Nir's Note: This interview with my good friends Vanessa Van Edwards first appeared on her blog, Science of People. She did such a great job summarizing our interview that I wanted to share it with my readers as well. Check out Vanessa's site and let me know what you think of this article on raising indistractable kids in the comments section at the bottom.

One of the best gifts we can give our children is the gift of focus. When kids know how to focus their attention they are…

  • Protected against distractions
  • Can better control their time
  • Focus on what matters

Distraction Myths

There are a lot of things that are simply not true about distracted kids. Starting with possibly the most common one…

Myth #1: Technology melts kids’ brains

This is definitely not a new myth. Our parents– and even our grandparents– have been talking about how Super Mario, metal music, radio, and even MTV are causing kids to lose their minds.

What does the science say? 2 hours a day of TV, video games, or whatever your kid likes to do is perfectly fine…as long as it is purposeful (more on that below)!

So it’s not technology itself per se, but too much technology (like too much of anything!) and the wrong kind of technology that really hurts us.

Myth #2: Sugar makes you hyper

I heard this at every birthday part I ever attended, “You have a sugar rush!” It turns out sugar rushes are a complete myth.

In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says this myth all started back in the mid 1970’s when a doctor took away the sugar from a single child’s diet, and that child’s behavior improved. However, dozens of follow-up studies have tried to replicate this result and none have succeeded.

But here’s the really surprising part: Nir shared a study that found the only people who experienced any change in behavior were the parents themselves.

Here’s what happened:

  • Researchers told parents their kids ate sugar (they didn’t).
  • They asked the parents to observe their kids’ behavior.

The result? The parents were frantic and apologized for their kids’ wild behavior! In other words, parents’ perceptions of their children’s behavior changed, even if their child was acting completely normal!

Classic placebo effect at its finest.

Psychological Vitamins: The 3 Things Our Children Are Missing

Let’s answer the question we’ve been waiting on: Why do kids use so much technology nowadays?

Nir mentioned a theory called the Needs Displacement Hypothesis. In short, when we don’t get our needs met in-person, we look elsewhere: technology.

No friends? Make digital friends. Too stressed from school? Watch TV. Not enough play time? Play a video game!

But what exactly are the needs our children are missing?

There are only 3: competency, autonomy, and relatedness. Nir calls these needs Psychological Vitamins.

Vitamin C: Competency

Around the time of the first iPhone boom (circa 2007/2008), there came an increase in standardized testing and after that, programs like No Child Left Behind and Common Core were started.

Research from the University of Virginia even shows that kindergarten teachers, compared to 15 years ago, spend much more time teaching academics rather than play and art. Some children are even tested 3 to 4 times a year!

The big problem? These tests and programs can make kids feel like they are incompetent. Anyone who scores below average (50% of all kids!) are told they are not competent enough. Thus, they turn to Roblox or Minecraft to feel like they can achieve something. According to Concordia University, some games can even set expectations that successfully mirror the same sorts of social expectations we can find in real life!

Vitamin A: Autonomy

Autonomy is when a child feels they can make their own decisions. In fact, we are in one of the most regulated and controlled times in all of history, making our kids the opposite of autonomous— dependent. There is very little free play for most kids today.

Nir mentions that there are only 2 places where we are so dependent on rules and regulation: school and prison.

The truth is, when kids come home, they want to run around and laugh and play. But we have taken free play away because we are afraid of ‘stranger danger’ and child abductions.

“Since about 1955 … children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities” — Dr. Peter Gray

Vitamin R: Relatedness

Kids need friends and people to care about them, and they also need to care about others. So when they don’t get their relatedness vitamin, they go online to bridge that longing for connection.

Technology in this case serves as an alternate means to connect. TV shows let kids feel like they connect to their favorite characters, video games allow kids to make friends in the digital world, and books transport kids into an alternate world where they feel empathy for the characters.

The bottom line: Technology is the symptom, not the cause. It’s not necessarily bad, as it can offer an alternative to the 3 vitamins kids are lacking. It’s only when technology is the biggest source of competency, autonomy, or relatedness that technology actually becomes a problem.

How Do We Raise Indistractable Kids?

Here are the top 7 tips to raise kids that know how to focus and are distraction-free.

#1: Leverage technology for free play

The greatest gift for children’s wellbeing, according to Nir, is to let them play. More specifically, let them free play.

What is free play?

According to Dr. Gray, free play is play a child undertakes him-or her-self and is self-directed and an end in itself, rather than part of some organized activity.

Essentially, free play is letting kids play freely with their peers without the watchful eyes of parents, teachers, and coaches.

Free play lets kids learn their “place” in the world. It’s the magical time where kids learn how the world works and that the world doesn’t revolve around them. And it’s especially important to do all this without the watchful eye of teachers because kids need to find out what’s right and wrong on their own.

Nowadays, time for play is at an all-time low. Today, you don’t hear kids playing around the neighborhood. Today, kids don’t have an opportunity to go to the park and run around without being protected and monitored 24/7.

But here’s the silver lining: we can use technology to create free play.

For example, Nir’s daughter, Jasmine, has been homeschooled for years now. They use online software like Zoom to play cards with her friends, make time for chitchat, and play!

Essentially, Jasmine has easier access to free play by using the right technology.

#2: Filter for creation vs consuming content

Nir compared technology to swimming pools. Swimming pools are dangerous, and thousands of people drown in them every year. Yet we continue to use them, and we teach our kids how to swim. While dangerous, they are also wonderful for exercise and play.

Technology can also be both dangerous and wonderful. Like a pool, we need to make sure the technology our kids are using is safe and beneficial. All tech should be screened for helpful content–ideally that promotes the 3 vitamins.

Creation content are videos, books, and TV that teaches skills, educates, or provides valuable information. Ideally, this is age-appropriate for the child (ie. not too difficult and not too easy, but just slightly challenging). Here are some examples:

Learn origami:
Learn the 5 senses:
Learn Spanish:
Should we eliminate all consuming content from our children’s technology diet? I’ll answer that in my next point…

#3: Make time for traction

Traction is any action that pulls us toward what we want to do. These actions are done with intent.

Distraction, on the other hand, is any action that pulls us away from what we want to do.

If your child wants to play video games, 2 hours or less is fine as long as it’s scheduled and meaningful. However, playing video games to escape from their responsibilities is a distraction.

Do you see the difference? Technology is perfectly fine as long as it’s purposeful.

Scheduled time allows us to take control of our time.

But we can’t just impose a schedule on our kids— or ourselves, for that matter— because of a little psychological theory called Reactance Theory.

What is Reactance Theory?

This behavioral model states that when a person experiences a loss in their freedom, they will react with anxiety and distress. They may even react by performing the opposite action than their desired behavior.

What is Reactance Theory?
This behavioral model states that when a person experiences a loss in their freedom, they will react with anxiety and distress. They may even react by performing the opposite action than their desired behavior.

If we enforce a schedule on a child, the child may ignore that schedule completely and watch TV all day.

So what can we do so our child has scheduled technology time? First, don’t impose a schedule on them. Second, come up with a schedule together.

Here’s how Nir did it when Jasmine was just 5 years old:

  • Jasmine’s favorite phrase at the time was “iPad time”.
  • Nir wanted to fix this, so he sat down with his daughter one-on-one.
  • Nir told Jasmine that technology comes with an opportunity cost— a missed opportunity to play with him and her mom, read a book, or engage in other activities.
  • He asked her how much time she would like to spend a day on her iPad.

The result? Jasmine asked for 45 minutes a day. Just 45 minutes!

What if your own kid asks for more time? You might just have to learn how to negotiate better!

#4: Set your timer

How do you hold your child accountable for keeping on schedule? Here are a few ideas:

  • Set a kitchen timer.
  • Use Alexa / Google Home to set a timer. (Maybe even have your child set this!)
  • Use the built-in timer or Screen Time on your phone or iPad.

But the most important thing here is to let your kid do it him- or her-self.

You cannot put in hard rules for your child to follow— this creates ‘little cheaters’ in the long run. Instead, teach them to set the timer on their own and follow it.

But the most important thing here is that you have to set your own timer. Nir calls this the ‘hypocrisy antenna’ and they are built-in to all kids. Essentially, they can sniff out when someone is being a hypocrite, so you can’t just tell them to be accountable and not be accountable for your own time.

Pro tip: Try verbalizing your own time schedule around your kids. For example, if you really want to browse Instagram some more but need to make time to spend with the family, say this out loud. Kids will pick up on this!

#5: Synchronize your schedules

Every Sunday night, Nir sits down with his wife and they take a look at their schedules. They used to fight about household responsibilities, but with schedule syncing, no more arguments!

Try doing the same with your family. Sync schedules with your family members so everyone knows who’s busy and when.

Side note: Don’t interrupt your child during his / her technology time, either. That’s the last thing they want!

#6: Pull back on external triggers

External triggers are all the outside forces that distract us and pull us away from our goal, such as phone notifications and TV.

And we are all slaves to external triggers, unless we consciously decide to control them.

For example, when I have free time in the evening, I often wait for someone to call or see if there’s anything new trending on Netflix. These are all external triggers that can pull me in any which direction. This means I am not in control of my own time.

I have removed all technology before bed. Try this with your kids and identify their own external triggers. This will let you know what is pulling your child towards distraction.

Teaching your kids how to handle their own external triggers is one of the best skills you can give them.

#7: Create an effort pact

This is the step that has to come last, after everything else is in place. An effort pact is something that creates ‘glue’ between a child and something that they don’t want to do.

In other words, you need to create a way for your child to know how to be focused on their task at hand, like doing homework.

Here’s an idea: use an app called Forest. This app lets you set a timer, and when you hit the ‘Start’ button, a tree is planted! But the thing is, if you pick up the phone, the tree dies. Essentially, this lets your child go through a productive, focused session of work.

Bonus tip: Wear a concentration crown

Now that we know how to keep our kids indistractable, how do we keep them from distracting us during times of focused work? Nir came up with the fabulous idea of a concentration crown.

Every time you want to be focused put on the most ridiculous hat you own— like a pirate hat or one with elf ears. This signals to others that you should not be disturbed! (Eventually it will start getting you in the zone faster too).

Once you set the ground rules that anyone wearing this crown cannot be disturbed, you’ll have your own little safe haven for focused work sessions, and no more trouble focusing!

In the end, technology can absolutely create a more focused, smarter, and more productive child. It all comes down to how you use it to your advantage.

Did you learn something new in this session? Leave a comment below!

And be sure to check out Nir’s free 80-page workbook filled with exercises and his book, Indistractible, to take control of your life and master your distractions!