Mark D Rego: 5 Ways To Create a Healthy Relationship With Screens and Technology

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine
Published in
9 min readDec 26, 2021

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Find a way to quiet your mind — this can of course be meditation, but for many is just some fully distracting and engrossing activity. For some this is a sport or artwork. Listen for the quiet.

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. Mark Rego.

Dr. Rego practiced adult, adolescent and geriatric psychiatry for over 30 years. He spent 23 years in community practice treating patients in the office, general hospital, nursing home, and in group home settings. Throughout this time, he also taught psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. From 2004 until 2010, he spent time in Ayacucho, Peru, working with local groups to build a mental health center and continued years after to help supply them with needed medicines. Unfortunately, a chronic illness that had affected him for years dramatically worsened, ending his ability to practice. His time now is spent studying and writing about psychiatry and the experience of being a patient. To learn more and to see what Dr. Rego has written, visit his website at markdregomd.com.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?

In college I realized I wanted to do something that not only provided some service to others, but also allowed me to be independent if I so chose and, was compelling enough that I would continue to study the subject even if I no longer had to. Psychiatry turned out to be a good fit. As I am no longer able to practice, I am still curious enough to read the latest studies, study, and write when I am able. I have turned my attention more toward educating the public about mental illnesses and exploring broader issues through the lens of psychiatry. My book is an example of the second goal in that it explores modern life via its effects on our mental health. This turned out to be extremely salient in our time of COVID and concerns about the effects of social media as both are magnifications of the difficulties of modern life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I had the life-changing experience of ending up on a small team that built a mental health center in the poor Peruvian Andes. It still runs today (https://www.fracarita-international.org/ayacucho-peru-cosma). Although I speak Spanish, I often had to see patients with the assistance of an interpreter because many of the patients were indigenous. The interpreters spoke the patients’ language, Quechua, and Spanish. It was fascinating to see how this world, although so very different from my own, was connected through disease processes that know no boundaries.

The project was extremely challenging in that the poverty and want for the most basic healthcare was heartbreaking and felt urgent to us even though it had always been this way. In addition, from the beginning of my eight trips to Peru I could feel the effects of my worsening health. What helped me through all these challenges was the unflinching generosity and willingness to work, without pay at times, of our Peruvian staff members. From the psychiatrist and nurses to the cooks and cleaners, everyone wanted this clinic for their community and were willing to work for it. The scenes of them working with no sense of burden are as clear in my mind now as when they happened.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

I just published my first book, “Frontal Fatigue. The Impact of Modern Life and Technology on Mental Illness.” Writing a book is very work intensive, but I did not realize that the post-publishing process would keep me almost as busy as writing the book!

The task of spreading the word about the book is making connections; connections to people I otherwise would have never made, and connections to ideas and information that were uncovered only after the book was written. This network of knowledge and people just keeps growing.

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?

I will focus on the mental and emotional components. This will be a brief summary of a complex topic. But it is important to outline for everyone what we are exposing ourselves to.

Sitting in front of a screen for hours on end taxes us in ways that are different from anything we have experienced in any other time in history. The cognitive demands placed on us by our tech-filled lives are managed by the large and powerful Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) of our brains. The PFC is of great interest as it not only manages our ability to focus, but also to rapidly shift our thoughts to something new, to make mental abstractions, and to inhibit thoughts and actions our emotions may demand of us. This is only a brief list of the many powers of this brain area. To get a better idea of the PFC’s abilities, imagine cooking with several pots on the stove, while watching carefully so a pot does not boil over (focus). While doing that you are thinking of how you can change the recipe for different people and seeing in your mind how it would come out (abstraction). Suddenly, the pot boils over and you must quickly switch around all the other pots and adjust their heats (mental shifting). You feel angry and want to pour the pot in the sink, but you stop and collect yourself (inhibition of strong emotion). This 30 seconds is an example of the world’s most powerful computer at work; your PFC.

When the cognitive demands of tech become excessive and unrelenting, our PFCs, which were not designed to function under persistent, uncontrollable stress, begin to fail. A simple example of this kind of failure is how, when we are in a stressful situation, we find it difficult to concentrate. Similarly, if someone is vulnerable to mental illness, over stressing the PFC can allow the illness to break through. So, if you are vulnerable to anxiety or depression, stressing your PFC by working on your computer till late hours every day, for days on end, can push your PFC to the breaking point, and those symptoms can emerge and quickly move beyond your control.

Can you share your top five ways people can improve mental wellness and create a healthy relationship with technology?

1. Unplug regularly: self-explanatory.

2. Find beauty where you can and look, listen, taste or touch it. Nature is a great place to start. This is not permission to over-indulge and blunt your senses. Rather it aims to find the common beauty we are starved for in art, crafts, cooking, or anywhere in the world around us.

3. Work with your hands — nothing gets you out of your head as well. You can feel the relief when you change from a device to a tool in your hand, whatever it may be.

4. Find a way to quiet your mind — this can of course be meditation, but for many is just some fully distracting and engrossing activity. For some this is a sport or artwork. Listen for the quiet.

5. Learn early warning signs of cognitive stress, recognize that your PFC is struggling to function (and then go to 1–4). Signs of PFC strain include: it becomes more difficult to concentrate, you must reread things, you forget simple things like where you placed a pen or why you walked into a room, you cannot think of words. These are all specific for PFC failure.

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?

We are all affected by social media, but younger persons are especially affected. Their PFCs are the last brain centers to fully develop; a process which is not complete until their late 20s. Interaction with real humans is crucial to developing relationships and the brain centers that manage them. Virtual connections do not have the depth and complexity of real flesh and blood people. The same is true of dealing with only two-dimensional problems in a two-dimensional world.

As inadequate as virtual experience maybe it is also taxing the PFC of young people to have to create their worlds, rather than just inhabit them as humans have always done.

To improve their relationships with social media young people can of course do the five things I listed above for relieving the stress of technology. However, here we must focus on social media specifically. With help from parents and other more experienced individuals, young people can reorient their relationships with social media. They tend to see it as a large extension of their real social world.

Instead, they should be taught to see it as a tool, at their control, that is used to participate socially. The difference is between diving into the world of social media to see what is happening versus having a particular plan of what they will use it for. They might wish to check on a friend from their old neighborhood on Facebook, contact someone for weekend plans, or have a conversation with a classmate. The latter examples are uses of social media which are limited, purposeful, and planned. When the plan is done you exit the media instead of getting trapped in endless scrolling and clicking (which is exactly what the companies want them to do). This type of use changes the entire discussion of social media, avoiding condemnations of it, and allowing young people to use it while they keep control of what is happening.

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?

Everyone’s morning routines differ, but using technology first thing in the morning inevitably creates distractions that interfere with those routines.

Morning is an important time for taking care of yourself and your loved ones to prepare to face the day. Checking your email or social media right out of bed can rob you of this important time, and undoubtedly changes the course of your day.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote?

Buddhism made a strong impression on me as a teenager. The following is one of the first things I learned. The Buddha, doing his first preaching in a place called “the Deer Park,” responded to a question about how one knows which way is best among the many teachings available for spiritual direction at that time. He said, “Do whatever makes you more open, compassionate and mindful, and you will have found the way.” This has always helped me when I think about the direction of my life. It does not depend on belief in any particular system. Rather, it asks you to judge your efforts based on their effects. Are they achieving the things you value? This approach can be modeled to meet other paths in life: professional, family, etc. Begin by articulating your values in the area you are examining. Then see if how you live that part of your life advances your values or not.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would like to see lifelong learning take on the same value in our society that physical fitness has. It is wonderful that we now see our bodies as something we should actively care for and improve throughout our lives. The same principles should be applied to the mind through study and learning of new things.

It is important that we be able to evaluate new policies from our government, new health information, and importantly, new people in the sphere of our lives. All of this is enabled by making study and educational improvement one of our core values. We should celebrate and share our own paths of learning rather than just reinforce what we already believe and become more alienated from the larger world. Learning is part of our humanity, and like our physical health, it is both necessary and hopefully enjoyable.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Twitter: @markregomd, or my website markdregomd.com

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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