; we’ve not gone that far yet to do any kind of FaceTime or Skype, because obviously confidentiality issues are always a factor. But that’s one thing we have discussed in the past, of how we might could move forward with that.

Dr. Tim Bono: Yeah. There are [inaudible 00:43:54] that we have to be mindful of, but the [inaudible 00:43:57] those can be sort of taken care of in a way that you wouldn’t be breaching confidentiality. Yeah, it can be a great thing.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Yup. You teach a course … we talked about it just briefly at the beginning of the show … called The Science of Happiness. What is the common denominator among happy people?

Dr. Tim Bono: Sure. So people ask this question all the time; it’s a very good one, in terms of what the biggest predictors of happiness are. And a lot of it has to do with the small, daily intentional choices that we make about how we spend our time and who we spend our time with. But I would say that those behaviors with the biggest gains for overall happiness have a lot to do, number one, with gratitude. That is arguably one of the simplest yet most robust ways to increase our happiness, because it’s not really necessarily about changing anything about the objective circumstances of our lives. It’s simply a matter of every so often, maybe once a week or so, thinking about all the good things, or the blessings, the positive things in our life that maybe we’ve simply lost sight of that have the potential to bring us happiness, but we’ve taken them for granted. We’ve talked a lot about how social comparison is a large part of the reason why social media has affected our happiness in so many ways.

Dr. Tim Bono: But we can think about the impact of gratitude as having the opposite effect, that ultimately you think back to that happiness formula; happiness is what we have compared to what we want. The practice of gratitude is ultimately redirecting the focus of our attention from what we want … “Oh, that guy over there has that nice car, and this woman over here just went on this cool vacation with her family. Why don’t I have those things?” The practice of gratitude instead is saying, “Okay, but what are the things that I do have? What are the opportunities I have? Who are the people in my life who I’m so fortunate to have?” And that is simply shining a spotlight on the numerator of that formula. It’s putting a lot of attention on the good things that we have, which goes a long way toward our overall happiness. So gratitude, I would say, is one of the common denominators among the happy people. The other one that’s huge … in fact, if we had only one piece of data that we could use to predict the happiness of an individual, it would be the strength of their social connection.

Dr. Tim Bono: Do they have other people in their lives … friends, family, coworkers, whoever it is, who are there to sort of help them when the inevitable bad day comes up? Do they have those people who can help them cope with the adversity that they might be experiencing? And do they have people who help them celebrate life, that when the good days come up they help them extend the positivity of that, and savor all the positive things that can come from those good days? So those two things right there are pretty significant contributors to happiness. Do you have good people in your life? Caring, competent other people who can help you celebrate life and get through the tough times? And you take some time for gratitude on a regular basis. And if the answer to those two things is yes, those two things are gonna take you a long way for happiness.

Dr. BJ Guenther: You just mentioned social comparison, and there is a disconnect between social comparison and authentic social connection. So I find that many of the students I see at the counseling center come in with social anxiety, but spend a lot of their time online or playing video games. How can actual people compete with the Internet?

Dr. Tim Bono: Yeah. It’s difficult, because we know that technology is often sort of this quick fix, that if you’re bored or you’re lonely … that it takes effort to call somebody, or there is the potential that you call somebody and no one’s gonna wanna hang out, or no one is available to hang out. And so the easiest thing is to go to your phone and to play games, or to scroll through social media or something like that. But in some ways I think this is related to that earlier question about social media kind of being like an addiction. The best way, I think, to get people to stop using their phones or other technology as their go-to is that you treat that almost as you would any other addiction, or any other bad habit that we want to break, and I’d say that there are really two ways to do that. If you feel that you have an addiction to your smartphone or it’s a bad habit, and you realize you’re spending too much time on social media, I think the first thing to do is simply to bring awareness to the fact that you spend too much time on it.

Dr. Tim Bono: Hold your phone in your hand and say, “I spend too much time on this. This is not good for me.” And if you need additional motivation, pay attention to how much time you’re spending on it and how you feel right after. So the next time that you log on, take a glance at the clock and then look at the clock again after you log off, and you might realize that you’re spending … maybe you thought you only spent a minute or two on it, but you might realize suddenly you just got sucked in for a full 30 minutes or an hour of the day that you’ve wasted. Pay attention to how you feel after you scroll through. Do you feel better? There’s a good chance that if you spend too much time on social media you might feel some of that envy or anxiety that we’ve talked about.

Dr. Tim Bono: So reminding yourself that you’re spending too much time on it, and that you don’t always feel great after you spend a lot of time on it, that can help you come face-to-face with the reality that it’s not good for you; that spending less time on it probably would be good for you, and keeping that goal intention in mind can provide the intention to change the behavior. So I’d say that that’s the first thing to do, is just realize that maybe you’re spending too much time on it, which doesn’t make you feel very good. And the second thing is, pay attention to when you’re most likely to use your phone. I had a student who came to me once and she said that she felt like she was addicted to Facebook, and wanted to know what to do. And so I said, “Okay. Every day this week, I want you to pay attention to the circumstanced under which you’re most likely to use, or to reach for your phone.” And she realized that she was most likely to reach for her phone when she was standing in line somewhere. So if she was in line at the dining hall or the bookstore or anywhere else, that that was her go-to.

Dr. Tim Bono: And so I said, “Okay, so that’s sort of the trigger for the behavior. So now, next time that you are standing in line, before you even reach for your phone do something else. So bring a newspaper and read that, or have some other activities.” And we realized that if you can identify the circumstances under which you’re most likely to reach for your phone, just preemptively do something else. I had another student who realized that he had difficulty making it to class on time because he would wake up in the morning, reach for his phone, and then spend an hour or an hour-and-a-half in bed playing games or scrolling through social media. And so I said, “Okay, don’t put your phone at your bedside.” We got him a cheap alarm clock from Target or something, so that that was his alarm clock, and then he would put his phone in the kitchen of his apartment so that he had to get up out of bed before he could even use his phone, and then getting up and out of bed forced him to start his day. So figuring out when you’re most likely to engage in the behavior that you’re trying to reduce, and just putting up some barriers, is another way to sort of curb that tendency to overuse it.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Well, this hour has gone by quickly, hasn’t it?

Dr. Tim Bono: It has, yeah. We had a lot to talk about.

Dr. BJ Guenther: It sure has. Thank you so much for being on the show. This is fascinating to me, and I think it’s one that is now affecting all of us. It doesn’t matter your age, just about. It really is affecting everyone now. I really appreciate you being on the show and taking the email questions. You just never know what people are gonna ask. I’ve tried to screen those.

Dr. Tim Bono: My pleasure, absolutely.

Dr. BJ Guenther: Yeah. Thank you so much. Good luck with this semester, this fall semester and those classes, and good luck with your book.

Dr. Tim Bono: Thank you so much.

Dr. BJ Guenther: I wanna mention, again, Dr. Bono’s book is named When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness, if you’re interested. I always like to make a few announcements before we go. I wanna remind listeners, don’t forget our shows are recorded and podcasted on Audioboom.com. Just type in brain matters and you’ll find some of our past shows. There’s links to Audioboom on the counseling center’s website at counseling.ua.edu. I wanna make an announcement about an event we’ve got coming up. October 1st through the 7th is the University of Alabama’s suicide awareness week, and during that week there’ll be activities held around campus daily to promote prevention and awareness of suicide, while also promoting mental wellbeing. And as the anchor event of UA’s suicide awareness week, the counseling center will host the ninth annual Tuscaloosa Out Of The Darkness community walk, which will be held on Sunday, October 7th, from one o’clock to four o’clock at the Ferguson Center Plaza.

Dr. BJ Guenther: So if you wanna learn more about the counseling center’s suicide prevention programs, or you wanna register for the walk, visit AFSP.org\Tuscaloosa. Or you can also check out our website at the counseling center, counseing.ua.edu, and so we hope to see you there. Let me thank a few people who make the show possible every week. As always, I wanna think our executive director at the counseling center, Dr. Lee Keyes. Terry Siggers, from the Office of Student Media. My production assistants tonight, Lizzy Zeman and Katherine Howell, and my colleagues at the counseling center, the WVUA staff, and my guest tonight Dr. Tom Bono. And don’t forget to join us next week at the same time; we’ll be talking about why you may not be adjusting to college life. Thanks again for listening to Brain Matters on 90.7 The Capstone.

Disclaimer: This show is not a substitute for professional counseling, and no relationship is created between the show hosts or quests and any listener. If you feel you are in need of professional mental health and are a UA student, we encourage you to contact the UA counseling center at 348-3863. If you are not a UA student, please contact your respective county’s crisis service hotline or their local mental health agency or insurance company. If it is an emergency situation please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.