Adam Alter

Psychologist and teacher
"Children find what their parents pay attention to interesting."

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We all have the same system: the same anatomy, practically the same brain, and our reactions are quite similar; same rewards, same signals, same triggers... So we all have the same "risk," if we want to call it that. We are all susceptible. Having said that, things are often structural. In other words, if you have created a universe in which all your friends are on a device and you are expected to respond within thirty seconds, you will be in it too. The way society is structured right now is particularly dangerous for teenagers and pre-teens, because most of their social interactions are online. On a global scale, they are expected to be connected in front of their phone, ready to respond, willing to interact with people... Basically, as soon as they finish school until they go to bed. All that free time — all they have in the week — is spent with their cell phone. And this is a structural factor, and how we all live. If this changed, young people would go out more, play more and do other things that are positive for them. But it's dangerous because, as their world has evolved, they can't get away from the screen as easily as adults, because our lives don't revolve around cell phones, especially at a social level.

The first thing to do is monitor the length of use. If you see that your child uses their phone or any other device for several hours a day, you can monitor it to find out how much. I wouldn't do it secretively, without the child or the teenager knowing; I would say: "Let's see how long you are spending on it, and see what's going on." I teach high schoolers in the summer and some spend up to ten hours a day in front of the screen. I don't know where they find the time. I don't understand how they can live like that and do the other things they need to do, but if you're a parent, it's worth knowing. So the first thing is, find out how much time they are spending on it. The benefit of these trackers is that you can also know what they do during that time. But the real thing is to have a conversation with your child, once you have a sense of what your child is doing, especially if they are old enough to have it, and tell them: "How much do you feel is okay? Let's try to strike a balance here. It can be a small problem that you can address by discussing it, by working out some ways of dealing with this... But it can also be a large problem, to the point where kids aren't able to do the work they need to do; they feel overwhelmed by everything around them, because they never get the chance to get back to things outside the screen... At that point, the most serious problems, at least in the United States and in parts of Europe, lead people to go to specialist treatment centers. They are still very early, on — their efficacy is questionable, and some seem to work better than others. There is no tried and true way of treating this addiction at this stage. The percentage of children who need it is very small. But that would be the series of steps: Usage, what is going on at that time, have a conversation with the child to try to work out an easy way around it, and if there's nothing, potentially talking to a doctor about it.

"Putting your smartphone down for part of the day is a good way to recover the humanity that these devices have taken away from us."

Children find interesting what their parents find interesting. So, if you focus your eyes on a screen, your child will think it's very interesting; If you pay attention to a book, the child will wonder what's in the book. Whatever your attention is drawn to, your child will consider it interesting. This is how they learn. They look up to their parents, especially when they are young, and want to know what their parents are interested in, and they are interested in it, too. Children from a very young age pay attention to what you do. I think it's very important that parents, when their children are around, put down the screens, as they would want their child to do. If you think it's okay for your child to look at the screen at any moment, you are okay. If there is a moment when you don't want them to look at their phone, you have to abide by the same rule. Because your using a phone is basically like the child using the phone — it encourages the same behavior. If you see that your child uses their phone or any other device for several hours a day, you can monitor it to find out how much. I wouldn't do it secretively, without the child or the teenager knowing; I would say: "Let's see how long you are spending on it, and see what's going on." I teach high schoolers in the summer and some spend up to ten hours a day in front of the screen. I don't know where they find the time. I don't understand how they can live like that and do the other things they need to do, but if you're a parent, it's worth knowing. So the first thing is, find out how much time they are spending on it. The benefit of these trackers is that you can also know what they do during that time. But the real thing is to have a conversation with your child, once you have a sense of what your child is doing, especially if they are old enough to have it, and tell them: "How much do you feel is okay? Let's try to strike a balance here. It can be a small problem that you can address by discussing it, by working out some ways of dealing with this... But it can also be a large problem, to the point where kids aren't able to do the work they need to do; they feel overwhelmed by everything around them, because they never get the chance to get back to things outside the screen... At that point, the most serious problems, at least in the United States and in parts of Europe, lead people to go to specialist treatment centers. They are still very early, on — their efficacy is questionable, and some seem to work better than others. There is no tried and true way of treating this addiction at this stage. The percentage of children who need it is very small. But that would be the series of steps: Usage, what is going on at that time, have a conversation with the child to try to work out an easy way around it, and if there's nothing, potentially talking to a doctor about it.

The way we become better people, better social creatures, is to test things out — it's a process of trial and error. If we take a toy away from another child, the child bop us on the head and says: "Don't take that toy - that's mine." This is how we learn what works and what does not. We learn that if you tell a child something nasty, they cry, and that makes you feel bad. The only way you learn that to have rapid feedback when you act, and that happens face to face. Behind a screen, where you have hundreds of thousands of people, friends and people you don't really know: your actions, when you type, and when make comments, are removed from those consequences. As a result, you don't have that trial and error process, you don't learn as rapidly.

It is very easy for online life to be harmful to a child's well-being. Because people curate their lives online, what ends up happening is that people post the best 5% of their lives, and put the other 95% aside. If you are a child and you think that the Internet is an accurate reflection of how people live, and you have only seen the best, you begin to think that your life is much less interesting, more mundane, and that it doesn't quite have the richness of other people's lives. It is very damaging because we engage in a process of constant social comparison, trying to work out what our lives are like.

Biography
Adam Alter is a psychologist and professor of psychology at New York University. He is the author of the book 'Irresistible', in which he takes a simple, practical look at what we do with our phones and other tech devices that reel us in.