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Fab Fridays 80: The Psychology of Screens
Addiction or unmet psychological needs?
Kids spend more time on screens today than ever before. Do they lack self-control? Or are deeper factors at play?
To answer these questions, we need to take a step back and ask a bigger question first:
What motivates us? What drives us to do anything at all?
Self-determination theory explains that humans are motivated by three things:
We crave these experiences just like our bodies crave protein, carbs, and fats.
If we don’t eat right, our bodies break down. In the same way, if we don’t feed our psyches with autonomy, competency, and relatedness, our mental health suffers.
Unfortunately, many kids aren’t getting enough of these three essential elements throughout their childhood years. Nir Eyal makes this point in his book, Indistractable:
“School, where kids spend most of their waking hours, is in many ways the antithesis of a place where kids feel competence, autonomy, and relatedness.”— Nir Eyal
This problem raises an interesting question:
Are kids searching for supplements online because they can’t find autonomy, competency, and relatedness in their offline world?
Let’s unpack this idea further by looking at the daily life of a kid in school:
In school, everything is planned for kids with strict rules. They’re constantly being evaluated and directed. They’re told what to do, what to think, and even what to wear! One survey found that the average kid has to follow twice as many restrictions as an active-duty Marine and an incarcerated felon.
By contrast, kids have tons of freedom online. They have the autonomy to make choices (like what and who to play with), dive deep into what interests them, and make decisions of their own (like what their avatar should look like.) They experience a lot less adult control and surveillance.
Kids are so different. We can’t expect them to learn the same way or force them into one box. One principal said it beautifully:
"Among the students who will be sitting for the exams is an artist, who doesn't need to understand math…there's a musician, whose chemistry marks won't matter. There’s an athlete, whose physical fitness is more important than Physics.”
The recent obsession with metrics, standards, and one-size-fits-all curriculums makes it hard for kids like this to experience competency in school. As a result, many of them turn to other outlets to experience the feeling of growth and development.
On the internet, kids can learn anything they want! Many turn to video games, which are specifically designed to give us a sense of competency and progression. Kids get the experience of having to teach themselves something new, and this provokes a positive feeling about themselves and their abilities to learn on their own. (Read my article on how to maximize the positive impacts of playing games and minimize the potential downsides.)
Friendship is one of the most important parts of growing up. It’s how kids develop social skills and a sense of security and well-being. One of the main reasons why parents send their kids to school is so they socialize with other kids. Unfortunately, socializing isn't happening as much as it used to in schools. Packed schedules, extensive curriculums, and adult-led activities leave little room for kids to play and connect with others.
If kids can’t get it in school, they’ll find it online—and the internet is perfect for finding “your people.” It's like a huge playground, where kids can join niche communities and connect over their shared interests. Most importantly, it’s the perfect way to build friendships through free play. Kids can spend hours diving into games together and solving interesting problems with friends from around the world.
No wonder kids spend so much time online!
But what about when things go too far? What about when screen time goes from an important outlet to an unhealthy obsession?
Nir Eyal argues that parents can help kids find what they are really looking for by teaching self-regulating habits, promoting intentional gaming, and helping them find suitable alternatives.
Help Kids Navigate Screen Time
Here are 7 ideas to help kids navigate screen time:
Discuss the Pros/Cons of Screens Together
It’s easy to fall into the trap of laying down rules without giving any good reasons. That’s a quick way to frustrate kids! Instead, start a conversation together about technology, its benefits, and its costs. The goal is for kids to learn how to cope with overuse on their own so that they do what’s good for them when we’re not around.
Show You Understand Their Struggle
Say things like, “It must be hard to be told what to do all day. I bet it feels good to choose what you want to do when you play Minecraft." When kids feel understood, they are more receptive to our suggestions and can plan better ways to spend their time.
Acknowledge You Face Similar Challenges
Say things like, “I’ve noticed I waste a lot of time on Instagram in the morning. When I wake up, I’m going to read a book instead of immediately grabbing my phone.” Model the proper use of technology. Vulnerability builds trust.
Address Screen Time in An Autonomy-Supported Way
Don’t make more rules that limit kids' autonomy. Instead, create boundaries for screen time together in a collaborative way. Make sure your interest in their online activity isn’t purely negative. Spend time with them online, take interest in what they enjoy, and learn to value what they value before you encourage limits.
Provide Opportunities for Real-World Fulfillment
Give kids the chance to enjoy agency, competency, and relatedness offline as well as online. Limit adult-led activities. Give them lots of free time, let them explore many hobbies, and organize plenty of playdates with friends.
Encourage More Creation & Less Consumption
When your kids do spend time online, encourage them to learn, make, socialize, and create. The goal is less Coco Mellon and more Endless Reader; fewer cat videos and more time learning to code; less time watching Tiktoks and more time creating them.
Offer a Better “Yes”
Make sure that when you do ask your kids to say “no” to their screens, they’re saying “yes” to something even better. Make family time so fulfilling and engaging, your kids won’t miss their phones.
“Knowing what’s really driving their overuse of technology is the first step to helping kids build resilience instead of escaping discomfort through distraction. Once our kids feel understood, they can begin planning how best to spend their time.” — Nir Eyal
The goal is to bring together kids’ offline and online worlds in a healthy, fulfilling way.
Until next week,
Ana Lorena Fabrega