Is your child stuck to a screen? Three simple ways to break the spell

Everybody knows how addictive our screens can be. But understanding why  can help us break the spell and start using technology more mindfully.

“We have become the tools of our tools,” wrote American philosopher Henry David Thoreau way back in 1844. The accusation may have been a trifle premature - he was worried about the impact of the telegraph - but how startlingly prophetic of our digital world!

It’s a worry for all of us - and especially for those of us raising children: How do we learn to use technology without allowing technology to use us?

Adam Alter, a marketing psychology professor at New York University, has some ideas about that. The author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, he’s an expert on the causes - and the cures - of compulsive digital behaviour.

Here are the three key factors he’s identified:

Portability. It’s obvious once you think about it. You can’t lug a television set around with you - or even a desktop computer. But smartphones and tablets can, and do, go wherever we do. “Research suggests that 70 to 75 percent of us can always reach our phones without moving our feet,” notes Alter, “which is a big reason why we're so tethered to them both physically and psychologically.”

“If you pay attention, you might find yourself checking your phone at the slightest feeling of boredom, purely out of habit. Programmers work very hard behind the screens to keep you doing exactly that.”

Stopping cues. Or more accurately the lack thereof. Old-school technologies like books and broadcast media had “stopping cues” built in - the end of a chapter, or the conclusion of a program. But today’s digital content - social networks, Netflix, YouTube and online games, for example - “are effectively bottomless and don't have natural stopping points, making it harder to regulate our use.”

Variable feedback. Also known as the gambler’s dilemma, this refers to the built-in uncertainty of reward that drives increasing levels of engagement in the hopeful pursuit of a big “win.” In gambling, it’s hitting the jackpot. On social media, it’s scoring big on “likes” and “shares.” 


Explains Alter, “Sometimes you'll get a flood of engagement, other times none at all. It's that unpredictability, as well as the social feedback, that keeps people coming back.”

Turns out randomness is a powerful driver of our device use. “if we perceive a reward to be delivered at random, and if checking for the reward comes at little cost, we end up checking habitually,” writes Trevor Haynes of Harvard University’s School of Arts and Sciences.

“If you pay attention, you might find yourself checking your phone at the slightest feeling of boredom, purely out of habit. Programmers work very hard behind the screens to keep you doing exactly that.”

What you can do to prevent compulsive use

Restrict portability. The earlier kids are able to access a portable device without restrictions, the greater the risk that they will develop problems around overuse.

Parents can create barriers to the built-in portability of phones and tablets by restricting their use to certain times and places. Banning devices at mealtimes is a no-brainer (or should be!). And all experts agree that kids’ bedrooms should be entirely screen-free. Some families ban device use in the car - one of the few places where kids are a captive audience for conversation. 

Create stopping cues. Stopping cues are essential for kids to disconnect from technology and reconnect with the offline world. Without such cues, the risk of disappearing down the rabbit hole of their favourite platform is ever-present. 

Gaming, social media and video streaming are like a magic pudding of digital goodies - no matter how much you consume, there is always more for the taking. But by applying sensible parental controls, you can create stopping cues - and you can tailor them precisely for the needs of your family.


Minimise variable feedback. This is a tough one. It’s not possible to directly break the spell of this powerful dopamine-fuelled loop - although parental controls can help you to limit kids’ exposure to the kind of content that offers randomised rewards.

With older children, another effective strategy is simply to explain how variable feedback works. 

Teens hate to be bossed - and it can be an eye-opener for them to understand  that their technology is pulling their strings far more effectively than mum or dad could hope to.

When it comes to strong, simple parental controls Family Zone is the gold standard.

Find out why, and start your free trial today!

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Pornography, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, Cyber Safety, gaming addiction, dopamine, phone addiction

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