Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

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Schools and smartphone/screen-time policies

The Teenage Guide to Life Online by Nicola Morgan, advice on using the internet and smartphones for teenagers and older childrenSchools wanting to set a strong, evidence-based policy first need to know the theory behind the advice I’m going to give. In the resources section, you’ll find a resources called Tips for Schools Setting Screen-Time Policy. You should also look at the main resources for the LIFE ONLINE section of my website, for all the references. But my purpose in this article today is to explain some of the psychology that we need to understand before we can make good strategies. That list of strategies won’t make full sense without the explanations in this article.

I also always recommend the following books on the subject: The Distracted Mind by Daniel Levitin, The Happiness Effect by Donna Freitas, Irresistible by Adam Alter, and Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaris. Those books will show you a) how tempting and irresistible screens and social media are for most people (of all ages) and why and b) the problems of digital distraction, attempting to multi-task, information overload and continuous partial attention.


Reward and addiction – when we do things that biology “programmes” us to do, we feel “rewarded” when we do them: rewarded by a buzz of pleasure. These reward pathways trigger feelings that are very hard to resist because we are deeply programmed not to resist them.

There are three main relevant drivers going on when we go online:  sociability, curiosity and distractibility.

We are programmed to be social and therefore to build bonds, which happens when we connect with people, make new friends and maintain existing friendships. Wellbeing includes, necessarily, having supportive networks (which may be small but they must be there) of people who we can turn to. Those networks don’t come by themselves: we have to do certain things to make them happen. Mental health is closely linked to being included in the right groups for us and that applies equally for introverts. Because this is so important for our health, we are biologically driven to seek it.

We are programmed to be curious, to notice new things and to be drawn to them. The most successful people are curious – it’s partly their curiosity that has made them know things, try things and want things, leading to greater chances of success.

We are programmed to be distracted. Being distractible can is life-saving, as we notice danger and are alerted to it. We are especially likely to be distracted by moving things.

The brain loves a habit – every time we perform an action we lay down or strengthen pathways, making it easier next time. Habits are energy-saving because they require less thought and determination, so habit-creation is naturally attractive for our brains. We can fall into good habits or bad habits.

This has both a negative and a positive for the purposes of this topic. It is negative because we can easily fall into negative habits which look and feel very hard to break. And indeed they are. But they are not impossible to break and once we manage to do that we can just as quickly build up a good habit to replace the bad. That’s the positive: that this habit-forming tendency makes it easy to form a good habit.

So, what strategies or techniques can we take from this understanding?

Pomodoro techniques – this is a simple but effective technique which allows us to begin to break a bad habit and to focus on the thing we want to focus on instead. We know that we don’t work as well while being bombarded by texts, emails or notifications. But it’s so hard to stop. The Pomodoro technique helps in two ways:

  • It allows us to set a specific amount of time that we will work for – ideally a modest amount so that it isn’t too daunting: 25 minutes is recommended.
  • It prevents us from accessing social media (etc) during that time.

How to do it: you can either find a Pomodoro app on the Internet (there are many, mostly free) or you can use an alarm function on your phone – your phone must be turned to silent but the alarm will still work or use a simple kitchen timer. Some of the Apps allow you to block social media and/or emails – that’s ideal. Otherwise, turn our wifi router off or just disconnect your devices (all of them!) from the Internet. Then, just for the amount of time you chose, WORK! Work like the wind!

The result is almost always really positive: you find it easy to do it, you love the feeling of actually working without interruption, and that feeling encourages you to do the same next time.

SOS – Switch Off Screens
In schools, I recommend digital switch off periods, to fit into whatever classroom activities you’re doing. Talk about it and why you’re doing it; encourage discussion of feelings when you’ve finished; discuss whether they could do the same at home.

Out of sight, out of mind – in any situation of temptation, being able to see or quickly access the object we desire is a trigger to wanting it and giving in to the temptation. If I see chocolate, I want to eat it; if I don’t, I don’t think of it. People trying to lose weight are encouraged not to buy the foods they crave, so that they aren’t easily accessible when they crave them.

So, apply this addiction strategy to digital media: keep your smartphone out of sight – and ideally out of reach. Consider enforcing a universal “hand your phones in” model. At home, everyone should put their phones in a box or basket in the hall when they’re working. Avoid having links or bookmarks to whatever social media platform your vice is on your laptop.

Intrinsic or extrinsic motivation – see Drive by Daniel Pink – I could write a lot about this, as it’s fascinating, but essentially, know about the two forms of motivation:

  • Extrinsic involves rewards and punishments: “If I do this I can have a reward”; “If you don’t do this, you won’t be able to do…”
  • Intrinsic motivation come from within and responds to acknowledged feelings of benefit when the right action is performed. It involves the individual setting his or her own goal, knowing why it is desired, and acknowledging the feelings of pride and pleasure when the correct action is performed.

Extrinsic motivation works well – at first. Soon, greater reward or punishment is required. So it ultimately fails. Intrinsic motivation is more likely to succeed and for longer. It involves autonomy and that can only be good.

What we learn from the Marshmallow Effect – do read the Marshmallow Effect by Walter Mischel, about the seminal and ongoing research into how young children (and the rest of us) learn and use self-control. The original experiments are fascinating (and sweet – oh, but those poor children!) but what has been learnt from them is really useful. The two that stuck out for me are the next two points below.

Use distraction – when we are thinking “I want that” or “I want to do that” and it’s something we’re trying not to do – whether it’s eating another piece of cake, drinking a glass of wine, smoking a cigarette or using social media instead of working – if we can distract ourselves for a few minutes from thinking about it we stand a good chance of resisting. If we can distract ourselves with something we like, it’s likely to succeed because we are likely to become involved in the thing that we have chosen instead. So, play some music, hum a tune, write a list of things to do, run around the room, go for a walk (without your phone!) – anything that’s appropriate for the moment.

Replacement – “if/then” – this was one of the most important strategies to be confirmed by the Marshmallow tests. Essentially, it works like this: you say to yourself “IF I [start to switch on Facebook / feel the urge to check my emails] I will [eg drink a couple of sips of water*]” I know, you think I’m bonkers. Try it. It’s remarkable. What you don’t say is “IF I start to switch on Facebook, I just WON’T.” Because you probably will. But the IF/THEN rule works because it gives you autonomy and a healthier, easy alternative. (*Drinking the sips of water is my choice, because I also know I need to drink more water; yours could be “do five press-ups” or whatever you want as long as it’s positive.)

Communal SOS – Switch Off Screens – everyone should do it. If you’re at home, the whole family should have SOS every evening at a certain time and all the way through till morning and an SOS every now and then at weekends, maybe for an hour at a time. Go on a trip or play a game or just do ANYTHING ELSE but stare at a screen!

And at school this should, in my strong opinion be built into your school day. It can be something each teacher does for a while during a lesson or something the whole school does every now and then. Boarding schools particularly need to incorporate this into their evenings. I know of many schools that have and, when it’s done right, it gets huge positive feedback from students, staff and parents.

Whatever schools do, it has to be a team effort. You all have to know why you’re doing it – for the wellbeing and performance of your students and staff – and you all have to buy into whatever policy you choose.

AND the parents need to be brought onside, too. The common theme from all my conversations with schools around the world, is that, whatever the policy, it doesn’t work if the parents aren’t onside.

Once we understand why we need to do this, then we can start to work out how. But unless we understand human reward systems and temptation, that won’t be enough. I had a 23yo assistant working for me on the research for The Teenage Guide to Life Online. Reading the research made her want to change her behaviours with social media usage. Reading my strategies gave her the power to do that.

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.


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