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 Coming soon: Boosting Teenage Resilience video for homes and schools

Healthy Screen Habits – Part Two

This is a FREE mini course on building healthy screen habits for you and your family. But it won’t remain free forever so make sure you download or copy the material. Soon, I will record a talk on the subject, combine that with the other parts and make it available to buy for a modest fee from my shop, where you can already find recorded webinars and other delicacies.

Here is the INTRO

Here is Part One

And now, as surely as two follows one, comes Part Two.

Part 2 – Harnessing psychology

Today I will talk about:

  1. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
  2. Teenage brain factors – the weak prefrontal cortex and the powerful social drive; risk-taking and peer pressure
  3. Why addiction psychology helps us here
  4. Why stimulus generalisation helps us here
  5. What brain bandwidth and the failure of multi-tasking tell us about healthy screen use
  6. Thinking about the different ages and personalities of your family members
  7. Why this has to be a family commitment and your example counts

1. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

When we want to motivate a person of any age/type/gender to do something, such as exercising more, eating more veg, breaking a bad habit, practising a musical instrument – anything they might not immediately desire to do but which will ultimately bring benefit – we would do well to understand how temptation and drive work. Two brain areas work together in an uneasy partnership to drive every decision we make, whether right or wrong. First, the “hot” Limbic system experiences the drive – an emotional, instinctive, reactional impulse either towards or away from something. “I want to eat that third biscuit”; “I don’t want to audition for that performance.” This is all based on what we want now, with emphasis both on want and now. Then the “cold” prefrontal cortex steps in (always after the Limbic system) and says “But if I eat that third biscuit I will feel sick/regret it for some other reason” or “But if I don’t do the audition I will miss an opportunity/regret it for some other reason.” And if the PFC wins, I don’t eat the biscuit and I do the audition. (It’s slightly more complex than that because the PFC might actually decide that eating the biscuit or not auditioning is right,  but you get the point.)

The thing to remember is that the Limbic system tends to dominate. We are creatures of emotion, drive, temptation. We are wired, for good reasons, to want and not want certain things, to be rewarded for doing/not doing them and to want that reward again. So, motivation is most likely to be stronger if we really want the outcome and if it will give us pleasure quickly.

The Limbic system is about NOW. The PFC can postpone pleasure. When we make a PFC-driven good decision we do so in spite of our clamouring Limbic system.

Intrinsic motivation is motivation that harnesses the Limbic system more closely: it is self-generated, from within me; it is about how I feel now; it is about desire; it is mine. I will exercise more and eat more veg if I enjoy the exercise and the veg.

Extrinsic motivation is more PFC-driven: the reward is offered from outside, bestowed by others or by scientific evidence, not self-generated. It is about benefit that is offered for later, often much later. I will exercise more and eat more veg because then I will live longer, get less arthritis, have a lower risk of heart disease in twenty-five years etc.

Both motivations are valid but intrinsic motivation is far more robust. Extrinsic is reasonable at getting us started but not at all good at keeping us going. It’s like a New Year resolution – it doesn’t tap sufficiently into what makes us feel good now, so it doesn’t work well for long.

Bear this in mind when you think about how you can motivate your family and yourself to use their screens less or with more discipline. Are you harnessing their hot Limbic system or their cooler PFC? The more you can find ways to use the Limbic system, the easier it will be to succeed. And success brings more success.

2. Teenage brain factors – weak prefrontal cortex and powerful social drive; risk-taking and peer pressure

The most important adolescent brain factor, in my view, is that the teenage prefrontal cortex (PFC) hasn’t finished developing (and doesn’t until well into the 20s) while the Limbic system is fully developed. This is important because the PFC is our “control centre”, necessary for cool decision-making, looking ahead, resisting temptation, analysing consequence and making good judgements. The Limbic system is active in what you might call the opposite of those behaviours: temptation, instinct, emotion, drive, reward. Although each individual will develop at different speeds and have different experiences, behaviours and challenges along the way, it’s fair to say that self-control and resisting temptation is typically easier for older adults than for adolescents and children. Though we often find it very difficult – because, as you learnt above, the Limbic system tends to dominate.

Adolescents have a disadvantage over younger children, too, even though their PFC is more developed than young children’s: adolescents are powerfully drawn towards following peer pressure and the wishes of their group (or desired group), disobeying and distrusting adult instruction and taking risks where those risks cement their status in their peer groups. So, while they might know what the right thing is to do, they are often strongly pressured not to do it.

The nutshell reason for that powerful drive towards following peers, not adults, is that adolescence is a stage necessarily involving separation on the journey towards independence, which is the desired destination. As they are separating from dependence on, protection from and association with their adult carers, they must find new groups, connections, friendships, people to trust and rely on. Humans are social creatures and we need connection in order to feel safe and succeed in life so we are biologically wired to ensure that we are not alone and left out. Adolescents must follow peer pressure at least to an extent and some feel that need more than others.

So, “fear of missing out”, FOMO, is a very big deal for young people. And the part of the brain they’d need to use in order to resist the temptation to join in is the PFC, that undeveloped area.

3. Why addiction psychology helps us here

In Part One you read about why our devices have the potential to be so tempting and thus addictive. So, as we start to think about how to mitigate the risk of over-use, it’s helpful to recognise that what works in other addictions is also likely to be useful with screen addiction or, if you prefer not to use the word “addiction”, at least compulsive over-use.

If you were trying to reduce your use of or dependence on any substance or behaviour, you’d try to do the following (and I’ll show you how to apply this in Part Three):

  • Not have it within sight – “out of sight is out of mind”. Supposing you wanted to eat less chocolate – you’d keep it out of sight and reach, wouldn’t you?
  • Make it hard to get at
  • Set reasonable and achievable targets – in some addictions cold turkey might be the way to go but not in all and not in this case because, after all, using our screens moderately is not negative (unlike nicotine or Class A drugs, for example); suppose you were reducing your chocolate intake, it would be reasonable to allow yourself a certain amount at certain times
  • Take a one day at a time approach
  • Replace with a more healthy pleasurable action
  • Recognise your successes – take pleasure in them
  • Enlist the encouragement of others
  • Change the habit loops and surrounding stimuli – I’ll come to this when I talk about creating new habits and harnessing stimulus generalisation in Part Three

4. Why stimulus generalisation helps us here

I would not really be cooking in a white shirt. And where’s the wine?

SInce this is all about habits – and replacing bad habits with good – we should understand something really important about how habits form. And that is stimulus generalisation. Here’s what it’s about.

When we develop a habit, whether intentionally or not and whether a positive or negative habit, a large part of what embeds this habit is to do with the stimuli around us.

Supposing you work in an office or you go to school. Think about the routines that take you from home to office/school each day – your journey, the bag you carry, your clothes, the environment when you arrive, your office/class, computer, your possessions, where you hang your coat. These habits create one big mental state: “I am at work.”

Then supposing you start working from home – lockdown, I’m looking at you. You’re working in the same place where you play, eat, do chores, socialise, sleep etc. You find yourself less able to switch into work mode. The stimuli have changed and so do your habits.

Let’s look at another example. I enjoy a glass of wine in the evening. Especially when I’m cooking the evening meal, which I do every evening because I like doing that. I go through the whole day not thinking about my glass of wine and then 7pm comes and I leave my desk and go to the kitchen to start cooking. And suddenly I really want a glass of wine. It’s a habit. But one of the reasons that this is a deeply engrained habit is all of the things that have become cues to having a glass of wine: everything about how the kitchen looks and smells make up the stimuli that surround “have a glass of wine”; the time of day, the actions, the sense of relaxation, the fact that I’ve just left my desk, putting on my apron, my husband joining me (and pouring the wine!)

If I’m away on business and at 7pm I’m doing a talk – or even last night, for example, when I was doing an online talk in my office at 7pm – the glass of wine didn’t cross my mind. (I’m not saying it never would, just that it’s less likely to.)

We are creatures of habit. Habits are useful things for the brain because we don’t have to concentrate on a decision if that’s what we always do and the neural pathways are strong through use. Habit. But habits can be dangerous things, too.

We can drink too much wine. We can use our phones when we need to work without them. Etc.

In Part Three, I’ll show you how to use this understanding to break bad screen habits and build new, healthy ones – the ones you and your teenagers would genuinely love to have!

5. What brain bandwidth and the failure of multi-tasking tell us about healthy screen use

Brain bandwidth is a fascinating topic which I’ve written about before – here, for example. Once you understand the principles, you’ll recognise (and so will young people) that when you want to do your best work you must eliminate anything that will occupy more brain bandwidth than you can afford to lose for the task. For example, you will realise that having the distractions of notifications, open screen windows, moving banners and adverts, will take away from the bandwidth you need to do the task as well and efficiently as possible. Once you know this, you will want to switch off all unnecessary devices and programs.

There’s a large body of research (see here or here and scroll down to the section on screens: concentration etc) which shows that multi-tasking does not work for anyone (or almost anyone – it’s possible that there’s a tiny minority of people for whom it genuinely does) if by “multi-tasking” we mean “being able to do a high-concentration task as well with an alternative mental task going on as without”. And “alternative mental tasks” include almost anything that might occupy your mental space, such as: electronic notifications, thinking about whether a notification might come, knowing a notification hasn’t been answered, someone asking you a question or telling you something, irritating noises, intrusive thoughts or anxieties, worry about time pressure. It’s been shown that even looking at a phone reduces one’s performance on a task; as does sitting next to someone with a laptop open!

Knowing this is the start of wanting to deal with it. After all, who actually wants to do a piece of work less well and take longer over it?

6. Thinking about the different ages and personalities of your family members

When you come to discussing what the guidelines will be for your family, you will need to take age, personality, challenges, situations and all sorts of individual factors into account.

For example:

  • Younger children will need different (and tighter) rules compared to teenagers
  • Teenagers will need more say in the rules than younger children
  • If you already have problems with over-use and a chaotic set of behaviours in your household, you may need to set the bar lower than otherwise – small steps
  • Your existing communication with your teenagers will make a difference to how quickly you can achieve success but do remember that actually young people do need and respect some boundaries, even if they might not say so… You may need to be a little bit tough and deal with dissent – but if you only make reasonable suggestions based on sense, care and truth, you will succeed
  • Your teenager’s friends will also make a difference to how easy or hard this is going to be… But do not buy that old “Your’e the strictest parent in the world – ALL my friends are allowed to do this!)

7. Why this has to be a family commitment and your example counts

This is crucial! If you answer your phone, check emails, read notifications, at times when you’re meant to be properly with your children or teens, they see that they are not as important as your work/friends/whatever. And they see that it’s one rule for you and another for them.

Now, I fully believe that in many situations adults can have different rules. Adults are not the same as children and teenagers. But the analogy I use here is healthy eating. Do you think it’s OK for you to eat a chocolate bar before a meal while telling your children not to? Would you eat chocolate at a meal while serving your children broccoli? No, you wouldn’t. So why is it OK for you to use your phone etc in a way or at a time when you’re saying it’s not OK for your kids to?

To do so is a) to completely undermine the science and health-based message and b) to encourage your children to disobey your guidelines and to act unhealthily with their devices.

So, while you might well decide on guidelines that have some specific differences for different members of the family:

  1. Those differences must be very well reasoned and very fair – for example, since your bedtime might be later than your children’s, it’s reasonable that the time when you agree to turn your phone off might be later. But it’s equally reasonable – and even healthier – if you choose that you will all switch off at the same time…
  2. The differences between the rules for you and those for older teenagers in your household should be minimal or non-existent – ideally the latter
  3. You absolutely must have agreed guidelines and follow them – and when you fail you should own up and apologise, which in itself will help establish that this is difficult and you are human but that you are trying because it’s worth it.

Do look out for Part Three, when I will really get to grips with how we will choose and act on these guidelines! And I’ll give you some handouts and Powerpoints. To keep! (But be quick because they won’t be free for long.)

To be sure not to miss it, sign up to this blog/website and you’ll be the first to know. You’ll get occasional exclusive offers, too.

Meanwhile, checkout Life Online – it’s for teenagers and adults. It’s demystifying, reasonable, empowering and robustly researched and thought through.

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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