Looking smartly at ourselves (not just at our smartphones)

The best experts from around the world present simple and effective tips for healthy gadget use for families. It’s a ParentCircle Exclusive.

By Dr Meghna Singhal

Looking smartly at ourselves (not just at our smartphones)

Selfitis. Nomophobia. FOMO.

Well, these words were unheard of a decade ago. But, over the last 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 driver (if not a disabler) 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 feed our children with a ‘video-sitter’. 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 the buzz word in recent times. People are recognising that (there is overuse happening) 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 the stress? To talk about this and more, we reach out to some of the finest gadget Gurus in the world. In the process, we have packaged ‘Smart’ Tips to help you get distracted from gadgets regularly.

‘Smart’ Tip # 1: Set aside 'indistractable' time - Nir Eyal (Behavioural Engineer and author of Indistractable: How to Control your Attention and Choose your Life)
During an hour-long conversation with ParentCircle, Nir Eyal emphasises, “We want technology to serve us and make sure we don’t serve technology.” 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 we can decide on our priorities and make adjustments to our screens accordingly?
Says Eyal, “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 every night at 10pm. 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.” He adds, “Making an effort pact with your device could include installing a distraction-proofing app, such as SelfControlApp, 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 that his parents put down their phones to listen to him.

‘Smart’ Tip # 2: When you return home 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: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting)
We all crave for close, melt-our-hearts connections with our children. After the morning madness to get children ‘packed off’ to school, we are caught in the evening madness of rushing back from work to ensure the children are settled. 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 when playing together. Even replying to a quick text message could send your child the message that your phone is more important than she is.
But remember, you don’t need an awful lot of time to connect with your children on an everyday basis. Just a few minutes of time every day, spent laughing, roughhousing, playing, and talking will do the trick. All you need to do is keep your hands off your phones when you do that. Says Dr. Markham, “Slow down and savour the moment of connection with your child.” This won’t happen if emails, messages, and notifications are vying for you.
What you can do NOW - Switch off push notifications upon returning from work, till the children are settled in for the night. The idea is not to constantly respond to the all bleeps and pings that hanker for your attention.

‘Smart’ Tip # 3 – Try having one screen-free day per week -Dr. Victoria Dunckley (Child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time)
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. Try having one screen-free day every week. Research shows that bonding and time spent together is 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 and more to keep you ‘connected’.

‘Smart’ Tip # 4 - Practice the ‘Rule of Thirds -Blake Snow (author of Log Off: How to Stay Connected after Disconnecting)
What is the ‘Rule of Thirds’, you may ask? 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 get at least one of the three rules going immediately. Then, adapt to the second and third rules gradually. You will realise in due course that you hardly made an effort, but change happened.

‘Smart’ Tip # 5 - Take your family out for a meal on the condition that everyone leaves their phones behind -Orianna Fielding (author of Unplugged: How to Live Mindfully in a Digital World)
Remember a recent ‘viral’ restaurant picture where a family of 4 was at the table, busily browsing their phones not even aware that the steward was patiently waiting to take their order? Well, that family for sure blew away a great connection opportunity. Don’t let that happen to you. After all, we should not miss out on a great opportunity for connection during these moments. Taking a pause from our digital devices helps us understand how we manage our technology or (often) how it manages us. “Digital dependence is like eating fast food, it temporarily makes us feel full but ultimately does not deliver any real nutrition,” says Fielding.
What you can do NOW: Take a leaf out of Fielding’s book and leave your phone behind the next time you step out for a meal with your family. You don’t even have to wait to eat out- make your own dinner table at home a screen-free zone. Assemble at the dinner table as a family, eat your food mindfully, and utilise this time in chatting about your day and sharing snippets of your lives with each other.

‘Smart’ Tip # 6 - Get your family together and formulate mutually agreed upon screen 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.

‘Smart’ Tip # 7 – 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 simple recommendation? Leave the 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 you bedrooms at night. These are simple ‘unplug’ ideas to get you going. Says Fielding, “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.”
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.

‘Smart’ Tip # 8 - Decide what your priorities and values are as a family, then see how screens fit into those -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, let alone getting it replaced by screen time. Parents and adults are both retreating into screens the minute they walk through the door and forgetting 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 is 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 time from those.
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, go cycling, or build sandcastles on the beach. Spend time connecting and having fun, gadget-free.

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 1 November 2019. Reviewed on 15 November 2019.
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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