In the future, there will be two kinds of people in the world. Those who allow their attention - and their lives - be controlled by outside forces. And those who proudly call themselves “indistractable.” Which will your child grow up to be?
Resisting the siren song of distractions has been a challenge for human beings ever since the first Monday morning. But in the digital age, with limitless options for information, entertainment and connection literally at our fingertips, we've reached a while new level of risk.
And it's striking at younger targets than ever before, in a generation where children are swiping devices before they can walk or talk - and chucking “techno-tantrums” whenever parents, or life, get in the way.
Becoming indistractable may be the superpower for the 21st century - and it’s one that most parents are failing to teach their children.
Needless to say, It’s an issue for mum and dad too - as author, tech entrepreneur and Stanford academic Nir Eyal is well aware. Eyal's latest book, Indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your life, was inspired by an incident when his phone distracted him from connecting with his five-year-old.
“I was with my daughter one afternoon and we had this book that listed activities for daddy-daughter time,” he remembers. “The book had one particular question that caught our eye. The question was ‘If you can have any superpower, what would you choose?’
What's your superpower?
“My daughter answered that question, but I was not paying any attention to her answer. I was busy with my phone and I was distracted. When I looked up from my phone, she had already left the room. She got the message that she was less important than my phone. She just left me to play outside.”
Eyal began his exploration into distractability by examining his own behaviour. In the process, he had an epiphany: Becoming indistractable, he realised, may be the true superpower for the 21st century - and it’s one that most parents are failing to teach their children.
Eyal believes the secret is empowering kids to monitor their own behaviour, even from a very young age, and to learn to set their own boundaries.
By the age of five, Eyal’s own daughter was whining for screen-time constantly. So he and his wife came up with a radical strategy.
They asked her how much screen-time she thought she should have. To their surprise (and relief) she did not say “all day.” Instead she proposed “two shows,” or about 45 mintues a day.
Mum and dad were delighted to comply. And they made it easier for their daughter to stick to her own boundaries by using a kitchen timer. Now that she’s a bit older, she asks Alexa to keep time for her.
Parental controls are another way kids can be empowered by enforce their own boundaries.
“The most important thing is to involve the child in the conversation and help them set their own rules,” he concludes. “When parents impose limits without their kids’ input, they are setting them up to be resentful and incentivizing them to cheat the system.”
Media literacy 101
Eyal also advocates teaching children to be media literate from a young age. And that includes explaining to them that content developers are experts at getting kids hooked on viewing and playing - and that their motivation for doing so is profit. (It's a fact that's obvious to the grown-ups, but often comes as a shock to children.)
He ought to know. His previous book, Hooked: How to build Habit-Forming Products, has been described “as an operating manual for designing products that their customers can’t put down.”
Addiction - or learned helplessness?
Interestingly, he rejects the notion that technology is addictive. What we’re really addicted to, he insists, is “this idea that we're limited, that there's nothing we can do in the wake of this force. This fosters learned helplessness.
“‘Big bad tech companies are doing it to me. They're doing it to my kids. What can I do about it? I'm powerless. Unless the government regulates these companies there's nothing I can do.’
“And that's nonsense. That’s why I wrote an entire book full of things you can do to fight this, things that actually really aren’t that hard.”