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Phone addiction for students

Behind the scenes of a recent coaching session with a student:

Student: I got so excited yesterday morning when I woke up earlier than usual and realized I had a couple of hours until I was going to volunteer with my parents. I thought:

I’ll make my bed!

Organize my materials for our meeting later!

Get a little homework done!

Really get my life together, you know?

And then I wound up just in my bed, chatting with a friend until my parents called up that it was time to go and I hadn’t even dressed yet. 

Me: Well, what happened in between feeling all motivated and doing it in real life? 

Student (lightning quick, no hesitation):

Oh, it was my phone. I’m totally addicted. 

I get that a lot. From students and adults. From educators worried about their students. And in my own home, too. 

I don’t have the one and only answer. There are some great books and programs out there to learn from, but I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what’s up yet.

Which is why some of the suggestions and “research based” approaches contradict each other once you start wading into it. And many of us come out of our searches confused.

After all, the rapid, sweeping and ever evolving use of these hand computers is brand new territory for us humans. I think many of us have that sneaking suspicion that the next generation is going to look back on us with an eye roll similar to how we look at those 1950’s images of doctors lighting up a fresh cigarette while they go over your latest cholesterol levels and prescribing diet pills for your health.

How did we ever think that was ok?

The good news is we do have consensus emerging from the science to combine with our own personal sense of what just doesn’t feel right to go off of and navigate our best way forward to reclaim our focus, time, and energy and help our kids do the same. 

First, I want to be clear that I think phones can bring us a lot of good stuff:

  • dopamine,
  • connection with friends and family,
  • music,
  • new ideas and perspectives,
  • free and more affordable access to books and learning that was once only reserved for those who could afford higher degrees and programs.

So, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see myself giving all that up any time soon. 

The good news is we do have consensus emerging from the science to combine with our own personal sense of what just doesn’t feel right to go off of and navigate our best way forward to reclaim our focus, time, and energy and help our kids do the same. 

First, I want to be clear that I think phones can bring us a lot of good stuff:

  • dopamine,
  • connection with friends and family,
  • music,
  • new ideas and perspectives,
  • free and more affordable access to books and learning that was once only reserved for those who could afford higher degrees and programs.

So, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see myself giving all that up any time soon. 

What to get curious about:

  • What brings me  joy?
  • What are my values and goals for a good life?
  • What do I feel and why do I feel that way?
  • What do I truly want when I’m unhooked from the marketing that can now predict and feed to me what I want before I know I even want it?

Where to exercise choice and creativity:

When we take good care of rituals and systems for cultivating a peaceful, contented mind, I think a few things happen that make it much easier to get in control of how we use our phones for our good rather than how they use us for the good of the machine who built them to make money off of our attention. 

  1. We have less time for scrolling because we’re busy doing things that truly light us up, even if that means spending time clearing our minds. 
  2. We don’t feel compelled to check anything to fill empty spaces or a feeling that we’re missing something, or getting behind, or in need of the dopamine hit of external validation because we feel more content and fulfilled just as we are
  3. We begin to feel the difference between the authentic joy of sharing laughter and eye contact, meaningful connection with people IRL and the less satisfying synthetic buzz of a like, an email, or text reply. 

As an Executive Function Coach who centers joy, I help students and their adults clarify and cultivate (yep, more C’s!), focus, routines, and habits for all of the above.

The 4 pillars I created for my book Happy Grades are the same 4 pillars that I think can help bring us all back into control of our attention, our joy, our minds, and unhook us from seeking joy, contentment, meaning in our phones. Although I originally created those 4 pillars to describe the approach I take with students that help them more joyfully improve at school, they also happen to be 4 pillars that work really well to hold up a more joyful, fulfilling adult life as well.

If you’d like a sample of what they are and how they work, check out this free guide:

Like I said, this is new territory for all of us. I doubt anyone has the one solution that will work for everyone. What we’re left with is my favorite approach. Experiment with faith that the small things are the big things. Run your experiment for the amount of time you decide is enough to have given it a chance. Keep what is helping you feel better, scrap what doesn’t, and iterate on the rest. Here are few experiments to try: 

For Adults:

  1. Define your passions and/or values and post them up somewhere you can see them often. These are things you really and truly care about that you think makes life sweet and a joy to experience. List out whatever comes to mind in answer to these questions: When I am living my ideal, joyful life, what am I doing or being? What do I believe makes a good life? Once you have a good list of 10-20 ideas, see if you can condense it to your big 5. 
  2. Build up your capacity for stillness. Use mindfulness techniques to find peace and contentment doing absolutely nothing at all. And remember, mindfulness doesn’t always mean meditation. It’s paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in the present moment without judgment like a compassionate observer. This will help you with the next suggestion. 
  3. Get clear on the thoughts that cause you unnecessary stress and worry and interrogate the ever lovin’ daylight out of them. These are the annoying, fear-based, not-enough, oh no I’m probably screwing up, type thoughts that drive us to look for solace in the numbing or thrilling recesses of the web. Once you have a couple of those thoughts clarified, interrogate them until they lose their sting of truth and you can replace them with a new thought that feels much better and just as true. Or, even better, get a therapist to help you with this. Often those thoughts have an origin in trauma in some form or another and working with the right professional can help you deal with that so it no longer unconsciously drives your behavior. 
  4. Have fun. That’s right. Real fun. Make a list of things you used to (or still) love doing that feel like actual, real live fun. Playing cards with friends, juggling, playing or watching live music, walking through a forest, picking flowers. Plan it, schedule it, and do it like it’s as important as your work or a doctor’s appointment – because it is. 

Guidance and compassionate accountability can help you improve the quality of your attention and habits to affect the quality of your life for the better.

For Teenagers:

The game is a little different for teenagers.

This is because it involves their executive function system – the family of related mental abilities that has evolved to help us humans control our attention so that we can do important things for independent success like –

  • override our impulsivity,
  • notice our emotional brain that can skew our perspective,
  • give us a good sense of time, keep our goals top of mind, and
  • rationally think ahead to evaluate the benefits and consequences of our actions

That system isn’t fully developed yet. While they are still in adolescence (until their mid to late 20’s), they are going to need some outside help in the form of guard rails and good modeling especially when they are up against a tool that was successfully designed and proven to weaken even a fully operational EF system for us adults.

So, what’s a parent or teacher to do when you’re up against all that?

  1. Model explicitly and visually your own experiments and routines for reclaiming your focus, energy, and joy. Talk about what you’ve noticed about your own attention and satisfaction with life and how you’re experimenting with new systems for your own cell phone use. And then let them see you try it. 
  2. Set limits and explain your big why. There’s a reason why we don’t just turn over keys to teenagers without making sure first they have an understanding of the rules and lots of guided practice first with plenty of limits. And then when they do get those keys, have things like speed limits and flashing lights to keep safety top of mind when the thrill of speed has taken over. They mostly accept those rules more readily because it’s obvious that driving can be dangerous. They might not as obviously see the dangers of giving your attention to your cell phone. Talk to them about why this is a matter of health and safety. Explain what values you are living up to by setting the limits. And make sure they are clear from the jump what the consequences are for overriding the limit. Some common limits I have seen work well for others: Create no phone zones like the car, walking on city streets, at the dinner table, or times like meal times, Friday game hour, a whole tech Sabbath, or when hosting or being a guest of family or friends. Cut the internet off at a certain time. Get a kSafe for designated homework times. 
  3. Provide choice too. Teenagers also need to feel they have choices to exercise the biologically programmed independence that is wired in at this age. Figure out what you can give on and present it as a way to collaborate together to make a plan everyone can live with- maybe they get to choose from a list of 5 possible no phone zones and pick 2 they can live with, maybe you can decide on a “no rules day” every once and a while, or give them some choice on incentives and consequences for sticking with the plan. 
  4. Re-evaluate and forgive yourself when the plan you came up with no longer works. We are in brand new territory with lots of conflicting advice and nuances. This is an issue that’s compounded with layers of social issues like race, class, ability, and capitalism. Not to mention that about every 6 months or so they may be in a different stage of development or have a completely different schedule and demands. Hello, summer! So, that plan will need to change and it’s not because the plan or you had some kind of flaw or are doing it wrong. 
  5. And if you’re seeing that the issue is extreme and beyond these measures, get help. Here’s an article that outlines some more clinical measures.

Now, can I ask you a favor? Tell me what’s working for you! Reach out to me at rarebirdlearning@gmail.com.

I love to compile our field notes to empower others who are feeling stuck and out of options with this issue.

And if you want to stay in the loop on effective strategies and insights for improving executive function and happiness, sign up for my 3 good things email that comes out (almost) every week. 

One more note, in his book Stolen Focus, Johann Hari makes the point that the factors contributing to increasing difficulty with sustained, meaningful attention have a lot more to do with societal, systemic issues than personal flaws.

“Your individual efforts to improve your attention can be dwarfed by an environment full of things that wreck it.”

Things having to do with our work culture, political and economic stress, racism, and ableism, to name just a few. We need policy changes that reach far into social expectations, the way our economy works, child care, and education. So, if this isn’t easy to change just by yourself, give yourself some grace, connect with a few others for support and test out the smallest possible step in the direction that feels best for you. And if you find something that works, share it with others, and me so I can shout it out.

I share 3 good things almost every week to support you in creating a good life with greater control of attention and habits for yourself and the teens in your life.

You can get inspired and find useful tools and tips for bringing that into your own life by signing up for my newsletter below.

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