Relationship Killers Part 2 with Jenny Wise Black

Relationship Killers Part 2 with Jenny Wise Black

Today we are joined by Jenny Black, an author and licensed marriage and family therapist. And we're talking about relationship killers. We're talking about relationships from a lot of perspectives. This month, one perspective we want to explore is things that we have unhealthy relationships with that really harm our relationships with people.

Today's relationship killer is media. So we have this great conversation with Jenny to learn how it is affecting our relationships.  How media is affecting our relationships.

In addition to being a licensed marriage and family therapist, Jenny is the founder of Media Trauma Care. She has co-authored the book, our Digital Soul Collective, Anxiety, Media Trauma, and A Path Toward Recovery. Because now more than ever we have access to various forms of media, smartphones and social media. Although this technology has benefited us greatly in so many ways, it also can cause harm. We're talking today about how our relationship with media can be a relationship killer. How do we have a healthier relationship with media so that we have a better relationship with the people in our lives? Before we get into it, I want to say this, we say this every week, but it's really that important before we dig into the topic.

When you say media, what exactly are you talking about?  What do you mean?

The term that I like to use that everyone keeps scratching out of everything I write is personal media. Nobody knows what personal media is. Your media is so personalized today. Whatever you are getting through a screen. It could be people's relationship with the news, it could be their highest point of an intense relationship, or it could be a particular platform that they're on social media. It’s a broad term for a reason because it's so personal to each person.

The thing that I want people to understand is that you have a relationship with your phone.
Your relationship with your phone is the most important relationship in your life.  And the reason I say that is because it is both a window through which you see the whole world and the mirror through which you see yourself. So, if that is not a healthy relationship, you do not have a chance of having a healthy relationship with anything you do or anyone you communicate through that with. It's the filter. I like to say it's like if you've ever had that friend who tells you what all your other friends think of you, and if that friend isn't a good friend, you're not going to have good friendships with all the people they're telling you about. Your media is not neutral.

Your phone has this billion-dollar industry behind it that needs you to buy something to pay attention to it. It's somehow been very easy to forget that marketing is built on making sure that something's missing from your life. Every single thing that we do through what I call predatorial media makes money off of you feeling bad about yourself.  Where ethical media is there's a podcast here that I think you'd be interested in and you get to listen to it. This is when we talk about the difference between a healthy relationship with technology and an unhealthy relationship with technology, what we're saying is that it's not your choice. It's the type of technology you're engaging with. There is ethical technology and there is predatorial technology.   And if you don't know the difference of those, you're going to be really confused about why you can't have a healthy relationship with predatorial technology. Because it doesn't work where the reverse is true. When you're working with ethical technology, think of it like a bicycle. It requires your mind and your consciousness to say, this is where I'm going and this is what I'm doing, and this is what I want to do.  So, YouTube is kind of a good example of both because it’s completely predatory. You are going on someone else's thoughts and someone else's place at a super short attention span, which starts training your brain to jump from thought to thought to thought before one has completed or sunk in.

But the whole idea of me getting on YouTube and looking for how do I change my brake light?   That's ethical technology.  So that's the same platform that can be utilized in two different ways. And for the most part, people who use it to figure out how to change their brake light, you're all of a sudden down this tunnel of watching. That's another thing that I point out. There are so many harmful things that happen on the internet, but that's really not where I focus my work. My work is that there are good things that are actually still taking away your consciousness, your ability to feel about yourself and other people as you are and as they are instead of what someone else is telling you.

How it can be a relationship killer?

It’s shaping the way you see everything. My biggest concern today and I've been doing this work for about seven years, as the technology has morphed. But what I'm seeing today that what concerns me the most is that now that we've had 10 years of going to this device to solve every single problem that we have in our lives, which is the number one description of addiction. Anytime there's one thing you go to, to solve all of your problems. The biggest concern I have today is it has made us consumers of people and ideas. We know how dating apps work, you’re shopping for your date and you're swiping. But what I'm seeing more and more is the almost commoditization of people. We've turned relationships into another thing that we're shopping for.

I don't have any social media accounts. One of the main reasons is that I was starting to not like anyone in my life. It was impacting how I felt about people. I was starting to judge them. For example, I would see a friend’s post on her house. And I know her house didn't really look like that.  Or I don't want to hear that political opinion you have. You would never spout off your political opinion to me if we were having coffee.  

And so there is all this information I can tell you, after being off social media, 90% of it is actually exactly the opposite of what you think that it is. It's not true. And I was starting to base my feelings about these people in my real life. For example, if I saw my neighbors and who they voted for, then I would think I don’t really want to know that neighbor. I wasn't getting a chance to say, do I want to know that neighbor by my experience with them? It's made us shop ourselves into a world in which people have to fit these certain boxes to be in our life, but then we're doing that same thing to ourselves.

You talk about media trauma, what is that?

As a therapist, I was working with clients who had significant trauma. And when I first started seeing clients, they would come to my office saying, “I have an issue I need therapy for.” And we would create a treatment plan and process that trauma. Well, all of a sudden clients started showing up and they didn't know why. I realized all of these clients are showing symptoms of PTSD and they have no identified trauma. I think that it's media. It was really obvious because there were dramatic stories of someone being bullied online. We were seeing a lot of that in the beginning.

There are five things with media trauma. One of those is an actual incident that someone can say, this happened to me online and I want to heal from it. That's actually the easiest media trauma to deal with because it's named. But it also has a completely different treatment plan than that same incident not happening on media. The first one is misuse and then neglect, which are the areas of life that we neglect because we're going to this phone to solve all of our problems instead of showing up in our own life and solving them. That could also be related to having kids or somebody dependent on you that you're not caring for because you're neglecting yourself or other people, or your home, or your job because of those addictive elements.

The expectations of the community that you're in or the job that you have. One of the things that we saw happen during COVID was everybody had to get online and there was this resurgence of everyone's available 24-7 all the time.  And we were not; that’s not how humans are made. And so those expectations actually, even though there's nothing traumatic happening those expectations over time can still break down your nervous system in the same ways that trauma does. And ultimately you'll show those same symptoms of trauma in the different phases of development, from birth to elderly. If you are introduced to screens at certain times and certain phases of development, it's going to impact you. It can impact you harmfully.  Sensorily, attachment issues for young children, all the way to a tremendous amount of fear and the older population of believing everything that they see and not wanting to leave their houses.

That's the phase of development. It’s an addiction, unlike any other addiction that we've ever seen because it doesn't just tie into our brain chemistry. It also ties into our identity. And there's no substance that is parallel to that.

We get a lot of questions about talking to our kids about technology use. What do you tell parents that are worried or struggling to figure out how to manage their kids' usage?

My kids were in ninth and 11th grade when I started on this journey. So, the number one thing I tell every single parent is, don't you consider touching your kids' habits with their phone or their media until you have done this work yourself. It’s hypocritical, and it's a waste of time. I'm looking at this in a very big-picture way. This isn't like an individual family situation, but what happened to us from that 50-foot place is that parents got on their phones first. Parents disappeared first.

If we go back 10 years ago, I used to be there and then I wasn't there anymore.  And that's something people need to understand. When you're on a screen, you are actually physiologically not in the space—you're not in your body. You leave your body and you go to those spaces virtually, which is why we don't breathe. We don't feel our hunger pains. We forget we have to go to the bathroom. We don't realize how tired we are because our consciousness has left our bodies and has gone wherever that screen has taken us. So, our kids experience this, “Where's my mom?”  And then we thought, how are we going to solve this? We're going to get them a screen and a phone. And then that morphed into the place of I can only do my job if my kid has an iPad.

We used to hire a babysitter.  We have this false belief that we can be somewhere and we're not there and there will be absolutely no cultural change and kids will not be able to find what they need to, to live their lives off of the screen if their parents are not available for them. Your kid needs you back. Your kid wants you back. I could talk for the whole podcast just about the stories kids tell me, saying “I just wish my parents would get off their phones.”  Anytime someone brings up their kids, I say, it doesn't start there. Probably about 60% of the issue will be taken care of if you got rid of your smartphone or if you got off of social media.  Your kid would be 60% into recovery already because they'd have access to an available parent when that parent was present.

I don't think any person living at home under the age of 18 should have a smartphone. They are incredibly dangerous. It's so baffling to me. I’m the only person who says this because nobody wants to hear it. If you were talking about an abusive teacher or family member, if you were talking about cocaine or alcohol, you wouldn't be asking me questions of  “When is the right age and how much should they get to be with this person every day?” And then you go further, well, all their friends are on it and they're not going to get to be with their friends anymore.

The primary work I'm doing right now is helping families get off their smartphones and get out of that life and get back into a life where cell phones do exist. We talked today about the light phone and the gab phone where you can call and you can text and every single thing a kid needs. The benefits that they could get from that are the ones you're hanging onto your smartphone for.   But it does require at least one other friend to do it too. I say find your kid and find a friend. We'll get them both set up on their “dumb” phones. It’s a cultural change that's required. This isn't easy to do or enforce. It's something that is going to have to change if we want to see a future population that has not been traumatized.

What are the two phones you mentioned?

The Light Phone and the Gab Phone. The Gab phone is made for kids. It's supposed to be the safest phone. It's a lifestyle change.

You say in your book that you are not anti-technology, but rather pro-human.  What does this mean?  What are some ways that you use technology?

The reason is that you shouldn't have to fight. You're not using technology that was made for humans.  When you call somebody on the phone, you don't have to fight to make that connection. You just call them. Sometimes it's hard to make the connection. This is why it's so important that we start all of these conversations and choices with the question, “Is this ethical technology or is this predatorial technology?” If it is ethical technology, it allows the human to do more human things and it respects human limitations. If it is predatorial technology, it exists to make money.

What I say all the time is all of these social media platforms and your smartphones were not made for humans. They were made for profit. They are algorithms that do not consider human needs, limitations or vulnerabilities. You're not just a product, but those vulnerabilities are being manipulated constantly to keep you engaged with them. That's harming us on an emotional level, a spiritual level, and a physical level. The most disturbing thing that I tell people is that this has only been in existence for about 10 years. That is not long in human history. That's all the bad news. It’s sobering.

What have you found are some practical ways to have a healthier relationship with media?

I take people through a specific process and it's basically starting with making your phone less appealing. Your phone and you are not the same person. Your phone and your kids are not the same person. Your phone and your parents are not the same person. We've put all this value into this device. And so, the first step to separating from it, is making it as unappealing as you can. Make the screen black and white. It starts communicating to your brain that that's not real life. And you start seeing your color in your real life again.

You flip that and it does something to your brain and your consciousness. It's called gray scale your phone. The other thing is to spend as much time away from it as you possibly can. Even leave it when you're with your family. Like if you're with people who are dependent on you, leave it in your car. Like leave it in your car when you go to a restaurant.

This is such classic therapy, you have a codependent relationship with your phone and you need some healthy boundaries. Separate from it and take any distracting things off of it. Take all social media off of it, take all games off of it. Anything that's killing time or taking away your consciousness doesn't need to be on your phone that you carry all the time. Start doing work. Take email off of it. Start doing your work on a laptop. Buy an alarm clock so it can stay out of your room. It does not need to be in your room.

I think everyone needs a second phone. I think that will be one of the paths to sanity. Let it be your office. You don't want to be at the office all day. You don't want to take the office to bed with you, you don't want the office to go to the restaurant with you, so get a second phone that isn't a smartphone so you don't have to stress out about all these boundaries.  
Obviously my number one recommendation is get a second phone and do everything you can to start distinguishing your life, your work, and your relationships outside of your smartphone.

What's the good part of this story?

Having done this work myself seven years ago when I got rid of my smartphone and got off social media, what happened to my life was so incredible.

I had been in therapy, I'd been on antidepressants, I had done every single self-improvement thing in the whole world, and nothing so radically transformed my happiness as not having a smartphone anymore. You're not ever going to be motivated to make this major life choice until you have a vision for your life of something better you want. I can promise you, make your list of the 10 things you want from your life, or your best hope for your life. Pick your dream and we can make it a reality if this thing is out of your life. I have just started. I'm in the first season of a podcast called Lose the Phone. The whole purpose of this podcast is each guest, the first one is a musician, gets rid of their smartphone for 30 days.

Not having a smartphone, all you have is time and attention that has been stolen from you and you get to now be the person that you've been wanting to be and wondering why you can't be.  You want to see your productivity increase, or you want to see your relationships improve with your children or your parents or any kind of dating relationship. I can promise you that you could dramatically improve any aspect of your life, not to mention your own mental health, emotional health, and spiritual health just by not having this in your life.

What happened to you that you felt like you needed to do this?  What was the jumping off point for you?  How do you recommend the use of technology, remembering it’s pro-human?

People feel better when they get off technology. Our bodies were not made to sit in front of a screen all day. Weigh content versus process. Both need to be considered in your own health plan for yourself. For example, I do some therapy on zoom. I can't do it all day.  I won't do longer than one-hour sessions. I do have technology in my life.

I was just taking a sabbatical because I’d been up to my eyeballs in trauma and I had two teenagers I was raising. I was just going to take a break for a month. Then that month did not help at all.  I needed more time, so I took it. About four months into my sabbatical, I felt I wasn’t getting the recovery that I should be, because I was doing all the stuff that you do to take care of yourself. And one day my phone broke and that felt like the best day of my whole life.  Nobody can be mad at me because my phone broke, and I couldn't do anything about it. And it was such a great day that I thought, “Do I have to fix it tomorrow?” I put it off for a month, just a broken phone. The world kept on spinning. I didn't get reported to the police. After that month I went and got my phone fixed and almost immediately my depression and anxiety kicked back in and I thought, I'm getting back to real life.  This is just real life. I had a nice little vacation. I wouldn't have even picked up on it until a couple months later when my phone got stolen.

And that day again, immediately all the depression was gone, all the anxiety was gone. That’s when I realized, this is about my phone. I felt like I've got to figure this out because if this is harming other people the way it's harming me, there has to be a plan for getting out of it. We have to find a way that it's possible to live life without this.

One of the reasons it's so scary to give up any addiction is because once you do it, you realize that there are tremendous aspects of your life that have been neglected. The fear that everyone feels is the fear of having to face some stuff without an easy button. That's why the challenge was going to be 30 days and it's now 60 days because the first 30 days are just like, oh my gosh, I forgot my car. This repair needs to be made. It’s this strange waking up to your reality that you don’t need a phone.

Tell us the name of your book.

It’s, Our Digital Soul. I wrote it to be as much of an education as you could possibly get on the topic, as much education as I could find. It almost exclusively explains why we're in a mental health crisis. It takes all these things that you do understand, like obsessive compulsive disorder or attachment, a lot of therapeutic terms that are now in the popular vernacular. It explains how and why these things are predatorial and even talks about toxic trauma bonds and toxic relationships and why we're seeing all of these symptoms in the average person because those are all being engaged with our phones.

My website is  I also have a podcast with the same name.

Listener Question

Hi, this is Beth, a single mom. How can I encourage my child, without forcing her to go to group therapy, that it is really good for her?

I think that maybe you would talk about modeling that and that you’re getting help.  As a parent, you are the most influential person in your kid's life. And when you make choices that change your life, they notice, and they want to be a part of it. So, I would say go be part of group therapy. Go join group therapy, do the eight weeks, and communicate what that's been like for you.


Our Digital Soul by Jenny Wise Black

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