I’m usually good at replying to emails quickly (unless I choose not to reply at all, which happens when I get glareworthy requests that don’t deserve my time) but an email has been sitting in my inbox since May 15th 2019. Oops! To be fair to me, I did answer it immediately, but in my answer I promised to write a proper, detailed answer on my website. And I never did. I didn’t forget: I just never got to it. Stuff happened last year and then there’s a bit of stuff happening this year, too, slightly. Anyway, here I am.
The email was this:
“Thank you for a very interesting talk last night – lots to digest. I came up at the end and asked the best best way to actively help my Year 10 son who has come to me this week saying, “Mum, help me – I think I’m an addict.” He has been using his iPad, in my opinion, to excess and sometimes at the weekend we leave him alone to avoid arguments. It was after a long session on Sunday he asked for help. I will add, just because he has come to me doesn’t mean he will be happy about helping himself.”
Here are the bones of my reply in black, fleshed out with more detail now in blue.
It’s vitally important to begin by understanding that this is genuinely a type of addiction. If you and he do this, you’ll be able to look at how people are helped to deal with other addictions, such as tobacco, drugs, alcohol or gambling. It’s the same principle.
It is not an exaggeration to say that our use of any of our devices can be addictive. The same habit principles of cue, craving, response and reward come into play with the activation of the dopamine/pleasure pathways in the reward systems of the brain. This applies whether we use our screens for gaming, entertainment, or communication. Addiction to screens is not the same as addiction to sugar, cocaine, tobacco, alcohol or anything else, because every addiction is different in results and quality, in how easy it is to become addictive and how hard to cure, but the mechanisms in your brain are the same. It’s habit loop and the reward system and they’re powerful. And the similarities are useful to notice.
Understand that our brains are wired to do certain activities, based on their likelihood of bringing survival or success. Three things we are wired to be are: 1. Social 2. Curious and 3. Distracted. All these things brought our ancestors advantages in survival or success or both. And our brain wiring hasn’t changed.
Think of the things you use your devices for and start to think how many opportunities they bring you for being social, curious and distracted! Each time we do one of these things – or, to be accurate, each time we anticipate doing them – we get a little buzz of dopamine. I call dopamine the YES chemical. It’s a wonderful, essential, motivating neurotransmitter, but it’s also heavily implicated in addiction. If you prefer, you can choose not to use the word, instead calling it “biologically compulsive over-use”. Up to you. It comes down to the same thing: you keep feeding it.
It’s really useful to think of it in this context because then you won’t make the mistake of thinking it’s going to work if you just say “stop”. When did that ever work for someone addicted to cigarettes or alcohol or whatever?
Once you’ve appreciated that this is addiction (or biologically compulsive over-use), you can then start to think about genuinely useful strategies.
Strategies such as:
- Ask someone to help and support (as your son has done – but, as you wisely say, this doesn’t mean he will accept what you say…) Addicted people (or compulsive over-users) first have to accept that they need help. It’s hard and they can’t do it alone.
- Recognise the genuine physical attachment to the addictive item/behaviour and recognising that this will be difficult to break – as above. It’s physical, biological, neurophysiological, whatever you like to call it. It’s not just a matter of willpower. (In any case, see No. 4.)
- “Out of sight is out of mind” – where possible, put the thing (your phone or iPad or whatever) out of sight at those times you don’t want to use it. If you were trying to reduce your chocolate consumption (or smoking or drinking) would you be advised to place chocolate (or cigarettes or wine) in front of you? No, the opposite. Think the same with your phone: if it’s out of sight and hard to reach, you won’t be reminded about it all the time.
Remember that resisting temptation is hard work and we have a finite amount of willpower. This means that resisting temptation for an amount of time can have a negative consequence: you’re more likely NOT to be able to resist later, so it will be like a successful restriction followed by a binge. Pointless. If willpower is your strategy, although you might succeed at first, soon you’ll crash and burn. Also, willpower is usually not what it seems: people who seem to have more of it have usually just done sensible things to make it easier. It’s not that they have more of it, just that they use tricks to make it easy.
- Recognise that restriction is punishment and generally we don’t learn best by punishment. We learn best by reward. SO:
- Instead of saying, “I won’t use my device for X hours” (which is a punishment and requires willpower) frame it positively: “I will spend an hour working brilliantly, and will achieve so much, which will make me feel good.” Or even, “I will spend an hour doing something else really fun, which will make me feel good.” Then notice how that feels. So, focus on the benefit not the restriction.
- Focus on doing more and more things that don’t feature a phone/ipad. This is the distraction strategy: put in place activities you like and that are not harmful or negative. If you were giving up chocolate, for example (or cigarettes/alcohol/caffeine/anything) you’d benefit from doing something instead, such as going for a walk, playing sport, baking/making, going to the cinema, playing a board game, helping someone. The more minutes you spend not doing the thing you’re trying to reduce but enjoying the distraction, the less addicted you’ll feel.
- Use mechanisms (eg software/Apps) that prevent use – eg pomodoro programs, or social media blocking systems (that he will impose on himself).
- Cut back in collaboration with someone else (family or friends) – doing things as a group or in partnership is always easier. So, is there a friend who also feels addicted? They can support and motivate each other. If a group of friends or family all agree to put their phones/devices away for a certain time (and do something else as distraction) it’s so much easier because you know your firends are doing the same.
- Finally, a really important one: the “if-then” strategy. This is a widely-used strategy to break a habit loop. You simply insert a bit of new code into your brain patterns! When you notice yourself about to do the thing you’re trying to stop (for example, opening your phone or iPad yet again), you programme yourself to do something different: my favourite is “take a swig of water”. A sip of water is a pleasant experience so it does give you a tiny buzz of pleasure as the reward system is activated. Soon this can become the new habit – and a good one! And it’s not the same as using will power, that finite resource: it’s a positive thing, not a negative act.
All the science and more strategies are in The Teenage Guide to Life Online, which is a perfect guide for parents so that they properly understand the positives and negatives of our screens and social media. Parents may well be pleasantly surprised to hear about the benefits of screens, too! And it’s worth pointing out that during lockdown, our screens are extra useful and important – but also harder to resist…
I have THREE COPIES to give away! (UK addresses only.) Simply do a pick-me style comment below before 5pm on May 5th and I’ll put everyone in a random number generator (it’s painless) and pick the winners.
EDITED TO ADD: We have winners! Not three but four. As always, I’m sad that I can’t bring good news to everyone but here are the four lucky winners, who just need to contact me to sort out prizes. (BTW the good news is that there’s a giveaway NOW on Twitter from Hachette Schools, featuring two of my other books.)
Winners: Chris, mumjd, Clive and Karina – delighted for you! Thanks to EVERYONE for entering and for lovely, positive comments.
NB: Following the comments under this post, I wrote a related article here: www.nicolamorgan.com/life-online/screens-and-lockdown/