“Everyone focusses on TV or phones when you are trying to speak with them.”

“When we are asleep, people ring or text. There should be a time to stop calling and messaging.”

“My sister is always on her iPad, so I can never play with her anymore.”  

“When I’m talking to my mum, I can always hear the clicking as she types.”

These are just a handful of the many comments we gathered recently from a class of 11-year-olds.  They are all wishing for the same thing, a world that is not dominated by digital devices. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

Did you know that your phone is designed to be compulsive, to keep you coming back for more? From WhatsApp notifications to Snapchat streaks to YouTube Autoplay, there are plenty of ways that our digital life distracts us from our real one. Sometimes, what we really need, is to take some time off.

But when us Brits are spending on average of 2 hours a day only looking at our phone screens – the equivalent of 30 days a year – it’s hard to leave our devices on the side. We have been speaking to parents, teenagers and children of all ages, asking them how they have tried to minimise digital distraction. Here is their advice:

1. Acknowledgement is key

“Sorry, got distracted by my phone. What was the question?” Michael

Masses of digital technology dominating our lives has become the new normal, so we often don’t recognise just how much we rely on it.  Addiction is defined as the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice, or a persistent, compulsive dependence on a behaviour or substance despite its negative consequences. Does this sound like the relationship you have with your phone? 

Once we begin to recognise that we’ve developed these bad habits, it’s important to start questioning them. The next time you reach for your phone, try stopping and asking a couple of questions: Why am I doing this? Is it because I’m bored? What am I going to do when I unlock my phone? By questioning our habits, we begin to understand them and unravel them in our minds. It’s said that the first step to overcoming any addiction is acceptance, this shouldn’t be different for smartphones.

“Whenever I open my phone and realise there was no reason to do it, I stop, take a moment and ask myself why?” Elinor

2. Test your attention span

“I’ve just done my A-Levels and every day when I was studying, I used to block social media for four hours and that would be my time to study. It was so clever, everyone should do it!” Millie

Once self-awareness has dawned and we start to recognise the just how much time we are spending online, the next step is to test our endurance. There are tons of online quizzes that are a great starting point for this. How long can you go without checking your phone?

Imagine that your ability to concentrate is like a muscle which must be exercised regularly to remain in tip-top form. Media multitasking, such as checking emails at the dinner table or doing homework in front of the TV has a negative effect on this muscle. Recent studies from the University of Amsterdam have shown that our ability to think critically and deeply has decreased in the digital age. In fact, on average, they discovered that adolescents and young adults switch from studying to media every six minutes – surely not conducive to a productive working environment?

What can we do about this? Well, we have to exercise this muscle. For instance, why not try setting yourself a target of 20 minutes to focus on a specific task and set an alarm to make sure you don’t check your phone in that time? Just like those press-ups at the gym, you’ll find that the more your practice, the easier it becomes.

3. Out of sight out of mind

“I’ve noticed a positive effect in leaving my phone in a different room to me, I’m far less likely to check it if it’s not in my pocket or in the same room.” Michaela

A recent report from Common Sense Media revealed that 69% of parents and 78% of teens of they surveyed in the US said they check their devices hourly. Imagine what the real figure is! Are these numbers shocking? Or have we become so used to the constant presence of technology in our lives, that actually this seems reasonable?

Try creating tech-free periods in your life, allocating specific periods during the day to check your email or social media. Perhaps you could create an unplugged zone in the house – at the dinner table or in the bedroom – and a set a digital cut-off time in the evening. Whatever your method, you are less likely to constantly be checking your phone if it is silent and out of sight.

4. Think outside the box

“I have a rubbish old phone (a BlackBerry) that will not run most apps and when I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed by social media, I’ll switch my SIM card out and unplug.” Jon

When you’re trying to spend more time away from your phone, choose a method that works for you. Some people will find it difficult to just put their phone to the side and ignore it for half an hour; like having a chocolate bar during a diet, it’s sometimes difficult to locate your self-restraint. So we have to be creative with our unplugging.

Perhaps you’re someone who thrives on competition? Why not try turning it into a game where you reward yourself for time unplugged and challenge others to take you on? If you’re someone who enjoys things like Candy Crush, this might be a perfect solution for you.

Not into competition? Well there are plenty of other ways to be creative. Some people enjoy swapping out their smartphones for old Nokias or BlackBerrys when they want a digital detox, while others might ask a friend to change their social media passwords to avoid distraction altogether. Spending time away from the digital world might seem daunting but it helps to be creative with your method and find a solution that works just for you.

“A popular thing to do nowadays when going out for a meal […] is for everyone to put their phone face down in the middle of the table. The first person to check their phone its then charged with paying for everyone else.”


5. Live your life as well as chasing likes

“It’s really nice to have a video of your friend blowing out the candles on her birthday cake but it’s also really good to be in the moment…set yourself a limit, for example, five photos in five hours on one night.” Tallulah

I recently discovered a website called Lifefaker, a spoof website that advertises groups of photographs for your Instagram that you can purchase, to make your life seem perfect. The worrying thing is when I first clicked on the page, I didn’t think it was a joke.

Comparing your life to others can leave you feeling inadequate: a recent survey of 14-24 year olds found that half said Facebook and Instagram exacerbated feelings of anxiety. Snapchat streaks cause serious arguments amongst school children if they’re not maintained. People often feel unworthy and disappointed when their social media pictures don’t get many likes. Maybe we all need to take a step back and remember which life is more important: online or the real world?

YouTuber Gary Turk has written a poem which addresses this struggle between our two worlds, telling a love story that can only happen when we “look up” from our screens.

“I don’t want you to stop using social media or smartphones.  It’s about finding a balance. It’s about making sure you are awake, alive and living life in the moment; instead of living your life through a screen.” Gary Turk

6. There’s an app for that

“I’ve downloaded an app called Off Time which allows certain calls / SMS through but blocks other notifications and apps. It also logs how much time you spend on apps and how many times you check your phone. HORRIFYING.” Victoria

Ironically, one technique that deals with digital distraction effectively is to download an app.  Apps such as Mute, Moment, Forest, RescueTime and many more, all set out to help minimise the time you spend looking at your phone.

Mute and Moment motivate you to use your phone less by allowing you to set digital detox goals and telling you directly how much screen time you have accumulated everyday. Forest, on the other hand, acts almost like a game; when you want to focus and spend time away from your phone, you plant a tree in the app and it will only grow when you are not checking your phone. A bonus of the Forest app, is that it pledges to plant a tree in the real world for any finished tree on the app.

What’s brilliant about these apps is that they utilize the same methods of many social media sites and gaming apps in order to combat the addiction that they create. When someone likes or comments on your social media page, you get a dopamine hit that makes your feel good. These apps use similar notifications and positive reinforcement to make you feel good about not using your phone!

7. Get some sleep

“We try to implement a social media / digital content curfew of nothing after 10 pm” Michaela

What do you do when you go to bed? Check your emails, talk to your friends, read an article online? All these may be affecting your sleep pattern. Countless studies have shown that people who look at light-emitting devices such as phones, tablets or other screens, up to an hour before bedtime take longer to fall asleep and have less REM sleep than those who read printed books or magazines. It is also thought that those who read on light-emitting devices are sleepier and take longer to wake up in the morning.

We often forget to think about the repercussions of digital technology and it is hard to believe that something as small as turning your phone off before bedtime could impact your health. Tonight, why don’t you try reading a book, doing a crossword or even meditating? I’m sure that viral video can wait until the morning…

“Yesterday I bought a book. A real, actual book! And reading that instead of looking at my phone has been a good distraction, especially at bedtime.” Louise

Take a moment to imagine a world free from the shackles of digital constriction, where you’ve taken control of your smartphone use, you don’t feel the need to constantly check the latest tweets or the newest viral video. Work emails remain solely in the office, you and your family actually have a conversation at the dinner table and when you go to bed, you all sleep much better. Ultimately, it’s about achieving a balance and remembering that your smartphone doesn’t control you, you control your smartphone.