I had always thought of myself as someone who had a high level of awareness of how I use technology. I suffered from video game addiction in my 20’s, and the experience taught me that if I am not conscious and purposeful about how I use my time, it’s easy for bad habits to creep in and soak up all that “extra time”. Idle hands do the devil’s work, after all. And it’s so insidious.
Most people are shocked the first time they open the “Screen Time” app on their iPhone and they see the truth of the amount of time they are spending on Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok, and other timewasters. It’s easier to mindlessly swipe and scroll than it is to read a book, work out, or have a conversation with someone! Using a screen instead of doing something more rewarding is like eating a piece of candy: it’s OK in limited quantities, and feels great in the moment, but you can easily develop a sweet tooth and be constantly chasing that easy sugar high, with disastrous results for your health.
But in learning about Screen Time Clinic, the creation of Nicole Rawson, I saw that I had a lot to learn about not just my own behavior, but, even more importantly, how to help young family members who have a problem with screen time or avoid problematic use behaviors all together. I sat down with Nicole and had a fantastic conversation with her about screentimeclinic.com, the problems that screens cause for our children, and ways to help students struggling with overuse of screens. There were a few themes that came up repeatedly over the course of our conversation.
Parents have a different relationship with screens than their kids do
According to Nicole, although the negative effects of screen time are becoming well known now, many parents didn’t understand how detrimental screens would be for their children when the iPad was first introduced in 2010 because these parents grew up in a world without the instant gratification that smartphones allow and didn’t see the harm in making things more efficient or entertaining. When we wanted to talk to someone, we had to wait until we got home to call. When we wanted to know something, we had to go to the library. When we wanted to play a game, we had to find a friend or two, sit down at a table, and talk to each other (even video games in those days were face to face affairs). That isn’t to say that easier access to communication, information, and entertainment are on their own bad things. I’m no luddite! Certainly, taken on their own, they are absolutely positive. But they do have downsides that we parents never had to experience growing up.
And so, Nicole points out how many studies have shown that, because the technology was new and we didn’t understand the downsides, teens today grew up with easy access to infinite communication, information, and entertainment. They’ve been getting those dopamine hits from checking those flashing notifications, replies to their pictures, or their farms/cities/etc for their entire lives. For adults, it didn’t start until our brains and our self-regulation skills were fully developed. If you think that some adults have problems with regulating their screen use, think about how tough it must be for kids!
Nicole believes that parents need to set the expectation for kids that phone use is a privilege that must be earned by demonstrating responsible use. “Just because your child has a driver’s license doesn’t mean we give them the keys and say, ‘Alright have fun! Stay under the speed limit!’ We set limits on how and when the car is used while the child shows us, over time, that they can use the car responsibly.” I think that is an extremely apt analogy. A big part of parenting is slowly helping your child expand the areas of life over which they can exert control, helping make sure that they don’t take on what they aren’t ready for. And that is definitely not how I thought about phone use before.
This might mean physically removing a device from a child who is not showing responsible use. “They won’t hate you!” says Nicole, laughing. “Ok, well they might be upset at first. But they will also experience relief after a while because you’ve taken something away that was taking control from them.” We restrict other privileges when students don’t show the necessary responsibility. We should do so with the phone too.
Screens as tools vs screens as entertainment
I think that many people look at screens like I do: yes, like with any technology, there are drawbacks, but those are more than overcome by the benefits. And of course, when we list the benefits, we list the “tools”. For my phone, my most used tools are:
- Calroo (family scheduling app)
- Rocketbook App (a digital/physical notebook hybrid)
- aTimeLogger (time tracking app)
- Upright GO (posture device app)
- mSecure (password manager)
- texting/Facebook Messenger
And many more
Thinking about how much easier/better these apps make my life makes me wonder how I managed before smartphones!
But those aren’t the only apps on my phone, are they? Looking at my the Screen Time, I see that my most used app is Safari. And I’ll bet that I was not using it for productive purposes.
Most parents don’t realize how addictive smartphone apps are: they are carefully designed to keep you constantly using or thinking about the app. To keep you scrolling. To keep you checking. And apps accomplish that phenomenally well. I’m sure most adults have exerienced scrolling facebook/twitter/instagram/pinterest and looking up to realize that an hour passed without their noticing. Or trying to get focused work done, but checking notifications keeps pulling you away. How much worse must it be for our teenagers, with their still developing minds and coping skills? (Nicole recommends at the very least turning all notifications off, and turning the color to greyscale to fully see how the design dulls these highly engaging effects.)
On net, therefore, does my phone cause me a net benefit? I’d say yes. But what about our kids’ phones? Our arguments with our kids around phone use often revolve around how important and essential their phones are (even though, for most teens, the tool:entertainment ratio is very low!) When you take a teen’s phone away, they’ll say that they need access to their phones for vital purposes X, Y, and Z, while ignoring pernicious uses A, B, and C (that will typically constitute 90% of their phone use).
I found one way to blunt this argument when I took a look at the “Family Meeting and Support Documents” on screentimeclinic.com. An idea that I found there was having scheduled time to use screens. When you get home, everyone puts their smartphone together in a box or a drawer. They only come out every 30 minutes, or at certain given times, so that we can use the phones to accomplish their intended purposes. Once that purpose is accomplished, the phone is put away, giving our students the freedom to concentrate on work, or interact with people face to face: a skill that adults take for granted, but one that Nicole has, in her own experience as a middle school teacher, seen decline as screen interaction replaces face to face interaction. Some of her colleagues have told her that they’ve observed this decline in students’ social skills as young as Kindergarten!
Another idea Nicole gave me (that, among many, I have implemented in my home) is purchasing an Amazon Echo or other smart speakers. That way, we can accomplish many of the things we need our phones for (time, set timers/reminders/alarms, look something up. listen to music, and many more!) without picking up a phone and falling into a snare that the phone has set for us.
Also, maybe wearing watches should come back in style?
“In-between” times aren’t harmless
In looking over the support documents at screentimeclinic.com, I was surprised to see discussion of using phones in the bathroom, in the car, and other “in-between” times. In my mind, those were the most innocent uses of phones for their “entertainment” value. I mean, I get why I need to put my phone away and focus when I’m working, or having dinner with my family. But even when I’m in the elevator taking my dog down for a walk, or standing at line at the grocery store? Certainly, there is nothing wrong with scrolling Twitter at times when there is almost no way I could be doing something else productive, right? Thinking about this, I mentioned to my wife that I don’t remember the last time I took an elevator ride and DIDN”T take out my phone!
The support documents explain to the teenager why we shouldn’t use the phone in the bathroom (it’s unsanitary) and in the car (we should all share the responsibility of paying attention to the road). And while these seemed reasonable to me, I sensed there was something else to this. And I was right. “The bathroom is a private place,” Nicole pointed out. Students can be looking at things they should not be looking at. And it turns bathroom visits into interminable opportunities to use the phone in a house where phone use is monitored. I’ve certainly experienced bathroom breaks that went on longer than they needed to because they turned more into “phone breaks”. It’s also a place to hide a behavior that you don’t want other people to know you are taking part in. These seemingly small-but important!-insights continuously impressed me with how much thought Nicole has put into these screen use behaviors.
Thinking about it myself later, I realized that if phone use is a habit, reinforcing the habit with low value use, even places/times that seem innocent (like waiting in line), makes it more likely the habit shows itself in places it shouldn’t (like during dinner or in class). You are creating a “groove” in your mind, making the action more habitual the more the behavior is reinforced. That isn’t to say that I think replying to an email or reading a book on your phone (tools) while standing in line is a bad thing. But getting that dopamine hit from seeing a reply to a post or checking your instagram feed, even while in line, may make it more likely that you’ll seek that dopamine at a “worse” time, later.
Screen Time Clinic can help.
Academic problems can cause family problems. Sometimes the best thing that Wells Academic Solutions does for families is to bring in a neutral third party that doesn’t have the fear/anger/anxiety that parents and students sometimes have. We take the problem off their parents’ plate, which often reduces the student’s anxiety allowing them greater success.
Similarly, Screen Time Clinic can help with screen time problems that are causing family problems. From her personal experience (she has two teenagers herself!) and her extensive research, Nicole is extremely knowledgeable about the difficulties that unregulated screentime can do to students and families, and the emotions that can be wrapped up in it. She helps provide a framework to help students understand the detrimental effects of screentime and for parents to monitor and control it. And she can provide ongoing support to families that need that neutral third party to provide it.
In the end, we want our kids to be tech literate and savvy. And, at least in my experience, the part that we are missing is teaching our students the dangers of our screens, and the regulation skills they’ll need, as it’s certain that the worlds that they will inhabit as adults will have technology even more proliferate. Their ability to control their own attention, rather than have it be controlled by their devices, may be one of the most important skills that that will determine their success as adults.
It’s no surprise that when screen time is reduced, academic attention increases both at home and in school. If you are interested in learning more about ways to maximize your child’s development time and gain support in reducing your child’s screen time check out screentimeclinic.com for more program details or RSVP by emailing info@screentimeclinic to attend their next free seminar in La Jolla on March 4th.