Our kids are so connected that they’re missing out on everything that matters. Joe McCormack wants parents to stop being helpless bystanders and start taking action. He shares insights to help us help our kids discern what’s important and what’s just “noise.”
Hoboken, NJ (December 2019)—Our kids are constantly glued to digital devices: playing video games, posting on social media, watching YouTube—even doing homework online. All this screen time makes parents uneasy, and it should. Plenty of evidence shows too much tech changes kids’ brains, fuels depression and anxiety, stunts the development of social skills, and more. Yet despite all the handwringing, we just don’t know what to do—so we shrug, check our own smartphones, and let the status quo flow on.
It’s this helpless bystander effect that Joe McCormack wants to challenge. In fact, he wants to launch a “just say no” movement around the passive acceptance of what he calls “noise”—not just in our kids’ lives but in our own.
“We’ve all gotten acclimated to living with endless digital disruptions and constant connectedness,” says McCormack, author of the new book NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus (Wiley, December 2019, ISBN: 978-1-119-55337-3, $25.00). “We think it’s normal but it’s not. All the distraction is hurting our quality of life. It’s hurting our ability to focus, to think, to work, to form strong relationships.”
And yes—to parent.
McCormack says we have a human responsibility to manage the noise that surrounds us, control our attention, and tune in to the things that really matter. We also have a parental responsibility to teach our kids the same crucial life skills now so they won’t have to “fix” their bad habits later. The good news? Making the needed changes is more doable than you think.
“There’s no single ‘silver bullet’ solution,” he says. “This is about committing to a series of small, practical ‘old world’ changes that together make a big difference. Yes, it will be a little tough at first just because you and your kids are going against the grain. But as parents our goal is to raise happy, healthy, successful kids. The changes are worth the effort.”
Here are a few of his insights and tips for parents and kids:
Yes, noise really is as bad as we think. Checking devices all day long addicts everyone (kids and adults) through a dopamine feedback loop. It’s especially dangerous for children of all ages because their brains are still being formed. Further, teens also have what neurologists call “a hyperactive risk-reward system” that makes them susceptible to addiction. Being tethered to technology isolates kids, puts them at risk for cyberbullying, divides their attention spans, and can impact their mental health. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of adolescents who experienced at least one major depressive episode leapt by 60 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).1
The problem isn’t just about what kids are doing when they’re tethered to technology. It’s about what they’re not doing. Noise teaches us to un-focus. That’s a problem because it’s the ability to focus on what matters that empowers us to do deep work, solve big problems, be better listeners, nurture relationships—all the things that create quality of life. We need to make sure kids learn how to manage their attention and discern what they’re letting in.
Set reasonable limits on technology and build quiet time into the day. Establish some rules around screen time and other forms of digital distraction. Maybe allow them half an hour to use their devices after homework is done each day. All other times, set an expectation that your kids unplug. Make sure they understand the value of having quiet time to unwind and recharge, and that they have an opportunity to spend time reading, journaling, or relaxing at home. (NOTE: See the attached tipsheet for more ideas for reducing screen time.)
Make a “keep phones out of direct reach” rule. It’s not enough to teach kids to resist technology. Reaching for the phone has become a habit (as most adults well know) and that’s no coincidence. Phones and apps are designed to be addictive. So don’t let kids keep phones by their bed, or give them unlimited access to play games or surf social media. You might make a rule they have to keep phones at a central point in the house (like a charging station in the kitchen).
Keep them busy (but not too busy). When kids have a lot to do, they’ll simply have less time to spend on devices. Encourage them to play sports or participate in other afterschool activities. Also make sure they have regularly scheduled responsibilities at home, like walking the dog, vacuuming, emptying the dishwasher, and so forth. Older kids might even get a part-time job. When kids know they have to go to band practice, get in volunteer hours, and do chores before they get to sit down at the computer, they’ll get in the habit of prioritizing life over technology.
“Don’t keep them running every second of the day, though,” cautions McCormack. “Kids need down time like everyone else. Perhaps even more important, they need to learn how to navigate a noisy world themselves—they won’t always have a parent setting up activities for them.”
Instill the skills kids need to say no to noise. In the age of FOMO (fear of missing out), it’s tempting to give in to noise in all its forms. That’s why both parents and kids alike should practice saying no to digital distraction and information overload. Master these habits so you can tune out noise, and teach them to your kids so they can learn to do the same:
- Refuse to be a slave to technology’s beeps, dings, and buzzes. When you hear an alert on your phone, say no. Better yet, silence any digital noisemakers when you are trying to concentrate, during dinner and other family times, and so forth.
- Practice single-minded focus. Do one thing at a time. Then move on to the next thing. Resist the urge to get distracted or split your focus by multitasking.
- Take regular technology breaks. Even better, get outside and take a stroll. A short walk each day helps you clear your head and process what’s happening in your life.
- Learn present listening. Fully engage during conversations by becoming aware of your awareness. Don’t let your mind wander. Be interested, concerned, and empathetic.
“Narrate why you’re doing what you’re doing, and why you’re asking them to do so,” says McCormack. “Unless you tell them, they may not realize there’s a better way to live. This high-tech connected life is all they’ve ever known.”
Immerse kids in scenarios that teach them to connect. A constant onslaught of noise hampers kids’ social skills development. That’s a problem because the ability to engage with others in a meaningful way matters more than ever. Being able to influence, persuade, collaborate, and show empathy are no longer considered “soft skills”—they’re workplace survival skills.
Parents can help by putting kids in situations where they can practice connecting with others. Insist that they hold meaningful conversations at the dinner table. Make sure they converse with visitors rather than retreating to their room. And make the world their classroom: Have younger kids place their own order at restaurants and (politely) send their food back when it’s wrong. Enlist older kids to negotiate for a different room if there’s a problem during a family vacation.
Look for ways to build empathy. Kids’ brains are malleable. Whatever they spend their time doing influences their development. That’s one more reason why it’s important to limit their exposure to digital distraction and help them tune into the world and people around them. It’s also why parents should focus on instilling habits that promote empathy and the social intelligence that will help them thrive throughout life.
“Introduce your kids to a diverse range of people and encourage them to befriend those who are different from them,” says McCormack. “Teach them to respond to challenging situations through a lens of curiosity and understanding instead of judgment. If a classmate is snide at school, help your child come up with ideas as to why he or she may be behaving that way.
“And of course, model ways for them to help others in need,” he adds. “If you see a mom struggling to balance groceries and a newborn, offer to help her get her bags into her car.”
Above all, remember to check your own behavior. As a parent, you are a huge influencer. If you’re perpetually distracted and addicted to technology, how can you expect them not to be?
When you spend hours watching TV or scrolling through Facebook after work, why would you not expect your kids to do the same? Spend your time in more productive, enriching, and rewarding ways. And talk about it. Say, “I’m really enjoying this pottery class. I like being creative.” Or, “I love working at the soup kitchen. It makes me feel happy to help others.”
Remember, this is not about disconnecting from technology. It’s an incredibly valuable tool when we manage it well (rather than let it manage us). Rather, it’s about teaching kids to make better choices, to discern what they let in, and to take charge of their time and attention. It’s about giving them a life skill that will serve them well as adults.
“We go to great lengths to protect our money and property and other resources, yet we don’t think twice about squandering our most expendable, scare resource,” muses McCormack. “We have limited time, so what we pay attention to really matters. That’s one of the most important lessons we can teach our kids.”
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- Markham Heid, “We Need to Talk About Kids and Smartphones,” Time, October 10, 2017, time.com/4974863/kids-smartphones-depression/.
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About the Author:
Joseph McCormack is the author of NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus. He is passionate about helping people gain clarity when there is so much competing for our attention. He is a successful marketer, entrepreneur, and author. His first book, BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less (Wiley, 2014), sets the standard for concise communication.
Joe is the founder and managing director of The BRIEF Lab, an organization dedicated to teaching professionals, military leaders, and entrepreneurs how to think and communicate clearly. His clients include Boeing, Harley-Davidson, Microsoft, Mastercard, DuPont, and select military units and government agencies. He publishes a weekly podcast called “Just Saying” that helps people master the elusive skills of focus and brevity.
To learn more, visit www.noisethebook.com.
About the Book:
NOISE: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus (Wiley, December 2019, ISBN: 978-1-119-55337-3, $25.00) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and direct from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797. For more information, please visit the book’s page on www.wiley.com.
Wiley, a global research and learning company, helps people and organizations develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Our online scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly journals, combined with our digital learning, assessment and certification solutions help universities, learned societies, businesses, governments and individuals increase the academic and professional impact of their work. For more than 210 years, we have delivered consistent performance to our stakeholders. The company’s website can be accessed at www.wiley.com.