Help! My kid won't get off their phone!
A new (science-backed) approach to solving your family's tech problems
Welcome to Techno Sapiens! Subscribe to join thousands of other readers and get research-backed tips for living and parenting in the digital age.
Last week, a very kind techno sapien requested a quick summary of the post so she could screenshot it and share it with her husband. So this week, I bring you…
A summary for busy sapiens:
Problem solving is a five-step strategy for navigating tough situations.
There’s good evidence that it works.
The five steps follow the acronym ABCDE: Acknowledge the problem, Brainstorm solutions, Choose a solution, Do it, Evaluate how it went.
You can use it for a range of tech (and non-tech) problems in your family. For example: when your child won’t stop using their phone.
A few weeks ago, during a particularly busy week, I was feeling overwhelmed.
The growing pile of tasks seemed insurmountable, and it felt like any time I wasn’t working, I was taking care of the baby. Many times, as any multi-tasking parent can attest, I was trying to do both at the same time. Dashing off an email from my phone while the baby’s tiny fingers smacked at the touchscreen. Shoveling yogurt into the baby’s mouth while listening in, muted, on a Zoom webinar. This was not working. [see: last week’s existential search for answers on parent screen time].
And yet, in the chaotic routine of everyday life, I didn’t see any solutions. I just dug my heels further into the existing patterns. More multitasking, less sleep, more baby yogurt on the laptop keyboard. One night, deep in the throes of a mental checklist that would surely never get done, my husband and I started talking about the stress of balancing work and new parenthood. I said something along the lines of: It just feels like, with the baby, there aren’t enough hours in the day anymore. I’m never going to be able to just take a day to catch up on work like I used to do.
My husband who, despite a background in finance and startups, might be a better psychologist than me, said something like: It totally makes sense that you’re overwhelmed. You have a lot on your plate. [Wait. Did he read my newsletter on validation?1] Let’s figure out a solution.
And then we did. We took a step back, thought through the problem, and brainstormed ideas for getting it all done. I immediately felt better. Of course, no solution is perfect—I’m not sure there’s ever a perfect solution to trying to balance it all as a parent. But there’s power in simply taking a moment and realizing that you have options.2
Sometimes, solving a problem just requires a deliberate pause.
Problem Solving: Some Background
Now, let’s imagine a different parenting problem: your kid won’t put down their phone. Like, ever. You’ve tried everything. You’re constantly telling them to put the phone away. You’re practically positioning your face between the phone screen and their eyeballs, pleading with them to stop. You feel like taking the phone, winding up, and hurling it as far into the distance as it will go. Nothing is working.
A perfect situation for problem solving.
Most of us have a vague sense of what it means to “problem solve”—you take a problem, and you fix it. Self-explanatory.
When I talk about problem solving here, I’m referring to a specific, step-by-step strategy for navigating difficult situations. There’s good evidence that it works not only to—as you might expect—solve problems, but also as part of larger treatments to help people cope with challenging situations in their lives.
Problem solving began as one component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a gold standard, evidence-based treatment for a range of mental health problems. It was such an effective strategy that an entire form of therapy was then created around it (aptly named “Problem Solving Therapy”). This meta-analysis of 31 randomized controlled trials (including 2895 participants) looked at the efficacy of Problem Solving Therapy for everything from depression to child behavior problems. It showed that over 90% of people who got problem solving therapy showed more symptom improvement than those who got no treatment.3 Bottom line: problem solving works.
You can take on problem solving individually—just take a few minutes and walk through the steps. You can also do this in a relationship or as a family, with one or more of your kids (it will probably work best with kids who are school-age or older).
Here are some problems, big and small, you could address using problem solving:
You feel stuck at work
Your teen is posting things you don’t like on social media
You and your partner disagree on whether dishes should remain, unwashed, in the sink after use4
Your child refuses to do their homework
You and your child disagree on whether they should be allowed to download TikTok
You want to spend less time on social media
Now, back to our problem situation. Kid won’t stop using phone. Considering hurling phone into distance. What do we do?
As we walk through each of the problem solving steps, we’re going to use this as our real-world example. Full disclosure: my colleague Emily Weinstein and I recently ran a workshop on tech parenting strategies at a local school, and we used this example—but it’s a good one, so I wanted to share it with all of my favorite techno sapiens (i.e., you).
Okay, just tell me what to do already
Psychologists love acronyms.5 In that tradition, a number of different acronyms have been developed for the steps of problem solving. Here, I’m going with my favorite, because it’s easy to remember and implement: ABCDE.
Acknowledge the problem
Choose a solution
It seems too simple, but remember, this is all about taking a deliberate pause. It’s about taking the time to step outside of our normal patterns of thinking or interacting, and trying to change the dynamic. It works precisely because we take a simple process, one that’s often automatic, and make it more complicated. More thoughtful. More collaborative.
So, let’s set the scene. You’re ready to talk to your kid about the phone. You’ve found a time when both you and your teen are calm. Maybe you scheduled the time in advance (Hey, I was hoping we could spend a few minutes tonight talking about something—what’s a good time for you?) or in the moment (Hey, I wanted to talk to you about something. Do you have a few minutes?).
Make sure you have time set aside, privacy, and (optionally) a pen and paper. Yes, I know. What self-respecting person breaks out a pen and paper before a conversation with their child? Why am I giving you homework? I get it, and this can certainly also work as a simple conversation. But I will say—I’ve seen many a problem-solving therapy session between parents and teens, and writing things down is often more helpful than we realize.
And away we (and maybe also the phone?) go!
Acknowledge the problem
This is the hardest part. We have three goals in stating the problem:
Be specific. Try to be as clear as possible.
Too general (bad)6: You’re on your phone too much.
Specific (good): In the evenings, I’ve noticed you’re sometimes on your phone when I think you should be doing your homework.
Be objective. Try to stick to the facts. It’s tempting to exaggerate or go to the extremes here, because it feels very extreme. A good sign that you’ve wandered away from “objective” into the realm of “extreme” is the use of the words never or always.
Extreme (bad): You’re ALWAYS on your phone.
Objective (good): It seems like on most days, you’re on your phone for about 4 hours.7
Be positive. People tend to be more receptive to problems that are framed positively—when possible, it can be helpful to point out the behavior you want to see more. This feels less blame-y and judgmental.
Blame-y (bad): The amount of time you’re using your phone is a huge problem.
Positive (good): You’re such a good artist, and I’d love for you to have a chance to do more drawing instead of spending that time on your phone.
My advice here is to start small. When we feel like we have a big problem on our hands, we often want a big solution. We want to set the phone on fire and watch as it withers into a smoldering pile of forgotten Snap streaks. But this won’t work.
You want to pick something measurable, that has a good chance of success. You can always build on it later. So, for our example, let’s acknowledge the problem as follows:
Sometimes, when we’re having dinner together, you are using your phone [objective, specific]. I want to figure out a way for us to enjoy dinner together without using our phones [positively framed].
Next step: you and your child brainstorm solutions to the problem together. The key here is that you’re not evaluating those solutions yet. That comes in the next step. The reason is that even the subtlest dismissal of a potential solution tends to stifle conversation and make people feel that they’re not being heard.
Let’s say your child offers this potential solution: How about instead of using my phone, I bring out my laptop and watch Netflix during dinner?
You, evaluating too early (bad): You’re missing the point here. I want us to spend time together during dinner, without our screens getting in the way.
You, in brainstorm mode (good): Okay! Let’s add that to the list. What other ideas do we have?
In the brainstorming stage, you’ll pull together all the possible solutions into a list. I’d suggest, depending on the problem, coming up with somewhere between 5 and 10 solutions.
For our current example, let’s say you and your child come up with the following:
Bring out laptop and watch Netflix during dinner
Put phones in other room during dinner
Use screen time app to limit phone access during dinner
Throw phones in trash and never use again
Keep phones on table and hope for the best
Choose a Solution
It’s time! You’re ready to evaluate each solution. You can do this a few different ways. Maybe you walk through each solution and name a few pros and cons for each. Maybe you rate each solution on a scale of 1 to 5 in terms of how helpful you think it would be. Maybe you and your kid separately read over the list and circle your top two choices, then come back together to discuss.
No matter what process you use, the important thing is that both you and your child feel that your voices are being heard. This is a time for lots of validation. For example:
Your kid: I think we should go with “keep our phones on the table during dinner and hope for the best.” I won’t have a problem not looking at it.
You, less validating (bad): Yea, I don’t think so. There’s no way you’re going to be able to avoid looking at your phone if it’s sitting right in front of you.
You, more validating (good): Okay, so it sounds like you feel pretty confident that you won’t look at your phone. I know for me, that would be really tough. I’m wondering if it might be tempting if your phone is sitting right on the table?
Ideally, you and your child agree on a solution through this process. If you don’t agree, what should you do?
In this case, I’d err on the side of your child’s preference. This will get them bought in, and show that you’re willing to listen to their ideas. Remember, you can re-evaluate in a few days. If the solution they picked isn’t working, you can try another one (while avoiding the all-consuming urge to say I told you so). If it is working—great! Sometimes kids surprise us.
For our example, let’s say we decide on solution #3: Use the screen time app to limit phone use during dinner.
In the immortal words of Phil Knight8, Just Do It. Except not really. You want to work out a few more details, here. What will your plan be for trying out your solution?
Consider when you’ll put it into place. Are you going to try your solution right now? Tomorrow? Next week?
Consider how you’ll put it into place. What does each person need to do to make sure the solution gets implemented?
Consider what might get in the way. Are there any barriers that might come up that you’ll need to plan for?
In the current example, we’ve decided that we’ll use the Screen Time app for iPhone (or Digital Wellbeing for Android) to limit phone use during dinner. But exactly how will we do that? Here are some details you might work through to put the plan in place:
When: You’ll set up screen time limits right now, to start tomorrow evening during dinner time
How: You usually sit down to dinner around 7pm, so you’ll set the limit on your screen time for 7-8pm. You and your child will each do that on your phones, separately.
Barriers: If you eat dinner at a different time one day, you will instead put your phones on “Do Not Disturb” right before you sit down to eat.
You did it! Now, how did it go? When you make your plan for trying the solution, you can frame it as an experiment (similar to our “tech vacation” ethos). For example:
Great, let’s try out this solution for a few days. Then let’s talk about it at dinner on Thursday night to see how it’s going.
When it’s time to evaluate, you want to make sure each person gets a say in how they think it’s going.
You might find that your current solution is generally working, but needs tweaking. Maybe you move the screen time limit start time up to 6:50pm, so that you have 10 minutes to get settled into dinner. Or maybe you’re realizing dinner is usually only 20 minutes long, so you shorten the screen time limit.
You might say: I’m really liking having a few minutes during dinner where we can talk without our phones. One thing that I think could be going better is the timing around when we set our screen time limits. What do you think?
You might also find that the current solution is not working at all. In that case, it’s time to go back to your original list of possible solutions. Maybe you’ve realized your dinner time varies too much to make the pre-determined screen time limits make sense. So, you go back to the list, and decide to try “put phones in other room during dinner,” instead.
You might say: I’m really liking having a few minutes during dinner where we can talk without our phones. It seems like our screen time limits aren’t always lining up with our dinnertime, though. What other solution might we try?
Let’s get out there and solve some problems
I recognize that any step-by-step parenting process is far easier said than done. Humans, especially young ones, are complicated. Things don’t always go according to plan. Solutions that seem like they really should work just, sometimes, don’t.
The key here, I think, is in the doing. In the solving, rather than the solved. The process itself can be the most important part: taking a step back, outside of our regular patterns of doing things; viewing our problems (and our kids’ problems) objectively, without judgement; having a conversation, listening, and being heard. Even if you don’t come to a solution, these things are likely to improve communication, build trust, and—if nothing else—remind you that you have options.
We may never be able to solve all our tech problems, but we should certainly give it a try. And it can’t hurt to break out a pencil and paper.
What tech problem are you trying to solve? I want to hear about it! Respond directly to this email or leave a comment!
A quick survey
What did you think of this week’s Techno Sapiens? Your feedback helps me make this better. Thanks!
My husband and I did, after the first Tech Parenting newsletter came out, find ourselves jokingly validating each others’ statements throughout the day. It makes sense that you’d want to finish my pasta Bolognese, given that you’re still hungry. And I totally understand feeling disappointed about Amy’s Jeopardy loss; it’s hard to see such a dominant streak end. The weird thing about validation is that, even though we knew it was a joke, it still kind of worked?
This is a good time for me to acknowledge how incredibly fortunate I am to have the resources and family support to make working and child-caring possible. I know that this is not true for so many people. I also know that the idea of somehow applying a simple, 5-step solution to any parenting problem can sound laughable. Small changes in how we think about and cope with problems can make, at least, a small difference, but this is not to minimize how difficult parenting can be, especially for those with fewer resources, less support, and other challenges. Parents of the world: you’re amazing.
Meta-analysis statistics can be really hard to interpret. For those who really want to get into the weeds: this study showed that Problem Solving Therapy was more effective than no treatment, with an effect size of d = 1.37. This value (Cohen’s d) is calculated by taking the mean of the treatment group, subtracting the mean of the no treatment group, and dividing by the standard deviation. One way to interpret this value is by estimating the percent of people in the treatment group who have a “better” score than the mean of the no treatment group. For d = 1.37, that number is right around 90%. Whew. It’s like being in grad school all over again (shudder).
This is actually not something my husband and I disagree on, as we agree that dishes should remain, unwashed, in the sink for at least a couple hours before being put in the dishwasher. *Update: after reading a draft of this newsletter, my husband has informed me that we are not, in fact, on the same page about this. Will report back later.
I say psychologists love acronyms, but the more I learn about other sectors (government, finance, education, etc.), the more I wonder if every profession loves acronyms. I worked at a restaurant in college, and the use of acronyms and other shorthand was unlike anything I’ve experienced since. (Why on earth would you say “86” instead of “we’re out of that”?!) Also, if you didn’t immediately pick up on the shorthand, the other servers looked at you like you’d never seen a fork before. Very stressful experience.
Another fun fact about that restaurant, which shall remain unnamed. In the fall, the owners used to buy industrial-sized, 99-cent jugs of apple cider and even cheaper jugs of orange juice, and then throw them together with cheap whiskey into a giant crockpot. Then they’d dish it out into tiny mugs, garnish them with cinnamon sticks, and sit back while the people of Cambridge flocked in to pay $15 for their famous cider.
I’m labeling the not-quite-as-good parenting statements here as “bad” for simplicity, but should note that it’s very much okay (and totally normal) if you’ve said these things before. In fact, there’s probably a time and place for saying many of these things. I’m highlighting them here because, in the situation we’re describing, other statements may work better.
You can verify this in the iPhone Screen Time app, or Android Digital Well-Being app. I recommend doing this because we’re very bad at estimating our own (and our kids’) actual screen time.
For those looking for reading recommendations, Shoe Dog, Phil’s Knight memoir about starting Nike, is an excellent book. I read it a few years ago and believed, in the interim, that Knight was an incredible writer and storyteller. I was disappointed to learn a few weeks ago that the book was actually written by J.R. Moehringer, his ghostwriter (and author of his own, fabulous memoir, The Tender Bar). This is, apparently, mentioned in a few sentences in the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book.