“Just put the phone down and take the dog for a walk!” Easy to do, right? Then why do so many families find themselves at odds, exasperated and frustrated with each other after such requests are made, and not readily met? Because digital devices and apps are hard to put down BY DESIGN and the skills required to disengage from them are still emerging in kids – and sometimes lagging in adults too! Putting the phone down is not a simple or easy task. 

Phones and apps are specifically designed to activate the autopilot mode of your brain’s attentional controls and keep you away from the control panel. Making it easy to move your attention away from the device is not in the developers’ interests because they make money from capturing as much of your attention as possible. Hence, it takes some effort and skill to exercise and maintain manual control of your attention when using a smartphone or tablet. 

Attentional control is a slow to mature skill that takes time, guidance and a lot of practice to master. Just as flowers require time, soil and sunlight to form roots and gain height before blooming, executive function skills, like attention regulation, take time and tending in order to blossom. There are lots of ways to model, teach, practice, and reinforce these skills. We will cover some of these as we walk you through the steps involved in achieving enough attentional control to put a device down when asked. Our goal is to help you recognize the complexity of this seemingly simple task and to have some patience, understanding and strategies available when your kids don’t readily comply. Future posts will cover additional ways to build these important life skills.

The following steps are needed to comply with a request to disengage from a screen-based activity and move on to another task. Our examples will use children; however, the methods can be helpful to anyone with lagging skills with any of the steps.  

  1. The child first needs to “hear” the request.

Have you ever been so absorbed in something that you’ve been unaware of what is going on around you? Games, social media platforms, movies etc. can be so engrossing that users may not hear requests despite having normal, unimpaired hearing. The problem is attentional not physical. When the attentional control autopilot is fully engaged, and all attention is being directed to the activity on the device, no attention gets directed to the sound of your voice. 

How to work on lagging skills observed with this step.

Although it’s tempting to resort to a loud angry voice to get attention when this happens, that won’t help your children improve their skill with this step. It will simply engage the brain’s automatic system for paying attention to threats. Instead, we recommend that you introduce a kinder, calmer target for their attention, like standing patiently within their line of sight or waving your hand near the screen. When they notice this, you can then explicitly ask them to move their attention to you and then repeat your request. Keep in mind that if they indicate that they actually hear you, even if they are still looking at the screen, this is a positive step in the right direction that you can build on with practice. 

  1. The child needs to pay attention to the meaning of the words. 

Sometimes a child will hear and acknowledge the request with a “hmm, mmm” or “okay” but not really know or remember what was said. In this case the child has learned how to direct some attention to you when you are speaking but hasn’t mastered enough attentional control to disable the autopilot that is still directing most of the available attention to the activity on the screen. 

How to work on lagging skills observed with this step.

Build on the techniques for step 1 by asking your child to break from full attention to the screen activity and repeat what you said. Follow this with walking them through the steps to finish up what they are doing so they can put the device down (for younger children) or with a request for them to tell you what they are going to do in order to finish up and put the phone down (for older children).

  1. The child needs to manage the emotions that occur when they are interrupted.

Having to stop something engaging and enjoyable in order to do something far less pleasurable is not easy and can bring up a lot of different emotions. Your child may feel frustrated, distressed and/or angry.  When the screen-based activity involves friends, the child may also experience peer pressure to continue and FOMO (fear of missing out) if they stop. Angry outbursts, meltdowns, stubborn refusals to comply, etc. are all indications of difficulty with managing the emotions that arise from being interrupted while using a device.

How to work on lagging skills observed with this step.

When your child is having trouble managing emotions and the downstairs brain is clearly running the show, the only goal that makes sense to pursue is helping them regain access to the upstairs brain control panel, e.g. emotion regulation. The goal of moving on to the next task needs to be put on hold until they are regulated. When you see or hear tough emotions surfacing, acknowledge them and express confidence in their ability to cope with them. “I get it. Stopping a game can be really difficult. It can be frustrating when you can’t do what you want but I’m confident you can manage.” For more tips about regulation see our posts under the Regulation tab

  1. The child needs to disengage from the screen-based activity.

As mentioned above, disengaging from device related activities is not easy due to both the emotional and attentional pull of screen-based activities. Even when your child can, and does, go through the steps involved in closing an app and putting the device down, their attention may still be engaged with thoughts and emotions related to the activity. 

How to work on lagging skills observed with this step.

Allow time and space for this step. Depending on your child’s skill level, they may need your patient presence and encouragement as they disengage, or some time to themselves to take charge of, and move, their attention. Older children playing more emotionally arousing games or involved with social media may need a few minutes for the arousal to settle down before they can fully disengage. Younger children may benefit from having you calmly narrate and walk them through the process, “Ok, now that the tik tok clip is over, you can close out the app, put the phone on the counter and get ready to think about something else – perhaps the dog’s cute face?”  

  1. The child needs to shift the focus of their attention.

Once your child’s attention is disengaged from the screen-based task, they will need to shift gears. Shifting attention is a different skill than disengaging attention. For example, if your child has stopped playing Candy Crush and has opened their homework but is still struggling to get any work done, they may have a lagging skill in this area. They may not be thinking about Candy Crush (they have successfully disengaged from that) but they may have difficulty focusing on a new task, especially when the last task was highly rewarding and engaging.

How to work on lagging skills observed with this step.

Build bridging activities for attentional focus. Start with a manageable, neutral task or target as the focus of attention after disengaging from a pleasurable activity. For example, “after you put the phone down, get a snack and then go get the dog’s leash from downstairs.” Mindfulness exercises can also be helpful bridging activities that build attentional control skill.

  1. Your child will need to manage themselves and their attention in the space and time in between tasks.Ever get your child up to their room in order to clean it, leave to put in a load of wash and return to find them building legos amid the pile of toys you asked them to put away? This is an example of lagging skill with this step. Likewise, in our dog walking example, you might find the child playing with a sibling downstairs with the leash out of sight and out of mind. 

How to work on lagging skills observed with this step.

Build on the bridging activities noted above with explicit instructions about corralling and directing attention. For example, you might say, “It’s really easy to get distracted when you have to do something you don’t love. Keep reminding yourself that the dog needs your attention as you keep looking for that leash. Sparky’s waiting for you.”

  1. Engage in the new task.Getting started with something unpleasant or effortful takes some skill. We’ve all experienced at one time or another the sense of “ugh” when we need to do something that we’re not thrilled about – take out the garbage, wash the dishes, clean up after a party ….. yet we learn how to step toward it anyway. 

How to work on lagging skills observed with this step.

Acknowledge the struggle. Express confidence in their ability to cope. Provide encouragement. Remind them of their special moments.  “It can be hard to walk the dog when you’d rather be watching tik toks but I’m confident you can manage. Remember how much fun you had with Sparky the last time you took him for walk and how excited you were to tell us all about it when you got home. I’ll look forward to what you’ll have to tell me this time. Out you go.” 

Finally! 7 steps later, your child is walking the dog. Given what’s involved, it’s no wonder that busy families experience a lot of conflict, angst and turmoil around requests to put devices down and do something else. We wish it were as simple as it appears on surface but alas, it’s not! We hope you at least have a better understanding now of why it’s not and what you can do to address the challenges. In addition to the above, we leave you with a few general tips and strategies for managing the challenges associated with putting a device down and moving on to a different task.

  1. Keep expectations realistic and reasonable given the skill level of your child. Be curious about the level of skill each of your children demonstrates with the steps above. Use your observations to guide both your expectations and the nature of your conversations, interventions, and lessons. When you notice your frustration growing, try to be curious rather than furious.  What are they struggling with? Am I expecting something they can’t do independently or immediately?
  2. Allow space and time for transitions. Expect it to take a few minutes for your child to disengage from a screen-based activity. Given that devices are designed to be hard to put down, it is often unreasonable to expect immediate compliance with your request until your child has more skill. 
  3. Have ongoing conversations about what it takes to disengage from a device. Let your children know why it can be hard and listen to their ideas about what might be helpful for them. 
  4. Create opportunities to practice, practice, practice the skills required for disengaging. Disengaging from digital devices involves complex skills that will blossom over time when you use the 5R’s to provide support, guidance, and opportunities to practice.