Self Control in the Digital Age

We live in a world that begs our attention and engagement at every turn. Even as I settle in to write this blog post, Ping! A new email; Beep! someone posted on my Facebook timeline; Bzzz. my phone alerts me to a text even though I’ve put it on vibrate in a weak attempt to avoid incoming distractions.

Given all these digital distractions, it is amazing that I am still here typing away. Thank goodness for self-control.

Self-control helps us focus in a sea of distractions

Self-control is our capacity to control and plan thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When it comes to technology, self-control enables our kids to do all kinds of things like:

  • Ignore a text message in order to continue conversations with a friend.
  • Continue practicing the piano even though siblings are in the next room playing a fun video game.
  • Think before sending a mean or rude message on Tumblr or Snapchat.

A child’s capacity to self-regulate is shaped by both genetics and experience. Parents play a powerful role in helping kids practice the skills of self-regulation.

Image of a phone with lots of notifications illustrating digital distractions

But practice doesn’t always make perfect

“We’ve talked and talked about our expectations around cell phone use after curfew. But it seems like it isn’t getting through! My teenage daughter still texts all night.”

Sound familiar? At times, it seems nearly impossible for our kids to resist giving in to their impulses, especially when it comes to technology. Why is resisting technological disractions so hard?

Researchers are hard at work trying to answer that question, but they’ve given us a couple of leads:

  1. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University explains that our brains are hard wired to seek out new information. It makes sense that we are wired to be curious about what is around the next bend and that we have a built-in reward system that encourages us to be seekers. Today this means that we get a shot of dopamine (the “happy” chemical in our brains) as we click on hyperlinks, open an email, or direct a Google search. The downside of course is that our seeking brains don’t differentiate between information that is crucial to our central task and information that merely presents distraction.
  2. Virginia University’s Daniel Willingham adds that his research shows why technology is even more alluring to teenagers. He suggests that texts, tweets, and other social bits of information are “highly perishable.” This means that for a teen checking texts two hours after an event may reduce the social value of the information, especially when the social norm is to be instantly responsive. For young people, “always on” feels like a social imperative.
  3. Relatedly, Dr. Larry Rosen at Stanford University has found that FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is anxiety producing and distracting in and of itself for young people.

Self-control is exhausting

Willingham advises us not to expect our kids to always be able to resist digital temptations. For example, we’re setting our kids up for failure with statements like,

“You can have your phone, but put it on silent before you go to bed.”

The reason is that our capacity to control impulses is limited on any given day. Sleep, downtime, or exercise is needed to recharge our supply. Stress, negative feelings, and ‘high demand’ environments diminish our reserve of self-regulation. That’s why people tend to eat junk food when they are sad or at the end of the day when their will power is worn down after hours of refusing sweets.

So it takes a lot of mental energy to inhibit the urge to check Facebook for the latest news. When you find that your teen responded to a string of texts while writing a paper, it may be more out of mental exhaustion than outright defiance.

Resistance itself is distracting

Even if your child doesn’t answer that incoming text while doing homework, her brain is using precious resources to complete this heroic feat. A recent study found that drivers were more likely to engage in risky driving if their cell phone rang, even if they ignored the calls. These effects were most notable in drivers who usually did answer their cell phones. This tells us that that inhibiting habitual responses may be a distraction in and of itself.

This doesn’t mean that every time our kids crack open their textbooks they need to enter a digital desert. This isn’t realistic and ignores the benefits of technology to learning. Some schools have chosen to deeply integrate technology into lessons so that, far from being a distraction, tech tools are central to learning.

That said, if Facebook or mobile phones aren’t part of the lesson, resisting the buzz of a text message during class might be draining precious mental resources away from learning. In these cases, “off and away” gives our brain the space it needs to think.

Change the environment

We need to get realistic about what our kids are capable of (and adults too for that matter). Having background TV on while instructing your fifth grader to finish his homework is likely expecting too much. Likewise, sending a teenager into her room at night with the instruction “don’t look or respond to any text messages” is like sending a three year old into a toy store alone and telling him not to touch anything. It sets her up for failure.

Here are 8 ways to reduce digital distractions and boost productivity. These tips work well for our kids AND us adults.