Digital detox or digital reset

Digital de-tox, digital re-tox, or digital re-set?

This weekend will be a landmark in the emergence from the lockdown and a new direction for us in the UK, where the coronavirus-crisis restrictions lift further so that a more varied social scene is possible. At the same time, the end of the school year beckons – and parents and teachers are all starting to think about the legacy of so much time spent in front of screens. Heads of primaries and prep schools I have worked with have been at pains to encourage activities where the input by screen is only a launch pad – but have noticed that in some families there has been a reluctance to embrace these activities. Almost as though screen time and learning have become conflated. In various webinars, parents have expressed concerns about teenagers having to be left with their own devices – following hours of online lessons in their rooms or are they? Also gaming and socialising, and not really having sufficient variety in their routines. Looking at screen-time per se, has now become passé because these screens have been lifelines for the fundamentals of work and school. So how can we think about creating something anew in the void that will come in the holidays when both teachers and pupils can untether themselves from the laptop, open up to new experiences, and set up a step-change from term-time that will refresh, invigorate, and re-calibrate the relationship with the screen?

Are you worried that screens are taking over your life / the lives of your children? Eroding the quality of your relationships? You won’t be alone. It is also worth considering the psychological aversion to risk, contact, germs etc that has been such a hallmark of the last few months. We – and our children – have to an extent become habituated to lockdown life. And we need to go gently and be sensitive to some very real fears that may be attaching themselves to being ‘out there’. Or a more excessive response to the social famine, where we might flip into social feasting, binging on hanging out – where for example teens might not be seen for days, immersing themselves in quantity, rather than quality connection, but with a dependent air.

Whether adults, or children, we should look to the scope afforded by the summer break, to curb some of the rigidity that may be forming in our habits. To reconnect with a fuller range of activities and our fuller selves, by avoiding the temptation to go to ‘default settings’ in the summer routines. Instead, setting intentions and being deliberate on the proportions of what it is we want in our lives – and why it matters.

Life beyond measuring screen time, thinking about quality and purpose. We may be thinking about ourselves, our partners, our teenagers, our children what do we see? Does the relationship with the screen give a shot in the arm? Does it enliven, enrich, heal? This image created by this GCSE textile sculpture is suggestive of both a medical intervention or an addiction, where the syringes are labelled with ‘Snapchat’ and ‘Facebook’. So some ways to observe, reflect, and open up a non-judgmental path to setting a new relationship with the screen based on quality and impact, rather than crudely measuring quantity.

  1. How much is screen time dominating? What is being crowded out, and what is important about it?
  2. What is the impact of the way that screen-use affects you, your partner, your child? Is it like eating junk food, pleasant in the moment, but unsatisfying and sickly leaving you out-of-sorts, or irritable, or confrontational? How does this affect your mood, and how does it affect yours relationships?
  3. What are the best bits about how you use screens – what is the best of what you can create, achieve? And how does that impact on you? How can you change your relationship with your screen so you have more of the good, and less of the Digital junk-food element?
  4. Observe yourself, how do you know when you’ve noodled on Facebook, or gamed, or worked at the screen too long? What are the signs in your body, where do you feel tension, stiffness in the jaw, the brow, the shoulders, the back. How can you tune into your body more to recognise the signs of when too much is too much? And use that benchmark to help keep time when the digital world can suck us in and absorb us.
  5. What are the other things on your list that you want to experience, that you couldn’t during term-time or when working? If you are saying no to endless noodling on phones or tablets on the sofa, in bed, in the house, what is it you want to be saying yes to? It’s so much easier to change a habit by replacing the more negative, self-sabotaging elements, with something really positive. Create a check-list, make that visible.
  6. Make it more convenient to break away from the screen and less convenient to endlessly consume it. Little behavioural tweaks really work. Put the devices away somewhere where they are out of sight and you actively have to move to get it. In modern homes, devices are like rats, you’re never more than 6 feet away from one, or whatever the urban myth about rats is! Keep your phone in a bag or backpack rather than a back pocket, consider leaving the house without it! 

For parents, seeking to make adjustments with children at home, for many of you, this is a big area of conflict even under normal circumstances. Let alone now after 3-4 months of digital schooling. Please have a look at some of the thoughts below – but above all, aim to be practical, not perfect. Don’t try to implement everything all at once. There are lots of challenges in tackling screen time – stick to what’s really important and flex to suit the family dynamic. Making changes, not fuelling power-struggles.

  1. Meet them where they’re at, as Covey said – seek first to understand. What’s the fascination behind what they are doing online. Take an interest in what they value. We need to respect that technology is part of their lifestyle and how they communicate. We wouldn’t think twice about seeing them in a play or concert, or cheering them on the touch line, try openheartedly coming alongside them, seeing what they see appreciatively instead of dismissively. A much firmer base for negotiations!
  2. Don’t mislabel screen time as wasteful or unproductive. With any sort of binging behaviour, the more forbidden, the more denigrated, the more powerful the compulsion. To be effective, you need to normalise and take the heat out of the issue. Have a routine and well-defined boundaries to increase certainty and predictability (management without surprises!) and well-defined boundaries. Set these boundaries pre-summer or at the outset. Focus on How they are using technology, and really focus on how it is – or isn’t supporting mental health – here is where a motivational interviewing approach bears fruit – how does it feel, what is the impact. Define the ways the screens are being used – is it supporting friendships, relationships with family, learning and growth, creativity? 
  3. Step outside of ongoing power struggles and repeated conflict over boundaries. Sit down and create a new agreement or contract. DO this through collaborative dialogue. It is also very powerful to make this a 2 way process – you also owning flaws in your own relationship with screens and devices – so it’s less about what is wrong with THEM And THEIR behaviour, and more of a joint project about us all working to make things better together, removing any shame / blame /guilt dynamics. But maybe do a little bit of research about some of the other dimensions you might be concerned about especially where sexual curiosity and online behaviour might be coming into play. This website is a great starting point and has a number of sample contracts:
  4. BUT bear in mind your contract with your child or teen needs to be something you co-create, in your own words, with their buy-in. Not a ‘download’ from an expert. To do this well, you’ll need to respect their ideas and show willingness to work together on a solution. You want to move out of nagging dynamics and shift to being a mentor vs a monitor. 
  5. Know that screen-time taps into dopamine pathways, giving positive and pleasurable feelings. This makes it difficult to maintain a healthy screen-time diet in young children, and older children where impulse control, delayed gratification are a struggle, and for those who may struggle with ADHD and executive function challenges. Where this is in play, it’s going to be hard to respect the limits that parents are setting. So you’ll need to be patient and consistent – avoiding reward / punishment dynamics, but teach consequences in connection with your ‘contract’. This is an opportunity for them to be independent and make their judgments calls – but their contribution to the household jobs needs to be done, the commitment to other aspects of a holiday well-being routine – exercise, being outdoors, connection, creativity, achieving the goals they have set themselves for the things they want to do as part of their holiday time at home or away. Identify consequences in advance to help them with their decision-making. And make sure that your ‘contract’ is based on realistic expectations, things that they CAN reliably do 70-80% of the time. Otherwise, the expectation is just a resentment-in-waiting.
  6. How to implement? I love Cynthia Croxley’s PACE acronym:
  7. P. – Prepare your mindset (clarify your goals as a parent)
  8. A. – Automate the routine – you are trying to set new habits, so what happens AFTER screen time is over is super-important and motivating to help actively change unwanted habits
  9. C. – Celebrate – give recognition to every step in the right direction – when good choices are made, and independent self-regulation starts to show around screen-time. Celebration is vital to wire in the good, and motivate towards accomplishing further goals.
  10. E. -Experiment – a learning process – you need a trial and error mindset, not an all-or-nothing one. When things haven’t gone well, reflect together on what you are learning. 

This has been a big theme coming up both in my parenting webinars for schools recently, as well as in my private coaching sessions with parents, couples, and teens. I hope this week’s edition has been helpful – I know that this is a topic high in the minds of parents who are thinking about how to fill the gaps left this summer by online lessons, and concerned about the legacy of our societal dependence on screens from the past few months creating even greater grey areas and difficulties in defining and tracking what’s good and what’s not. Do get in touch over the summer if you’d like some support in your parenting, or in your re-setting and moves you want to make in ‘powering up’ for a new start, like changing habits, or building a psychologically informed wellbeing-practice to help manage future challenge, change, and anxiety linked with the return to work, school, and group-life. I can offer:

  1. One-off mentoring sessions for individuals, or parents as couples.
  2. A series of coaching sessions for adults or older teens (14+)
  3. A blend of coaching for parents and younger children alternating sessions together and individually.
  4. A small-group parenting session – maybe you and your friends would like to join together and have a joint, highly interactive session focusing on areas you have lots of questions about…to be able to explore your parenting challenges, dilemmas and difficulties.
  5. Professional coaching – for teachers, leaders, and managers who want to tune up the way they approach relationships in the workplace, stressors, and boundaries, by committing to creating some thinking space and structured reflection.

Please see my beautifully revamped website  – new home-page and updated information for schools and businesses who might want to book me for training or speaker events:
NOW getting off my screen!!!

With much love and gratitude as always,


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