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Nir Eyal

A graduate and instructor in Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Nir Eyal has studied and taught behavioral design to industry-leading experts and scientists. He writes about the intersection of psychology,[…]

NIR EYAL: There's only two places in society where we can tell people where to go, what to think, what to eat, who to be friends with, how to dress, and that's school and prison.

How do we raise indistractable kids? As the father of a tech-loving 11-year-old, I remember when my daughter was only two years old and some of her first words were "iPad time, iPad time." Well, we want to make sure that we are raising our kids in a way that they themselves can deal with distraction. I think this will be the skill of the century. So there's a few things that we need to realize following the indistractable model. When it comes to raising indistractable kids we need to find the root cause of why our kids are getting distracted and not be satisfied with just blaming the proximal cause. Parents have been blaming all sorts of things for their kids' bad behavior for generations. In my generation it was video games or television. Before that it was the radio. All the way back to the written word was blamed for causing distraction. And when it comes to kids these days, people find some reason why kids are behaving the way they are. But as opposed to being satisfied with just the proximal cause. let's dive deeper to understand why kids overuse technology.

A very widely accepted theory of human motivation says that all of us need three things for psychological well-being. According to self-determination theory we require a sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. And when we are denied those things the needs displacement hypothesis says that we look for them wherever we can get them. And when we look at kids' lives today they are deficient in these three psychological nutrients. Consider competence. With the rise of standardized testing a good number of kids these days are constantly told that they're not good enough. They're not competent in their school activities. And when they feel that way they look for competency elsewhere. Well, of course, the tech companies are more than happy to give them a feeling of competency when they play a game online.

Now consider kids' sense of autonomy. This is the most overscheduled generation in history. Between after school activities like Kumon and swimming lessons and Mandarin, kids have very little time for free play. And for those families who can't afford all those after school activities many parents are scared to death by the message we've heard in the media that our kids are somehow going to be abducted at any minute. It turns out that this is the safest generation in American history and those fears are unfounded. And yet many parents keep their kids at home where they have little choice but to look for a sense of agency and control through their devices. So when kids are constantly scheduled throughout their day and restrictions placed on them, they look for a place where they can feel agency and autonomy. In fact, researchers tell us that kids today have ten times the number of restrictions placed on them as an average adult, twice as many as an incarcerated felon. And so when kids don't feel a sense of autonomy offline, they look for it online. They play Fortnite or Minecraft or whatever other game because that's where they feel like gods. They own that environment. They have a sense of agency and control that they so severely lack offline.

Finally consider relatedness. Researchers tell us that kids today have very little time for free play. Not supervised by coaches or parents, but time to just be kids. It turns out that free play is incredibly psychologically nourishing. Free play is where we understand others and are understood ourselves. We need this time for proper socialization. But kids have less time for free play than ever. And so when they don't get that sense of relatedness offline, where do they go? Well, they go to Instagram or Snapchat or TikTok. These apps, these social media companies give kids the sense of relatedness that they're striving for. So the root cause of overuse in most kids' lives is not the technology itself but rather the fact that they are missing these three critical psychological nutrients of competency, autonomy, and relatedness.