The Screen Time Dilemma: Your Attention Please!

I had the opportunity recently to see the IndiFlix documentary entitled LIKE, about the impact of social media on our lives. What really impressed me about this treatment of the subject was the lack of judgement. I note this because many news items and programs, especially about kids’ and teens’ relationship with technology, are delivered with a sneer or exasperation at the way the younger generation is focused on their online lives. Instead, this film helps to peel back the curtain and explain the wizardry behind the way our devices and favorite apps have been engineered to keep us using our screens longer, checking them more often and sharing more of our personal details online. The reality is that it is not just kids. Adults are finding themselves captivated by their smartphones almost as much, if not more than, the teens they are arguing with over screen time.
I had the opportunity recently to see the IndiFlix documentary entitled LIKE, about the impact of social media on our lives. What really impressed me about this treatment of the subject was the lack of judgement. I note this because many news items and programs, especially about kids’ and teens’ relationship with technology, are delivered with a sneer or exasperation at the way the younger generation is focused on their online lives. Instead, this film helps to peel back the curtain and explain the wizardry behind the way our devices and favorite apps have been engineered to keep us using our screens longer, checking them more often and sharing more of our personal details online. The reality is that it is not just kids. Adults are finding themselves captivated by their smartphones almost as much, if not more than, the teens they are arguing with over screen time.

Attention!

It is not new for media organizations to try to gain and keep our attention. In the 19th century, newspapers would run serialized versions of books to keep readers’ interest (along with breaking headlines) from one issue to the next. Radio and television programs were produced with continuing storylines, each episode ended on a cliffhanger promising more drama to come next week. Today with Netflix we just have to lose the remote and the program will continue playing until a reminder comes up… are you still watching? Youtube will play videos indefinitely if we don’t turn off autoplay or shut down the device entirely. Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat deliver fresh, new, and FREE content endlessly.

Media companies are built by offering us content we want to consume while delivering our attention to their advertisers. It is an exchange we understand and accept. The combination of tried and true attention grabbing tricks with ever more powerful technologies has perfected the media’s efforts to keep us hooked. I am not suggesting there was evil intent here, it is just that the methods of keeping us engaged have advanced to the point where we have to act in order to escape. Media companies used to need to remind us to come back for more. Today, with information and content on the internet never ending, we have to remind ourselves to look up.
It is not new for media organizations to try to gain and keep our attention. In the 19th century, newspapers would run serialized versions of books to keep readers’ interest (along with breaking headlines) from one issue to the next. Radio and television programs were produced with continuing storylines, each episode ended on a cliffhanger promising more drama to come next week. Today with Netflix we just have to lose the remote and the program will continue playing until a reminder comes up… are you still watching? Youtube will play videos indefinitely if we don’t turn off autoplay or shut down the device entirely. Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat deliver fresh, new, and FREE content endlessly.

Media companies are built by offering us content we want to consume while delivering our attention to their advertisers. It is an exchange we understand and accept. The combination of tried and true attention grabbing tricks with ever more powerful technologies has perfected the media’s efforts to keep us hooked. I am not suggesting there was evil intent here, it is just that the methods of keeping us engaged have advanced to the point where we have to act in order to escape. Media companies used to need to remind us to come back for more. Today, with information and content on the internet never ending, we have to remind ourselves to look up.

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Gaming Friendships

In addition, with social media, we are now both the audience for and the producers of the content. Our online connections are a part of the product we are consuming. In the film, Max Stossel of the Center for Humane Technology explains how social media companies have been able to ‘gameify’ our relationships – we are rewarded with followers, views, clicks, and shares in exchange for exposing our lives. We win by increasing the number of likes, comments or longevity of a ‘streak’ on Snapchat. But, is this how we should measure the quality of our friendships? Or how our teens learn to value themselves?

You will need to continually find new ways to share and impress and that will require more personal information and eye catching content (like risky behavior, incendiary rhetoric or sexual provocation) in order to get noticed. Being polite or normal or reasonable….might be too boring to keep your ‘friends’ interested. It can be a lot of work to accumulate those rewards and remain popular online. But remembering how social currency works in high school, can we really blame our kids for getting caught up in the action?
In addition, with social media, we are now both the audience for and the producers of the content. Our online connections are a part of the product we are consuming. In the film, Max Stossel of the Center for Humane Technology explains how social media companies have been able to ‘gameify’ our relationships – we are rewarded with followers, views, clicks, and shares in exchange for exposing our lives. We win by increasing the number of likes, comments or longevity of a ‘streak’ on Snapchat. But, is this how we should measure the quality of our friendships? Or how our teens learn to value themselves?

You will need to continually find new ways to share and impress and that will require more personal information and eye catching content (like risky behavior, incendiary rhetoric or sexual provocation) in order to get noticed. Being polite or normal or reasonable….might be too boring to keep your ‘friends’ interested. It can be a lot of work to accumulate those rewards and remain popular online. But remembering how social currency works in high school, can we really blame our kids for getting caught up in the action?

Psychologically Hooked to Screens?

Teens understand the advertising model of (social and traditional) media. I do think however, that we need to help them fully recognize the power of the forces at work tying them to their screens.

“Behind the screens of the games we play and digital communities we interact with are psychologists and other behavioral science experts, who are hired to create products that we want to use more and more.”Vox

Psychologists believe that kids and teens are more susceptible to the ‘persuasive design' and hidden manipulative techniques used by game and app developers. So if we truly want to help our kids and teens to use technology more thoughtfully, we need to stop blaming or shaming them.

First, it is important to get our kids to slow down and really consider how it feels to be connected 24/7 because it is all they have known. Do they feel overwhelmed? Do the constant notifications make them feel popular or stressed out? Help them to determine their own sense of well-being.
Teens understand the advertising model of (social and traditional) media. I do think however, that we need to help them fully recognize the power of the forces at work tying them to their screens.

“Behind the screens of the games we play and digital communities we interact with are psychologists and other behavioral science experts, who are hired to create products that we want to use more and more.”Vox

Psychologists believe that kids and teens are more susceptible to the ‘persuasive design' and hidden manipulative techniques used by game and app developers. So if we truly want to help our kids and teens to use technology more thoughtfully, we need to stop blaming or shaming them.

First, it is important to get our kids to slow down and really consider how it feels to be connected 24/7 because it is all they have known. Do they feel overwhelmed? Do the constant notifications make them feel popular or stressed out? Help them to determine their own sense of well-being.

Practice What You Preach

I have found the screen time tools that I set on my iPhone for myself to be a helpful starting point for discussion. Once I saw how much time I spent scrolling, I realized I needed to make adjustments to my digital habits. Since I have used these tools for myself, I am able to share my experience with my kids. I can explain how I was getting sucked in to my phone (as much as they are) and that when I set rules for myself I am able to recharge, digest information, be more productive, and be alone with my thoughts and feelings. I am not advising that parents let their kids set their own tech rules. I am instead suggesting that you help them to see the benefits of a break by modeling good digital habits yourself.

Eventually, we need our kids to learn how to self-regulate, self-monitor and self-control. Hopefully, they will see the benefit to turning off or muting notifications and recognize that not everything is urgent or requires immediate attention. In the meantime, parents can set boundaries, time limits and expectations for appropriate tech use. I just think we need to come at the screen time issue from a different angle. We should not be condescending when addressing their screen use – devices are built in to their social fabric – instead we need to remember what it is like to be a teenager and add the complexity of digital devices to the equation. We can still help our teens to navigate social minefields, we just need to recognize that a large portion of it happens on screens they’ve been conditioned to depend upon.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Flickr by Philip Cohen
I have found the screen time tools that I set on my iPhone for myself to be a helpful starting point for discussion. Once I saw how much time I spent scrolling, I realized I needed to make adjustments to my digital habits. Since I have used these tools for myself, I am able to share my experience with my kids. I can explain how I was getting sucked in to my phone (as much as they are) and that when I set rules for myself I am able to recharge, digest information, be more productive, and be alone with my thoughts and feelings. I am not advising that parents let their kids set their own tech rules. I am instead suggesting that you help them to see the benefits of a break by modeling good digital habits yourself.

Eventually, we need our kids to learn how to self-regulate, self-monitor and self-control. Hopefully, they will see the benefit to turning off or muting notifications and recognize that not everything is urgent or requires immediate attention. In the meantime, parents can set boundaries, time limits and expectations for appropriate tech use. I just think we need to come at the screen time issue from a different angle. We should not be condescending when addressing their screen use – devices are built in to their social fabric – instead we need to remember what it is like to be a teenager and add the complexity of digital devices to the equation. We can still help our teens to navigate social minefields, we just need to recognize that a large portion of it happens on screens they’ve been conditioned to depend upon.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Flickr by Philip Cohen