Why do our screens captivate us?
In an earlier blog post I explained the impact of parents spending increasing amounts of time plugged into our devices. It seems that we’ve become so focused on our kids’ screen-time that we’ve completely overlooked our screen habits.
After I deliver many parent seminars, parents confess that they thought they were the only one battling to put their phone down when their kids were around. In some instances, parents have admitted that they genuinely felt “addicted” to their device.
So many parents are relieved to hear why we find it so hard to go to bed without checking social media one more time, or while we arrive early at school pick-up and feel the need to reach for our phone.
Our phones and technology in general meets three of our most basic psychological needs and biological drivers-
// Connection- as humans, one of our most basic human needs is to feel like we belong and that we’re connected to others. Digital devices help us to powerfully feel this senses of relatedness. Gaming, social media and email all cater beautifully to our desire to feel connected. It’s also why we find it so hard to disconnect from our devices. Note, this is even more pronounced amongst those of us who are geographically or socially isolated. Our screens can easily help us fill the void of feeling ‘alone’.
// Control- as humans we like to feel like we have autonomy over a situation. And let’s be honest, raising kids means we usually have very little control over many situations. We’re responded to their (constant) demands to eat, solve sibling battles and repeatedly asking little ones to get dressed. Our digital devices enable us to feel like we’re in control.
// Competence- as humans we’re wired to learn and be effective. We want to feel like we’re successful and can accomplish things. Again, our devices allow us to feel competent. We can selectively choose what we post to social media. We can instantly seek information, when we choose.
There are other reasons why we find it hard to put down our digital devices:
// Dopamine- when we’re using our devices it’s usually a pleasurable experience and so our brains release the neurotransmitter dopamine. Whether we’re scrolling through social media, or checking our emails, it’s generally a pleasurable experience, so we crave more and more of it. So we naturally want to keep doing it! (Now you have an explanation as to why you love refreshing your Facebook feed!)
// State of insufficiency– when we’re online, we rarely feel like we’re ‘done’ or ‘finished’. There’s always something new popping up in our inbox. There’s always a new browser we can open, or a new TV series to watch on Netflix. (Confession, I experienced this state first-hand after a friend introduced my husband and I to Suits!!)
// State of flow- we also enter the psychological state of flow when we’re using our devices. This is where we become engrossed in what we’re doing that our concept of time disappears. So we may feel like we’ve been on our phone for 15 minutes, but it’s actually been and hour!
// Our brains wired for novelty– our human brain is wired for novelty. It’s always on the look-out for new and interesting information. And the online world so beautifully caters for our brain’s desire for new and interesting information. The online world is a sensory smorgasbord. There’s always new things to look at, read, listen to or watch. The offline world doesn’t offer this constant state of novelty and so we’re drawn to our phones. (This is why we struggle with boredom and white space now…we’ve become accustomed to constantly sourcing new information). We’ve become accustomed to being on and foraging for new information.
How can parents model healthy technology habits?
Now, as I said at the outset, I’m not suggesting that we abstain from using phones, laptops or tablets around our kids. That’s certainly not feasible, nor is it necessary. In fact, our kids need to see us using technology. But they also need to see us switch it off!
I’m not proposing that parents who use phones and tablets around their kids are “bad” parents. That’s definitely not the case. (I personally think that most of us are doing our best!)
But I don’t think we can ignore this situation. I don’t think we can collectively accept that because we’re all “doing it” that it’s okay. It’s not.
It’s critical, given that our kids will inherit a digital world, that we teach our kids healthy and sustainable technology habits. And this means modeling healthy habits ourselves… which isn’t always easy to do, I’ll admit.
So here are some simple strategies that we can implement to help us get a better handle on our screen-time (and not let it seep into other facets of our lives):
// Have social media hours– it’s so easy to get sucked into the social media vortex and spend hours scrolling through your feed (now we know why- we feel connected, competent and in control, we get dopamine, we enter the state of flow and suffer from the state of insufficiency). So we need to put a fortress around our social media time. Nominate specific times of the day when you’ll use social media. And then stick to them.
// Set up email hours– I know for many parents, myself included, that email is a source of angst. We feel like we need to respond promptly (and sometimes we do). However, in many instances, email can wait. Triage your email and only respond to urgent messages. Have set times in the day when you check email.
// Turn off alerts and notifications– one of the best things I did for my mental health was turn off alerts and notifications. I don’t need my phone constantly hijacking my attention by sending me information and vibrations. This tip alone can make a profound difference. And can I assure you from someone who used to worry about not responding within a set time period, the world doesn’t end if someone has to wait a couple of days for your email response.
BONUS TIP– if you only check email at a set time, or even on certain days, have this in your email signature or set it up as an auto-responder so people are aware of your boundaries. From my experience, people generally respond really well to people modeling healthy boundaries and it often encourages others to do the same.
// Compartmentalise your phone use- what’s stressful for you to do on your device, or when do you need uninterrupted time? Try and do these tasks at times when your kids are occupied. Try and only use your phone or screen around your kids when your phone tasks doesn’t require your full attention. Otherwise, if we’re doing stressful work, or our phone is demanding our complete, undivided attention we can get frustrated when our kids interrupt us.
// Plan digital sabbaticals– we recently went overseas on a long-overdue family holiday. I had significant time unplugged- not necessarily by choice but because I had international roaming issues (#blessingindisguise). And it was bliss! Try and find time each day, each week or even every month where you turn off phones and digital devices. Having a significant break from screens can be really helpful.
// Keep phones out of your bedroom- Many of us get sucked into the technology vortex first thing in the morning when we turn off our alarm and dive into email or social media on our phone that sits by our bed. My suggestion? Buy an old-fashioned alarm clock and leave the phone outside of the bedroom! Keeping bedrooms as tech-free zones is vital for our kids’ health and we need to model it too (research confirms that digital devices in bedrooms interferes with the quality and quantity of sleep).
// Out of sight, out of mind– many adults have formed a digital dependence. We have a moment of idle time and we see our phone and we usually reach for it and use it. So a simple strategy is to leave it out of your sight. Pop it up in the pantry when at home, leave it in the glovebox in the car when you’re playing at the park.
// Use digital tools– Ironically, there are apps that you can install on your devices that can help you monitor and manage your screen habits. In the Moment (iOS app)- tracks how much you use your iPhone and iPad each day. You can set daily limits on yourself and be notified when you go over. You can even force yourself off your device when you’re over your limit, or at specific times of the day. The Android equivalent is Quality Time and Break Free works on both iOS and Android devices.
// If all else fails…lock it up– This one sounds quite drastic, but if you really feel tempted to use your device, or if you’re trying to establish healthy habits, literally locking your phone away can help. I know this may sound quite drastic, but I’ve heard several families who went on a digital retreat where they had to hand over their digital appendages when they first arrived and they were locked in a safe. When the families returned home after their digital sabbatical, many of them went to Bunnings and bought a safe to lock their devices away at night.
I hope these two blog posts have encouraged you to carefully consider your screen habits. As I’ve said repeatedly my intention wasn’t to induce guilt but to simply raise awareness to a serious issue that we must address. This is one of the topic that I address in my signature Parent Seminar Raising Your Child in a Digital World. You can find out more about the talks I deliver to preschools, schools (primary and secondary), workplaces (as Lunch & Learn seminars) and at conferences (I speak to teachers, parents and health professionals).