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Eight Things You Can Do To Tame The Screen Beast


Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads, (a book on the history of the “attention economy”) writes,

“Your goals are things like ‘spend more time with the kids,’ ‘learn to play the zither,’ ‘lose twenty pounds by summer,’ ‘finish my degree,’ etc.  Your time is scarce, and you know it.  Your technologies, on the other hand, are trying to maximize goals like ‘time on site,’ ‘number of video views,’ ‘number of pageviews,’ and so on.  Hence clickbait, hence auto-playing videos, hence avalanches of notifications.  Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it.

He goes on to say:

“Whatever our personal goals, the things we’d like to achieve, the goals of the attention merchants are generally at odds with ours.  How often have you sat down with a plan, say, to write an email or buy one thing online, only to find yourself, hours later, wondering what happened?  And what are the costs to a society of an entire population conditioned to spend so much of their waking lives not in concentration and focus but rather in fragmentary awareness and subject to constant interruption?”

He really nails a huge problem for many of us: that rectangular heroin needle in our pockets, aka the “smartphone.” You know it and I know it: it exercises too much of a pull on you, and on me.

Most of us are addicted to one degree or another, and this negatively affects our relationships--especially with our kids--too much.

If you doubt this, keep in mind that the tech companies that make the apps and the gadgets pay many people millions of dollars to maximize the time your eyes are glued onto their product…and they are really, really good at what they do.

You are not their customer. You are their product. Your attention is what they sell, and again, they are Kungfu masters at their jobs.

If you think you can keep their aims at bay with just your willpower, you are deluded. This is the equivalent of fighting tanks with a butter knife.

The good news is that if you tweak your environment enough by doing a few simple things, you can greatly reduce the pull your screens have on you, and you’ll be doing it not through sheer willpower, but through habit. You’ll then have more willpower to use in more useful and productive tasks.
Time to reign in the beast and cut the phone down to size:


  1. Restrictions
    For both you and your kids! When and if you decide to give your kids a smartphone, do not give them an unrestricted smartphone. Would you drop them off at an adult video store and expect them to keep their nose clean?

    An unrestricted smartphone gives them even greater and easier access to content that is infinitely more degrading than that.

    The thing is: you need restrictions too, if only to set a good example for your kids (many of us need them ourselves for our own health and time management too. I know I do). Many adults also need restrictions because the screen is a time and attention suck from the things that matter.

    Be honest with yourself. Take your life back.

    This blog post covers how to use restrictions on an Iphone to severely cut it down to size. The important part is to use someone else--a spouse, accountability partner, church member, etc--and let them set the password, so you can’t just go in and turn off the restrictions when you want.

    For your kids’ restrictions, you’ll obviously have the password, but for your own restrictions, give that ability to someone else.

    For me, I have completely eliminated access to all internet browsers, games, and social media apps. I can still do the basics, listen to music and podcasts, but putting the other stuff out of reach has gone a long way to reducing its influence on me and my time.

    I am therefore free to do more of what I was made to do.

  2. No phones in the car
    Let car rides be a time of conversation and interaction with each other, and/or observation about the outside world. Kids get bored? Good! Boredom is the soil of innovation.

    Plus, for longer road trips, having a few card games on hand to keep them amused will come in handy. Playing these games can be real fun and can foster good relational connection.

    Same rule for when you are out and about with kids….do *not* try to shut them up by sticking a cell phone in their face. We’ve all been there, but resist this. Give them a book or a rubiks cube. Anything but a phone.

    Doubly so in restaurants. Interact with them instead, or at least let them be free to observe the world around them.

  3. Use a “phone jail” when in the house, or at least during certain hours
    When I get home for the day, I put my phone in a box in another room. I will check it intermittently, but it is not on me, so the temptation to constantly check it is removed.

    Even when you are not looking at it, just its presence within your reach can exhibit a subconscious pull on you. This is a real phenomenon with an actual name: “brain drain.”

    In my class at school, all students must put their phones up in the front of the room in a phone caddy, so it is out of their reach for the whole period. As a result, there is much more engagement and focus and much less attention drain and distraction.

    Some students have even confided in me that they like this more than in classes where they are allowed to keep their phones on them, because “everyone is on their phones constantly” in those classes.

    When using the “phone jail,” you’ll be free to be in the moment, fully engaged in bodily presence.

  4. No phones in the bedroom
    This is a no-brainer. If it is in your bedroom, you’ll be tempted to look at it. The bedroom is for relaxation and sleep, not mindless scrolling. If you use the phone as an alarm clock, get an actual alarm clock. You can find one for under $10 at Walmart.

  5. Replace screen time with something more worthwhile:
    *Take a walk
    *Family game time
    *Play outside

    Don’t just eliminate the pull of the phone; put something better in its place. Otherwise you will be tempted to return to the status quo

  6. Wait to give your own kids a smartphone
    I know I know--all their peers already have one. So what. They are *your* kids. Plus, being weird is important. This is a great opportunity to teach them that it is ok at times to be different from the peer group. Sometimes ya have to resist the pressure of the crowd.

    If you doubt this, just watch The Social Dilemma documentary on Netflix, and then tell me with a straight face that its a good idea to give them a phone sooner rather than later.

    If that *still* doesn’t convince you: why do so many Silicon Valley execs keep their kids away from all this stuff?  They know better than to allow their kids to get high on their own supply.  That should be a sign.

    As the Wait Until 8th organization says, let kids be kids a little longer.

  7. Gradually phase in
    When you do allow your kids to have a phone, start small with a “dumb phone,” flip phone, or other paired down options, then gradually work up to higher tech yet still restricted options as they get older.

    Along the way, be very intentional and active when it comes to teaching proper cell phone habits. Don’t just restrict and forget: actively teach *and* model.

  8. Read these books:
    Digital Minimalism--Cal Newport

    Irresistible--Adam Alter

    Igen--Jean Twenge

    12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You--Tony Reinke

    All three are important when it comes to understanding how our tech tools are shaping us and our kids’ lives, mostly not for the better.  Lots of good advice in each book on how to fight the good fight too, especially in Newport’s book.

Some of this might seem extreme, yet I am convinced we really need to re-think our relationship to screens at a deep and fundamental level if we are to be faithful in modern times.

It is so easy to reach for the screen in the little quiet moments of the day to fill us with passive entertainment. It seems so innocent, but we trade something much more valuable--a chance to connect with others, connect with God, ponder, grow curiosity and innovation--for the cheap entertainment.

In the process, we habituate patterns of mind that are not healthy: it tempts us to think that we deserve to be entertained, we are our own authorities, and that we are the center of our own universes.

Those little moments are where innovation and true connection happen.

The trade is not worth it. Fight back.

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