Looking smartly at ourselves (not just at our smartphones)

Experts from around the world share simple but effective tips on healthy gadget use for families. This is a ParentCircle exclusive.

By Dr Meghna Singhal  • 9 min read

Looking smartly at ourselves (not just at our smartphones)

Selfitis. Nomophobia. FOMO.

These words were unheard of a decade ago. But, over the past 10-odd years, our lives have been transformed—rapidly and irreversibly—by digital technology. While digital technology has been a great enabler, we have somehow allowed it to become a driving force in our lives.

We scroll obsessively through social media. We play games on our phone when bored. We shop online and check our email >20 times a day. We check our phones the first thing in the morning after we wake up. We use gadgets to “babysit” our children. We even check time on our phones. We panic when the battery of our device drops to below 10% and we are not carrying a charger. It seems that every minute of our waking lives is driven by screens!

We are so connected to screens that we are losing track of the “real” connections of life. No surprise then that digital detox is emerging as a buzzword in recent times. People are aware of gadget overuse—and that’s a positive sign. So, how can we self-regulate when it comes to gadget use? Can we reduce our gadget usage without any stress? To talk about this and more, we reached out to some of the finest screen-time gurus in the world. And we have packaged “smart” tips to get you off gadgets. 

Tip #1: Set aside 'indistractable' time - Nir Eyal (Author of 'Hooked')

“We want technology to serve us and [we need to] make sure we don’t serve technology,” says Nir Eyal in a conversation with ParentCircle. It is, therefore, our responsibility to deal with the persistent and persuasive distractions technology affords us. Do we really want to spend all day getting distracted by the different technologies to the detriment of losing our time and our real connections? How do we minimize our screen time and focus on our priorities?

“I found that in my house we were going to bed later and later. My wife and I weren’t getting good sleep—and it wasn’t good for our relationship. So, we entered into an effort pact. We set up our Wi-Fi router to switch off our internet at 10 p.m. Can we turn it back on? Of course, we can. But that bit of effort reminds us that that’s not what we want to do right now,” says Eyal. “Making an effort pact with your device could include installing a distraction-proofing app, such as SelfControl, which can block your access to social media websites for a pre-determined time duration.”

The idea is not to serve technology, but to let technology serve us.

What you can do NOW - Put down your smartphone when spending time with your child. Set aside “indistractable” time for your family. Your child will remember for the rest of his life that he was important enough for his parents to keep aside their phones to listen to him.

Tip# 2: When you log off from work, turn off gadgets till your children are settled in for the night -Dr. Laura Markham (Parenting Guru and author of 'Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids')

We all crave close, melt-our-heart connections with our children. After the morning madness to get everyone ready for their day, we are caught in the evening madness of getting dinner on the table, after spending eight hours in front of our screens. Somewhere down the line, the joy of connection takes a backseat.

Children report feeling “unimportant” when their parents look at their smartphones during meals or playtime. Even your quick response to a text could send your child the message that your phone is more important than her.

But remember, you don’t need an awful lot of time to connect with your children on an everyday basis. Just a few minutes every day, spent laughing, roughhousing, playing and talking, will do the trick. All you need to do is keep your hands off your phones during this time. Says Dr Markham, “Slow down and savor the moment of connection with your child.” This won’t happen if emails, messages and notifications are vying for your attention.

What you can do NOW: When you log off from work, turn off push notifications till the children are settled in for the night. The idea is not to constantly respond to all the bleeps and pings clamoring for your attention. 

Tip #3: Try having one screen-free day per weekDr. Victoria Dunckley (Author of 'Reset Your Child’s Brain')

We all have at least one day off from work each week, and your child too has one day off from school. So, why can’t families have one day off from gadgets? Think about it. Dr Dunckley asserts, “The more people understand how screens affect the brain, the more motivated they are to control their own use.”

Her tip? “Try having one screen-free day every week. Research shows that bonding and time spent together are protective against technology overuse.” Remember, most children—even teenagers—will say they feel ignored by their parents’ device use.

What you can do NOW: Discuss as a family which day of the week would be the screen-free day. Use that day to rediscover and reconnect. Oh, there are enough activities to keep you “connected”. 

Tip #4: Practice the rule of thirdsBlake Snow (Author of 'Log Off: How to Stay Connected after Disconnecting')

You may ask, “What is the rule of thirds?” It’s simple—8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of work and 8 hours of free time each day. To better connect with the humans in front of us and in person (instead of the distant ones via electronic screens), we must break away from our phones with greater regularity. And the rule of thirds helps us do just that. It enables us to lead a more “heads-up” life (focused on the people and things in your immediate vicinity) than a “heads-down” life (always looking at your screen).

“The sooner we can implement the rule of thirds in our lives, the more fulfilling personal, professional and healthy lives we can lead,” says Snow.

What you can do NOW: Try to follow at least one of the three rules immediately. And adopt gradually the second and third rules. You will realize soon that you hardly made an effort, but change happened!

Tip #5: Work together as a family to set screen-time rules - Tanya Goodin (Author of ‘OFF: Your Digital Detox for a Better Life’ and ‘Stop Staring at Screens!’)

Setting rules around screen use can help families regulate their gadget use. More importantly, when the rules are discussed in the family in a democratic manner, children feel heard and are more likely to comply. These rules could be regarding duration (e.g., how many minutes or hours per day? on weekdays? on weekends?), time of use (e.g., in the evenings after finishing homework, never before bedtime), and zones (e.g., no screens in bedroom and at the dining table).

Says Goodin, “Let everyone have their say on what screen habits most annoy them or upset them. Agree on the ground rules and agree to support and encourage each other with them.”

What you can do NOW: Call for a quick family meeting one of these days and work out a mutually agreed weekly family media plan. Just look at the reaction on your child’s face when he is involved in this critical decision-making process.

Tip #6: Leave the phone outside the bathroom - Orianna Fielding (Author of ‘Unplugged: How to Live Mindfully in a Digital World’)

How about unplugging, a move that could range from a few minutes to a few hours every day? Well, this is what Fielding suggests. Her recommendation? Just leave your phone outside the bathroom or put it in a drawer for an hour at lunchtime. Replace your phone alarm with an alarm clock. Charge your phones outside your bedrooms at night. These are simple “unplug” ideas to get you going.

“Regular unplugging restores balance to your digitally overloaded world. It enables us to spend time being ‘present’ and live mindfully focusing on one thing, one person, one moment at a time. It gives us a chance to pause, to reconnect with ourselves, the people around us and our planet,” she says.

What you can do NOW: Pick three or four times a day when you are definitely going to unplug, and see if these moments can align with the time you can spend with your child. 

Tip #7: Decide what your priorities and values are as a family, then see how screens fit in -Tanya Goodin (author of OFF: Your Digital Detox for a Better Life and Stop Staring at Screens!)

At the end of the day, family time should never be curtailed. Nor should it be replaced by screen time. When parents and children both depend on screens to take a break, they forget how to connect with each other. This is a dangerous precedent we are setting for our children. So, if you are facing this situation, it’s important to pause and evaluate priorities and values as a family.

Do you value connecting with your spouse? Do you value kindness and empathy? Is good physical health your priority? Goodin recommends you figure out how screens could fit in with your values and priorities, rather than having screens steal away your precious time.

What you can do NOW: Plan a family outdoor activity, leaving all your gadgets and phones behind. Go for a hike, play in the park or take up bicycle riding. Spend time connecting and having fun, without gadgets.

There we go. We hope these Smart Tips from experts will help you outsmart your smartphone. Well, at the end of the day, it is all about yourself. Gadgets are designed to get you smartly hooked; but you hold the key to outsmarting them. 

About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 12 October 2020. Reviewed on 14 October 2020.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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