Dr. Gail Dines: 5 Ways To Create a Healthy Relationship with Screens and Technology
Stop comparing yourself to others — whether it’s hypersexualized bodies or someone else’s “perfectly portrayed” life. Accepting your own unique flaws and quirks will help keep you in the moment and thankful for everything that you have.
As a part of my series about ‘5 Ways To Create a Healthy Relationship with Screens and Technology’ I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Gail Dines.
Dr. Gail Dines is a Professor Emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Wheelock College in Boston. She is Founder & President of Culture Reframed, the first nonprofit organization using a public health approach to build resilience and resistance in young people to hypersexualized culture and the impacts of pornography. Dr. Dines has been researching and writing about the pornography industry for more than 30 years. Her articles on pornography have appeared in major media outlets around the world, and she makes regular media appearances as an expert guest. She is the author of Pornland: How Pornography Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, which has been translated into five languages, and is the focus of a documentary. Her Tedx talk has been viewed more than a half-million times.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
Activism has been in my blood since I was about eight years old. I remember my father taking me to meet a family who was the focus of a documentary he was making on poverty. All five members of the family lived in a one-room, rat-infested apartment. One of the children was a girl the same age as me, and we became friends overnight. Over the next two years, I kept going with my father to their apartment to play with my new friend. The circumstances of my life couldn’t have been more different, with a comfortable home and plenty to eat. I was forever affected by the injustice of poverty and hardship, and I carry — deep in my soul — a desire to make the world a just place.
As a sociology major in college, I took a number of courses in women’s studies. Reading the works of notable feminists gave me a lens for understanding gender inequality. While studying for my doctorate, I worked as a research assistant at the local rape crisis center and saw firsthand the impact of sexual violence on women and girls. Again, I experienced another life-changing event: I went to see a slide show about pornography, and I just couldn’t believe the kind of violence against women that was depicted in the images. When I got home, I called my dissertation supervisor and told him I was going to write my dissertation on the sociological impact of pornography. Thus began my life’s work of researching the harms of porn, and speaking out about the ways in which porn legitimizes and normalizes gender inequality.
I have given countless presentations both in the United States and internationally to all kinds of audiences — students, medical professionals, parents, policymakers, political leaders, and educators. No matter who was in the audience, the response at the end was always the same: shock. Parents especially would feel overwhelmed and often helpless, unsure about how to keep their kids safe from porn. I remember vividly one particular presentation I gave to health experts, most of whom were parents, where there was a sense of palpable panic. I looked into the audience and thought to myself, “How can I keep doing this to parents … sharing this devastating information that they need to know, but then leaving them to figure out how to help their kids deal with the onslaught of living in a porn-saturated culture?” I went home that night feeling just as rattled as I had when I first saw that slideshow back in my early 20’s.
As fate would have it, the following week I spoke at a conference for philanthropists, and a number of them were so concerned about young people’s easy access to hardcore porn that they offered start-up funding for a nonprofit to figure out how to tackle this problem. That’s when Culture Reframed was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In my line of work, as you can imagine, I hear interesting stories all the time. One that really stands out, and often comes to mind, is a time I gave a presentation to a group of college students. At the end of my presentations, there is always a long line of those who want to ask me questions or share their personal stories. After this particular presentation, a young man waited until everyone else had gone so that he could talk to me privately. He was a first-generation college student, and the son of a single mother who was working two jobs. Because she had to work a second job, she was forced to leave her son home alone until early morning, and he would usually watch TV until he went to bed. When he was 11, he fell asleep with the TV on and woke up to porn on the TV screen. At first, he didn’t understand what he saw. When he realized what was happening, he felt a wave of guilt and shame; he felt he had done something terrible. He wanted to tell his mom, but he thought she would feel responsible for leaving him alone, and even at the age of 11 he understood that she had no choice. He said that after hearing my lecture, he felt for the first time that the weight of guilt and shame had been lifted off his shoulders.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
We have just launched our new Program for Parents of Teens, which, like our Program for Parents of Tweens, helps parents raise kids who are resilient and resistant to hypersexualized media and porn.
Most people don’t realize that free, hardcore porn is available to anyone with a smart device. Although many boys’ (and girls’) initial exposure to porn is accidental, which can be confusing and frightening, most boys in our culture go on to become active consumers. By age 18, the overwhelming majority (89.1%) of young men report accessing and consuming porn. The majority of these young men (71.9%) report consuming pornography from several times per week to daily. For boys and young men, consumption of pornography is a normative experience. It is encouraged, expected, and even celebrated as a part of the experience of being a boy in our culture.
Our programs are designed to change this trend, and one of the most exciting efforts we’re working on now is making sure that every parent in the world has access to this resource. Culture Reframed’s online programs for parents are the first of their kind. Built by experts who specialize in adolescent development, technology, and healthy sexuality, our programs are robust, research-driven, and engaging. They offer parents much-needed information and skills to have the kinds of courageous conversations with their kids about hypersexualized media, pornography, and online safety that we should all be having with the young people in our lives.
OK, super. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Between work and personal life, the average adult spends nearly 11 hours looking at a screen per day. How does our increasing screen time affect our mental, physical, and emotional health?
There’s no doubt that spending so much time on our screens affects our ability to focus, and that it gets in the way of our ability to have (and nurture) meaningful relationships. For younger people, it can undermine their capacity to build foundational interpersonal skills. At Culture Reframed, what we’re especially concerned about is the content that young people are viewing on their screens. One thing that research has found is that the way people use their screens — or the content they are engaging with — has a significant impact on mental health and well-being. We know from studies that pornography dominates the internet. It’s hard to believe, but porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined, with Pornhub (a free, hardcore porn site) alone receiving 42 billion visits in 2019. Pornhub boasts, “That’s as if the combined populations of Canada, Poland, Australia and the Netherlands all visited Pornhub every day!”
Research has shown that viewing pornography is associated with increased anxiety and depression; poor academic performance; problematic sexual behaviors; decreased capacity for empathy, connection, and healthy relationship skills; lowered empathy for rape victims; lowered likelihood of intercepting a sexual assault; unhealthy body image; increased likelihood of engaging in sex at a younger age; increased likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behaviors; increased likelihood of contracting STDs; increased child-on-child sexual assault; and increased erectile dysfunction among boys and men.
Can you share your top five ways people can improve mental wellness and create a healthy relationship with technology?
- Think about what you’re focusing on. Aim to connect with content that has a purpose, such as the greater cultural good or self-improvement. Last I checked, porn doesn’t fit that description.
- Stop following negative feeds. Turn off notifications from toxic people or pages and create the social media feed that you want. This can be tough if you’re involved in activism, so take a break whenever you feel you need to.
- Stop comparing yourself to others — whether it’s hypersexualized bodies or someone else’s “perfectly portrayed” life. Accepting your own unique flaws and quirks will help keep you in the moment and thankful for everything that you have.
- Aim for meaningful connection and conversations rather than mindless scrolling.
- Allocate time to giving your brain a break and allowing your mind to relax. Checking your phone before bed can overstimulate your brain and have a huge impact on sleep, so be purposeful with good habits — particularly before bed and when you wake.
If you’re a parent and your child has a phone, we encourage you to get together with your child and create a social media & mobile phone contract. A good template for a contract can be found on the Culture Reframed website.
Between social media distractions, messaging apps, and the fact that Americans receive 45.9 push notifications each day, Americans check their phones 80 times per day. How can people, especially younger generations, create a healthier relationship with social media?
This is certainly a big problem. Turning off notifications, establishing digital fasts, engaging in tech-free activities, and practicing being mindful are all strategies that can help create a healthy balance. While some apps for the younger generation are fine, some are actually gateways to porn. Parents need to stay up to date on what’s happening in their children’s online world. Our online programs for parents address this, and in addition to the social media & mobile phone contract that I mentioned earlier, our programs help parents increase their knowledge about technology and build their skills so they can have these tough conversations with kids. I would also encourage parents to model the behavior they want to see in their children. Think twice before pulling out your phone!
80% of smartphone users check their phones before they brush their teeth in the morning. What effect does starting the day this way have on people? Is there a better morning routine you suggest?
As parents we can set an example for the younger generation. In my own life, I try to avoid technology until I’ve really had a chance to orient to my day. Parents need to figure out what works best in their own families, and I understand that parents are often under enormous pressure. One tip that everyone can implement is to charge phones overnight in a common room, so that the whole family leaves their phones in that room, and they don’t just roll over and look at their phones first thing in the morning. Another strategy is for everyone to put their phones in a common drawer at an agreed-upon time.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote?
One of my favorite quotes comes from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
If we work to shift our culture to one that values equality, justice, and empathy, I think we could truly change the world. For girls and boys growing up today, media is one of the most powerful agents of socialization. Media messages today are shaping a whole generation — as I always say, we are engaging in a massive social experiment. This is why easy access to porn is a public health issue, not an individual one. If we can raise consciousness about the harms of porn on young people, and ultimately make porn “not cool,” then we would provide young people with the much-needed space to become the authors of their own sexuality and identity. This would give them the opportunity to have healthy relationships that are based on true intimacy and mutual respect.
What is the best way for our readers to follow you on social media?
Readers can follow Culture Reframed on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, or can find resources on my website at gaildines.com.