Here is the third and final part of a FREE (for a short time only) mini course on building healthy screen habits for you and your family. Soon, I will record a talk on the subject, combine that with the other parts, add more material, and make it available to buy from my shop, where you can already find recorded webinars and other delicacies.
Here is the Intro
Here is Part One.
Here is Part Two.
Below is Part Three.
And at the end is an OFFER!
In Part Three I cover strategies. But you DO need to read Parts One and Two, otherwise the strategies won’t make sense in the deep way necessary. If you don’t understand why a strategy is offered, you won’t fully buy into it, you won’t keep going if it seems difficult and you won’t be able to adapt it to the circumstances of your family. So, if you haven’t read Parts One and Two, please do so now.
Have you done that? Hooray!
If you haven’t, I’m waiting…
QUICK IMPORTANT THOUGHT: Being distracted is not necessarily a bad thing. I was distracted just now and went over to Facebook and happened upon a useful article! You can go and read it if you like but don’t forget to come back.
How all the understanding will inform our strategies
- Recognising that different ages of person require different approaches and different levels of help is going to be crucial but…
- …at the same time, doing this as a family/household/team will be vital to the success of each individual.
- We will recognise the need to harness power of the Limbic system and intrinsic motivation because that will be naturally stronger than the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and its cool, extrinsic motivation. We will not ignore the PFC and extrinsic motivation, as they can help, too, but we will recognise that they need more support than the powerful Limbic system and its focus on pleasure NOW.
- We will recognise that teenagers will be likely to need extra help compared to adults (because younger people are even more dominated by Limbic system/reward, thanks to their undeveloped PFC) but that setting over-rigid rules will not work, as yp will be highly drawn to follow peer pressure. So we will need to handle teenagers very carefully and keep communication and negotiation lines open.
- Understanding the power of addiction and compulsive habit-forming will lead us to follow some of the same methods we’d follow when dealing with any other sort of addiction; we will also understand that saying “don’t do it” will go absolutely nowhere towards a solution.
- Understanding the principles of stimulus generalisation will help us build environments that will break the bad habits and create new habits.
- Realising that multi-tasking makes us do our work less well and take longer over it will help us see why uni-tasking is going to be a good practice on those occasions when we want to do good work.
You can pick your combination of these to suit your situation and family. If something seems unachievable, why not give it a go anyway? You could be pleasantly surprised. If something won’t work for you for a specific reason but you can see a way of adapting it, definitely do this. Adaptability is why humans succeed! So, do not go into this planning to follow everything I say to the letter if you can see a better way to follow my principles. You know yourself and your family better than I can!
CAUTION: If there are more than one adults in your household, you both have to buy into the plan. The single biggest chance of failure comes when you don’t agree with each other or one of you undermines the other by giving in or subverting the agreements you all make as a family.
1. Respect and trust
If you approach this with any sense of “I’m making these rules for you because you can’t be trusted”, you’re bound to fail. Your aim should be to build each person’s self-control, which you’ll do first by trusting that they can achieve self-control, that they have agency, that they can do this. So, the message should be, “This is hard – it’s hard for all of us – but I’ve learnt some ways we can make it easier. We can help each other and I trust you to play your part in helping this whole family have a brilliantly healthy time with our screens. When any of us makes a mistake, we will own up, ask for help and try again. You can help me, too.”
This is especially necessary with teenagers, who are on their way to being adults and are not the same as children. You’ll find that they share elements of both child and adult behaviour and it can be hard to predict which one will be the reaction to any given situation. While all teenagers are different, be aware (and help them be aware, too) that they are typically:
- More likely to be driven by what their peers are doing – that temptation is greater
- More likely to make decisions based on present desire than longterm gain
- Less able to look ahead, especially when feeling emotional
- Less able to decide to step away from a conversation or argument that is going on
- More likely to see the negative in a situation
All of these things can make it harder for them to resist the lure of the screen but it is not impossible. They just need extra help, support and understanding.
- Discuss with them the problems you have and how hard you find it. Ask them what they think
- Discuss what they would like to do better and how they might do it – and if they want any help
- Ask them to help you have better screen habits
- Suggest that they research the facts and science around screen use and share with the family what they find
- Suggest that each family member comes to the family discussion with a few things to say – either ideas, or problems or interesting facts
2. Negotiate as a household
It doesn’t matter whether you have a household of two people or ten, everyone needs to know the policy and any rules. If the children in your household are old enough to be using a screen they are old enough to be part of the conversation about how to use it. That does not mean that children set rules, but that they need to understand the importance and reason for the rules. The more they can be brought into the discussions, the better, and the more say they feel they have the better. For example, giving them a choice between A and B, where both A and B are acceptable to you, gives them choice and engagement while keeping actual control with you.
Call a family meeting; tell everyone they’re going to be able to contribute ideas and make choices; explain that it’s all about being healthy, happy and successful and feeling good about work and social lives; suggest that some of them read my posts first so they know this is for everyone and it’s not about adults telling kids what to do. Have a structure to the meeting, making sure everyone gets a chance to speak and be heard. If there seems to be a lot of agreement, you could draw up your plan there and then. If not, get everyone to go away and think what they believe the rules (for everyone) should be and then create a compromise.
3. Work with the Limbic system – immediate pleasure
The powerful Limbic system is driven towards pleasure. So, we have to find the pleasure in making right decisions. Keep your conversations focused mostly on how good a good decision feels now, more than whether it will lead to a better life in 25 years. “It’s making me happy NOW or very very soon”.
Here are some examples of how to encourage family members to think:
- When you put your phone/device away while you do a piece of work, how well did you do it? Did you feel good concentrating well? How good did it feel?
- When you spent time playing sport/with your family/offline for any reason, how did you feel? Did you forget about your phone and did that make you feel proud that actually you didn’t need to be looking at it all the time? When you came back to it after that break, was it fun seeing your messages and having a chance to read them?
- How do you feel when you make a wrong decision and continuously scroll instead of working? How can you remember that unpleasant/guilty feeling and use it to encourage yourself to seek the pleasure of delaying rather than the guilt of time-wasting?
- Just find opportunities to discuss those questions, when the topic arises
- Or get each family member to use words or pictures to show the emotions they sometimes feel, connected to using social media – the positives and the negatives. You could start with an image of a person to represent each member, and then write/draw/stick ideas around it. Perhaps it’s to do with having fun with friends and the pleasure of that and the sadness of feeling left out. Then you can discuss whatever comes out of that: “What would you like to have more of/less of? How will you achieve that?”
- When you find a time when everyone did put their phones away and had phone-free fun, grasp the impetus to plan another similar opportunity while everyone’s still feeling positive about it. “Let’s do this once a week?”
4. Work with the Limbic system – make it easy to do the right thing
If you were wanting to reduce your chocolate intake, which of these would be more sensible:
- Hide the chocolate out of sight and make it hard to get?
- Or have the chocolate in front of you all the time?
The first, right? So, do the same with your tempting devices:
- At times when you don’t want to use your phone, put it where you can’t see or hear it
- Make it as hard to get as possible – put it in another part of the house or give it to a trusted adult to keep for a certain amount of time
- Make use of any “focus” settings to prevent notifications when you are working
- Have any unnecessary Apps, windows and devices switched off
- Consider using one of the many Apps that prevent access to social media for certain amounts of time. I use one called Freedom, which I pay a small amount for, but you will be able to find free ones.
- Discuss as a family which of those would help and any practical ways to make it happen. For example, can you choose a place where people can put their phones safely? Do you want to invest in a kitchen timer or an App? What focus functions do your existing phones or devices already have?
5. Use strong rules to make it easy, too
Although I’m all about building self-control, we also know that self-control is limited. We deplete our energy when we’re constantly trying to resist temptation. So, rules help. but the rules need to be: sensible/reasonable; agreed; firm; few.
Here’s a rule I recommend: “We will never see or hear our phones/devices at the following times: during meals, from 1.5 hours before bed till waking time, and when someone is trying to talk to us.”
Discuss, agree and write it down for everyone to sign!
6. Harness psychology – timed sessions
Investigate the pomodoro technique. This is a very simple but powerful way of building a healthy habit of focusing for a certain amount of time and it can be used by any age. You do not need to buy an App but there is a free thing I use called the tomato-timer. You simply set it (or any timer) for a period of time during which you promise to focus only on the task in hand. 25 minutes is recommended as the best amount of time but it can be ay amount you like. The remarkable thing is that when your alarm pings you very often want to carry on working!
7. If-then strategies
I highly recommend that you read (or listen to the audio version of) Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test. Although this stems from and describes the original and now rather old (and in some case revised) “marshmallow test” research, the book extends this immensely, describing all the ensuing research, over many years and by many people, that stemmed from that specific study on small children. There’s a wealth of fascinating insight into how we can affect our self-control.
One of the most powerful parts is the work on IF/THEN strategies. In essence, when we are trying to create good habits and avoid unhealthy temptation, we need to enact strategies which break the negative habit loop. We have to recognise where and when the temptation is likely to occur, notice when it does and implement a planned-ahead strategy.
The problem: I know I am often tempted to check my social media when I sit down at my desk to start work and the problem is that then I get caught up in social media and delay the start of work – this feels bad.
The planned-ahead strategy (IF/THEN):
- EITHER: IF this temptation occurs, I will THEN tell myself not to and distract by humming a tune/drinking some water (sounds ridiculous? Try it!)
- OR: I will make sure this temptation doesn’t happen by putting my phone in another room before I start and [making a rule that once I’ve sat down I work for 25 minutes] [setting a timer for 25 minutes]
Don’t forget to notice and acknowledge how good this feels.
TOP TIP: If/Then strategies are the KEY to all this. Create your own and get your children and teenagers to create theirs. You can’t make one for someone else – it must be self-chosen. But you can make suggestions and get them to pick one. And these strategies are things you can use in ANY area of life when you’re trying to direct your or someone else’s behaviour towards a postive action rather than a negative habit.
8. Create a social-free work environment
This is where you try to harness the power of stimulus generalisation and how you do it will depend on your home, your resources and your specific situations. Each family member designs and controls their own work environment. A person might not be lucky enough to have one space that is only used for them and their work but even if you’re using a kitchen table or a shared bedroom or you have to move your work things when it’s bedtime there are still ways to do this. You can also choose that the work environment is a local library.
Here’s what to think about:
- Decide where you will do your work – could be your bedroom floor, a desk, a table in the sitting-room, but it must be in your head as “this is where I’ll work”.
- Think about how you can make this space different for work compared to other activities. For example, if it’s your bedroom floor, what bits of equipment or furniture will you put there when you work? A particular cushion? A rug?
- Find a few items that you will only use when you work: a folder or pile of folders; a specific mug or water flask; a photo; a particular snack; an LED candle; particular music.
- And, crucially, decide the things you will NOT do or have there when working: your phone and all social media. Make this rule so strong that you’ll feel bad when you break it. If you do break it you must leave the workspace and schedule another time.
- Each family member to plan their work environment. Everyone to pledge to respect everyone else’s.
- Perhaps have a symbol that everyone can use to indicate that they’re working and not to be disturbed? A sign on a door or a particular hat – anything that you all recognise as “do not disturb”.
- Start using your work environments as soon and regularly as possible. You’re trying to create a new habit and routine.
9. Practise uni-tasking
If you’ve done the work in the previous parts of this course, you’ll know that multi-tasking does not make us work well. And yet we have no trouble multi-tasking if the tasks are light on brain bandwidth – indeed, we need to multitask otherwise we’d never get things done. But teach your young people – and help them notice for themselves – that some thing require a lot of brain bandwidth or attention and that no one does well on a complex task when another complex task intrudes.
Complex tasks include:
- Listening to someone give us information or instructions, even simple things
- Reading anything, even simple things such as texts or media headlines – so everything we do on social media
- Writing anything, even simple things like signing our name
- Working anything out
- Understanding anything new
- Making any decisions
- Resisting temptation
Doing homework is almost always a complex task – unless it’s so easy that you don’t have to think about it!
The odd thing is that although uni-tasking is theoretically easier than multitasking, it can be hard to make ourselves do it because it involves putting away those deliciously tempting things, such as phones. We are wired to be curious and distracted (as you learnt in Part 1 and 2) so we are naturally drawn to sparkly things that distract us from what we’re meant to be doing.
So we have to make an effort to decide to uni-task.
NOTE: However, it’s OK to listen to music if that helps you ficus! Listening to familiar music that you’ve chosen because you like it can help focus, as I explained here.
- Share my information on brain bandwidth with your 10+ children and teenagers. Get them to notice things they have to concentrate on and things they don’t and get them to see what happens when they have too much going on in their mind: for example, show them how hard it is to take in oral information while also reading something.
- Discuss how they will incorporate my strategies under points 6, 7 and 8 above for those times when they know they need to focus.
TOP TIP: Emphasise that if you uni-task you get your work done FASTER and BETTER – and who doesn’t want that?!
TOPMOST TIP OF ALL: Buy The Teenage Guide to Life Online – it has all the science and truth, the positives and negatives, for teenagers and their adults – because often it’s the adults who need this most!
There you have it, all the advice I can think of at the moment. But this is not the end of what I’m offering you. Early in 2022 I will:
- Add a Q&A section. In that I will put some questions from YOU and answer them. (See below under CALL TO ACTION 1.)
- Create a video of myself doing a talk about it all – the talk I would have done if I hadn’t hadn’t to cancel a webinar in September this year.
- Take everything I’ve written in the three parts and edit them, putting it all into one professionally designed pdf – at this point I’ll probably add more details as I think of them
- Turn it into a structured online course so people can easily find what they’re looking for
- And bundle it with a load of handouts and resources
- Then sell it on my website for a very modest amount of money!
CALL TO ACTION 1: Do you have a question? Ask it in the comments below. I will then answer it, either in a reply if it’s a short answer, or on my blog if it’s longer. And I will pick the most useful questions to add to the course.
CALL TO ACTION 2: What would you like to see in a “course” if people were going to pay for it? Tell me in the comments. If you’ve ever done an online course, what did or didn’t you like about it? (This course will be purely online, for people to do in their own time, not a live course. It will be designed to do what these three posts have done: deeply inform and also provide strategies.)
NOTE THIS EXTRA SPECIAL THING: The FIVE comments, ideas or questions that I like best will get a FREE COPY OF THE COURSE, including the video.
And now I need to go and lie down. Without a screen…