Here begins a FREE mini-course on building healthy screen habits for your family. For a bit of explanation about why I’m doing this and what the full course will bring, see here. This is Part One of Three. I have kept everything as succinct as possible. Later, I’ll be videoing myself giving a detailed talk and you’ll be able to pay to view that.
For much more detail on screens and healthy habits:
- My book, Life Online – written for teenagers so they can teach their adults. If you’re an adult, get in there first or your teenager will have one over you (again). this has enormous detail about the positives and true negatives of all that we do on our screens.
- Lots of references and research and ways to investigate further are here. Scroll down to Life Online and choose resources and then, if you wish, blog posts.
Your FREE mini-course begins here. (Free for a limited time only as I will soon take it down and make it part of the resources to accompany a pay-to-view video set.)
Part 1 – Behind the screen
Don’t skip this, or you will not properly be empowered!
Today I will talk about:
- Different screens and uses – different pros and cons
- Different users – different pros and cons
- Be healthily suspicious of media headlines
- What we need to worry about – and what we don’t
- WHY screens are so compelling and what we mean when we say they’re addictive
When you are trying to work out the best policies and rules for yourself and your family, there are a few things you need to remember and acknowledge, otherwise a) your policy won’t be strong and b) the young people in your household will rightly ignore you because you’ve revealed your ignorance while still claiming to know what you’re talking about.
Far too often we say “screen time” or “screen use” as though it’s one thing. Take a look at just a few of the vast number of uses that we make if various screens and you see that “too long” on one activity is not the same as “too long” on another. And note that most of these activities could be taking place on a phone, tablet or computer. And don’t forget game consoles, which might or might not be linked to the internet.
- Having a text-based conversation with a friend/friends
- Looking up information
- Reading a book – for pleasure or work
- Playing a game
- Doing a puzzle
- Scrolling through Tiktok or Insta
- Creating something – eg for Tiktok
- Building a website or blog
- Relaxing, chilling
- Watching a video for fund
- Watching a video to learn something
- Planning something – making lists etc
- Doing something for homework
- Looking at art
- Creating art
- Engaging with people who share your values/situation/worries
So, be careful not to say things like “Young people are always on their phones” when this can mean so many different things, from very useful, creative and controlled to trivial and time-sucking. And in any case, there’s nothing wrong with trivial every now and then! The point is that our devices have replaced some of the other tools we would use to do the same activities and some of those replacements are not in the slightest bit negative.
This (and the “different users” point that follows) also explains why there is no single answer to the question “How long is it OK to use a screen each day?” It depends on what type of screen, what type of activity, how it’s affecting you (physically and mentally) and what else you’re not doing if you’re on a screen. (I’ll cover that last point in a later part.)
We have individual responses to our devices and our activities on those devices. No two people will be identical. When setting guidelines, we should consider (amongst other things):
- Younger people more often need more and tighter boundaries to be set for them than older people – but the more you can engage them in the decisions at any age, the better
- Teenagers are likely to struggle to self-regulate because a) undeveloped prefrontal cortex and b) more social, stress and peer pressure
- Added to age factors, some individuals are better able to use self-control than others
- And it may be different at different times – so, someone under stress may find it harder to self-regulate
- Peer pressure is often a more powerful force than self-control
- Someone under stress might a) more easily get caught up in over-use and b) fire off inappropriate or unsafe messages
- Someone who is vulnerable emotionally, for whatever reason can a) get great comfrot from interaction with the right people online and b) be extremely distressed by negative experiences or behaviours online
- Sometimes we genuinely need to go online or be online more
- And sometimes we will find self-regulation more difficult because of what’s going on
- Rather than looking at the amount of time a person is spending on a screen or online, think about whether their behaviours and experiences seem positive or negative. Someone might seem to be spending a lot of time but actually doing really useful things; someone might go online rarely but when they do they get into arguments or whatever; some people react more strongly to or experience more unpleasant situations; some people are more vulnerable or likely to have negative experiences
Be healthily suspicious of media headlines
- Media outlets try to sell stories and gain readers and they do this by the choice of headline. Note that the writer of the piece has not usually written the headline so their can be a disconnect
- NEVER only read the headline. You need to read the whole article: then you’ll often discover that the article does not say – or does not only say – what the headline suggests.
- the study that the article is reporting might be (usually is) a tiny study and the effect described might be a) very small and b) not repeated.
- Especially ignore headlines about social media and mental health – there is very poor evidence of a relevant or meaningful connection. Some people are helped by social media and others are not – depending on many factors, including some of those above.
Some negative effects for which there’s strong evidence (though this does not mean these problems will happen)
- Over-use / compulsive use / “addiction” – it is very easy indeed to find ourselves using our screens in a compulsive way and to a degree that stops us spending enough time on other important activities (In the paid-for talk that i’ll do later I will explain why – it’s fascinating and important to know but there’s not time here)
- Procrastination – this is connected to the previous point. Young people very often indeed tell me they worry about this as they notice that they often find themselves using their devices as a procrastination tool
- Poor concentration / distraction – this is a very real problem for many. again, I’ll cover the fascinating and empowering reasons when I speak about this in a recorded webinar.
- Loss of time on the crucial life occupations: physical activity; face-to-face activity and interaction; reading for pleasure and other opffline hobbies; sleep; and daydreaming and mental wandering. (Again, that’s something I’ll explain in my talk. It’s far more important than you think!)
What about online safety?
This is obviously a huge concern for parents. I don’t talk about this very much purely for the reason that schools cover this well. But I do talk about the importance of adults and young people understanding something of why a person might share something online that they shouldn’t, whether that’s their contact details or an inappropriate photo, and why a young person is even more likely to do that than an adult, though adults make those mistakes, too.
In my later talk I’ll cover the psychology of this and talk about the “online disinhibition effect” but meanwhile I recommend all adults become familiar with ThinkUKnow.
What do we not need to worry about?
- Anything that is not causing a problem for us. For example, if one person’s mental health is not being harmed, they do not need to worry about that. (But they should still be aware of the possibility so that they can step away.)
- Whether a certain amount of time on screen is “too much” – it’s not the time: it’s what you’re doing with it and what it’s doing to you.
- A young person who loves gaming – this on its own is not a problem. What is a problem is if it’s stopping them doing the other healthy and important things of life. I’ll talk about how to approach gaming “over-use” in a later article.
Our brains are wired – and have been for hundreds of thousands of years – to be attracted to certain behaviours. We are drawn towards eating chocolate because of the sweetness, which indicates calories, for example. (Calories being essential to survival.) This wiring happens via the “reward system” in the brain, which triggers the neurotransmitter, dopamine – what I call the YES chemical – any time we anticipate doing something that caused us pleasure before. “Pleasure” need not be conscious or enormous – it can be very small and seemingly insignificant.
The ping of a notification or even just the sight of your phone are two examples of things which trigger this reward system. Our brain instantly goes “oooh, there might be something nice there”. Interestingly, the fact that there sometimes isn’t actually increases the excitement.
The things which we are wired for are always things which the brain has evolved to see as useful either for survival or success or both.
Three things the brain is wired for are:
- Being social – humans are social creatures and we are successful as a species and as individuals because of our habit of building groups and being collaborative. We share things: knowledge, warmth, food, support, happiness and sadness, childcare, building and creating. So our brain pushes us towards social interaction with the dopamine buzz. This includes people who identify as introvert – we just like individual contact or small, quiet groups, but we have as much need for connection as extroverts.
- Being curious – the more we know, the better we can do; the more experiences we have, the more we know and the more connections and opportunities we have.
- Being distracted – we survive when we notice danger; we risk death if we are so focused that we don’t notice a predator or other danger. We are particularly wired for novelty (What’s that shape in the undergrowth – a lion?) and movement (What’s that movement in the undergrowth? A snake?)
Think about it: our screens are beautifully designed to give us endless and relentless opportunities to be social, curious and distracted. It’s not surprising we find ourselves compulsively using!
What to do about it?
Part 2 of this mini course will show you how to harness this psychology and start to work out how you can build your family’s and your own good habits. Part 3 will get even more practical! I can’t promise when I’ll get this to you as I’m colossally busy and have the Edinburgh Book Festival coming up next weekend, where I’m charing Maggie o’Farrell. And in a few weeks, I’ll video a full talk about all this, which will go into more detail. I will have to charge for that but you can have this mini-course free until then. And when I’ve written all three parts of the free course, I’ll add a whole load of downloadable handouts, which will also be free.
Meanwhile, if you like all my free stuff and if by any chance you appreciate the work I’ve done for many years to help parents, schools and young people, do take a look at my shop, where you’ll find a LIVE event on resilience (hurry to book your slot!) and recorded webinars and other things for schools and for individuals/households. (Scroll down for those.)
I’ve earned no income since June so it would be quite nice to sell a few of the things I created in lockdown, not least because each one contains a LOT of value. Just saying! I have no salary and earn on average 30-40p per book sale so it’s not easy keeping head above water as a writer. My speaking engagements were the backbone of my income and they’ve now dropped hugely, of course. You might look at me and all my books and think, “She’s very successful – must be coining it.” I’m afraid that is so far from the truth that it hurts!
Apologies for that plaintive plea. And if you can’t afford or don’t want to buy something, do tell other people about my shop and how there are fabulous, unique products to help schools and families and individuals. I will be so grateful for any sale. Thank you