Now that most of our “back-to-school” to-dos are complete from buying school clothes and supplies to gearing up for PTA meetings and after school activities, perhaps we should also be thinking about scheduling time to put the phones away.
Maybe our kids have already been spending too much time on their phones throughout the summer, so the transition may be tough. Research tells us that limiting screen time—both for teens and ourselves—can be beneficial and improve our social relationships, sleep, and overall health. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult to break the habit.
Habits are generally defined as a behavior we engage in consistently—think about how often you check your phone. Changing behavior is key to breaking any habit, but it doesn’t happen overnight. So, here is a week long plan that you and your family can implement, to try and limit screen time and be more present in the moment.
Sunday: Document how often the behavior occurs. Research shows that behavior can change just by monitoring it. So on this first day, simply collect data on phone use. Define the behaviors that you want to record (for example: responding to the ping, checking email, total time spent texting or on social media). There are apps that collect data on time spent on the phone, which can be helpful, but real behavior change can come by also collecting data on observable behaviors. For example, try placing multiple rubber bands on your left hand and moving one over to your right every time you check your phone or are engaged with your phone for more than 5 minutes.
Monday: Continue your data collection, and also introduce mindfulness activities. During those activities, you focus on the present moment and immediate surroundings, including external stimuli such as sights, sounds, and smells, and internal stimuli such as thoughts, sensations and feelings. Practice mindfulness activities throughout the day, as this is something you will want to continue throughout the week.
Tuesday: Start setting your goals. Review the data you’ve collected thus far, and use it to set goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. For example, if you or your child check the phone every five minutes, it might not be reasonable to set a goal to check every four hours. Instead, a more achievable goal would be to check every 10 minutes. (Keep collecting your data and practicing those mindful activities.)
Wednesday: Implement an intervention. Now that you have your goals, figure out steps to make phone use more difficult. This could be putting the phone in a cabinet for a period of time; leaving the house without the phone; or simply turning off the alerts. It may not always be possible to be without a phone (say, when our teens are out and we want to be able to communicate with them), but there are those times when having a phone isn’t mandatory–that’s when you practice these new behaviors.
Thursday: Develop replacement behaviors. These can replace what the phone was providing: attention, distraction, or entertainment. Whatever that behavior is, the new behavior should give you the same thing the phone did. For example: If your child is using the phone to feel connected, suggest a playdate with a friend or encourage conversation with a sibling. Be creative! Replacement behaviors can also be things that force you to put the phone down–going for a run, or reading a book, for example.
Friday: Reward your success! Establish positive reinforcement activities for a job well done at the end of the week, but be sure to establish what progress you will reward. Remember, early on it is important to reward and celebrate small successes.
Saturday: Check out your progress. Did you meet the goal? Did you improve? If the answer is yes, reward yourself! If the answer is no, try to determine what went wrong. Do you just need more time to change your behavior? Was your goal too high? Try to reward any progress, because just starting is an achievement. And next week is a new week–start again on Sunday!
In the field of education, we say that for every year a behavior has been in place, we should expect one month of consistent intervention before we see a significant change. Often when we try to change our habits, we are unsuccessful because we give up too early. Remember, it’s not about how much you do of something, but how consistently you do it. Consistency leads to lasting behavior change. Good luck!