The Blog

The Smartphone Habit: Six Ways To Cut Family Tech Time

There have been numerous articles written outlining the negative effects of excessive screen time on our minds and our relationships, none of which I can be bothered to cite here. My reasons for wanting to resist the lure of the small screen are experiential and very simple...

How many times a day do you pick up your smartphone? Recently I've tuned into my, often mindless, use of mine and focused on reducing my tech time.

"Why on earth would you want to do that?" you might ask. "You're only a beard and a cave away from being a hermit, most of your social life is virtual and you will soon need a reliable method for inflicting thousands of baby photos onto unsuspecting friends."

And these are all good points.

There have been numerous articles written outlining the negative effects of excessive screen time on our minds and our relationships, none of which I can be bothered to cite here. My reasons for wanting to resist the lure of the small screen are experiential and very simple:

  1. My brain feels like a can of jumping beans when I spend too much time app-hopping on my phone.
  2. I want my daughter to be under no doubt as to whether she is more interesting than my Twitter stream (except for the 10% of the time when she isn't).
  3. I'm increasingly aware of life's brevity, and of the ways I want to spend my time. None of them include looking at the birthday party snaps of the son of someone I sat three rows behind in maths class 18 years ago (ok, 25 years ago).

I should clarify that I love social media and the wonders of the web. It's great for keeping in contact with friends, for news, education and inspiration. Many of my best ideas result from browsing online, although alcohol often helps too.

My aim here isn't to shut myself off from all of that, it's to avoid the time suck and brain drain of mindless online distractions. I want my screen time to enhance my life, rather than distract from it.

There are plenty of places you can go to 'digitally detox'; to check your devices in at the door and go offline. In fact, I could achieve the same thing at home simply by giving the toddler my phone and asking her to put it somewhere safe. But a short term solution wasn't the goal, so I spoke to Chris Flack of Unplug; a company that runs retreats and workshops to help people develop a healthier relationship with technology. Chris shared a few tips for parents and families wanting to reduce their tech dependency:

  1. When it comes to family tech rules, lead by example as a parent.
  2. Establish non tech times/zones in the home, ideally with a fun reward/penalty.
  3. During times/activities when you might normally reach for a digital device, note or discuss what you wanted to do (i.e. a Google search). The idea here is to encourage conversation and boredom, two skills that are crucial for cognitive development and on the decline with children.
  4. To help change habits use mindful tech products to help schedule tech usage, for example: Net Nanny, Forest or Flipd
  5. Use fun words. Avoid anything like digital detox or internet addiction and focus on the positives e.g. family time.
  6. Use role models; kids look up to celebrities. Ed Sheeran and Eddie Redmayne are two big names who have stepped away from technology.

Now, the toddler hasn't discovered Minecraft, uses a computer mouse to call her friends and is more interested in Fireman Sam than Ed Sheeran. But the fact that we're not yet in the thick of it makes me even more motivated to establish family 'techspectations' (nice) now.

Based on Chris's tips, I set the following guidelines for myself, and email my husband to fill him in.

  • No screens in bedrooms or during family meal times.
  • A 10-hour overnight shut down, beginning 9pm latest (see recent post).
  • Leave phone out of sight when playing with the toddler (except for the odd Instagram shot, otherwise how will everyone know how much offline fun we're having?).
  • Give the toddler more opportunity to occupy herself (frankly, this is terrifying) and resist automatically offering cartoons during busy morning/evening times.
  • Limit social media and email checking to a few times a day.
  • Bookmark articles I want to read for set times (making it more likely I will read stuff I'm really interested in).
  • Leave my phone at home when I can.
  • Don't check the phone whilst walking. Be more like the toddler who looks around and takes in her surroundings. But don't blow raspberries at strangers.
  • Resist using the phone to fill time in queues etc. and instead do some breathing exercises or focus on the present moment.
  • Carry a book for bus and train journeys (naturally I don't want to risk making eye contact with strangers).

Hmmm, so how's it all going? Well, all this is made easier by the fact that, having recently shed most of my work commitments, no-one really wants to talk to me anyway. But it's still quite a shift. This is certainly not a week long project, and is very much a work in progress. But even small efforts make a difference, and I enjoy being 'disconnected' more often. I plan to review progress in a couple of months, and let's see how I get on when I have a baby attached to me for hours on end...

This post originally appeared on 52 pauses, a light-hearted blog project in which I try one simple mindfulness, meditation or relaxation practice each week, with the aim of slowing down and being a calmer parent.

You can read more about 52 pauses here and sign up for weekly blog posts here.

You can also follow 52 pauses on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Want to read more about our relationship with technology? The Unplug site has a great reading list, plus a TED talk by Unplug co-founder William Meara.