Distraction in Children: Tips for Parents

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Indistractable" by Nir Eyal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to raise indistractible children in a world full of distractions? What are Nir Eyal’s four steps to reduce distraction in children?

In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal gives parenting advice on how to reduce distractions in children. The four steps are: reducing internal triggers, building a schedule, teaching them about external triggers, and improving their self-control.

Continue reading to learn how to raise indistractable children.

Teach Indistractability to Your Children

Many people blame advancing technology for their children’s distraction, emotional dysregulation, behavioral issues, and so on. Technology has been a popular scapegoat for hundreds of years—everything from the printing press to the radio has been publicly condemned for “ruining” children’s minds and attention spans. 

The reason we keep recycling this tired story is that technology allows us to pin the blame of misunderstanding our children on something out of our control, instead of taking responsibility.  This mindset is a huge disservice to our children, who need help managing today’s distractions.

There’s no difference between the type of distraction you experience and the distraction your child experiences. Like you, they need to learn how to have a healthy relationship with technology—but unlike you, they won’t understand the problem and find solutions on their own. It’s up to you to explain what it means to be indistractable and help them develop indistractable systems that work for them. Help your children by coaching them through the four parts of the indistractable model: understanding internal triggers, schedule-building, reducing external triggers, and creating precommitments. 

Step 1: Understand and Reduce Internal Triggers

The first part of reducing distraction in children is figuring out what their internal triggers are and how to reduce them. Like adults, children are usually driven to distraction by internal discomfort. Often, their discomfort will be related to one of the three human psychological needs:

  • Autonomy: control over ourselves and our choices
  • Competence: learning, improving, growing, and mastering different skills 
  • Relatedness: feeling that we’re important to others, and others are important to us

When you or your children are lacking in any of these three needs, you’ll feel restlessness, anxiety, hopelessness, or depression—all feelings that can trigger distraction and unhealthy habits such as too much gaming, too much time on social media, and so on. 

By ensuring that your children have opportunities to gain autonomy, competence, and relatedness, you can help them better balance their online and real-world lives. 

Create More Opportunities for Autonomy

Many parents feel that they need to plan out their children’s days and enforce strict rules around technology to prevent distraction—however, you should be loosening your control and granting your children more opportunities for autonomy.  

Studies have found that children may actually lose the ability to control their attention when they’re constantly managed by adults. If you look at American schools you’ll notice that students are managed at every moment of the day—their homework needs to be done a certain way, everything has a due date, their movement is dictated by bells, they’re punished with detention, and so on. 

  • Surveys show that American teens are under 10 times more restrictions than most adults, and under two times more restrictions than Marines and convicts. 

Many children struggle with distraction in school and when doing schoolwork because they don’t have enough autonomy to feel motivated or interested. They escape to places where they can feel a sense of autonomy, such as in the creativity of social media or the world-building of video games. The problem isn’t technology. The problem is the alternative to technology—an environment devoid of autonomy that we adults have created. Ironically, many parents respond to their children spending too much time online by imposing more rules. This further restricts the child’s autonomy, exacerbating the problem. Instead, discuss your child’s leisure time and use of technology in a way that supports their autonomy.  

Shortform Example: Support Age-Appropriate Autonomy 

Instead of dictating exactly how and when your child can use technology, help them set boundaries in a way that gives them options. 

  • For example, you might say, “You have the whole afternoon free, but I can only let you play on my iPad for one hour. Would you rather have that hour now, or later?” 

For teenagers who are a little better at setting boundaries, discuss the harmful effects of too much screen time so that they can make their own informed decisions about their device use. 

  • You can supplement this by inviting them to take part in non-tech activities with you, such as taking a walk or going to a museum. 

Create More Opportunities for Competence

The second way you can reduce your child’s internal discomfort is by ensuring that they have adequate opportunities to feel competent. This is your responsibility as a parent, because many children don’t develop feelings of competence in school. Feeling competent and experiencing growth in the classroom is harder than ever, especially with the rise of standardized testing. This affects many types of children:

  • Children who are strong in some subjects and weak in others must focus more on improving their shortcomings than celebrating their achievements. 
  • Creative children don’t receive recognition for their talents or support in developing them. 
  • Children develop at vastly different rates, but standardized tests don’t take variable development into account. 

In these environments, only children who develop quickly and in the “right” ways can feel competent. Students who don’t meet the standard, despite their work, are soon convinced that competence isn’t possible for them, and they lose motivation and interest in school. They escape to apps, games, and websites where they do feel a sense of growth and accomplishment. This is why moving up between levels, getting likes, and gaining followers can be so addictive—it feels like a form of achievement. 

Shortform Example: Create Feelings of Competence

You likely can’t change the testing system in your child’s school, but you can help your child find activities that allow them to feel a sense of achievement and progress. 

  • For example, you can teach your child to cook, find a class or workshop for your child who likes to paint, encourage your child to sign up for a challenge aligned with their interests like writing contests, or help them find volunteer work that interests them and develops their skills. 

(Shortform note: Read our summary of The Power of Moments to learn different ways to show your children progress they’ve made and developed their feelings of competence.)

Create More Opportunities for Relatedness

Lastly, make sure that you’re allowing your children to balance their online interactions with unstructured, face-to-face time with their peers. Children’s ability to join in “spontaneous play” is seriously restricted these days. You’ll hardly ever see a group of children playing outside together or roaming the neighborhood to see what fun there is to be had. This is largely due to anxious parenting—children are kept close to home so they don’t get hurt or into trouble. As a result, many children and teens spend a lot of their free time at home, connecting with others virtually through games or the Internet. 

In interacting with people online, children can easily pick and choose whom they wish to communicate with or which communities they want to be part of—meaning they aren’t learning the essential skill of getting along with different types of people. 

  • Interestingly, this means that too much socializing online is both a cause and a consequence of not being able to connect with others in real life. 

On the other hand, online communities can be very positive, especially for children who feel isolated at school or other areas of their lives. They can talk through their issues with people in these communities, and as many communities are based on common interests, they can find people with whom they identify. 

  • For example, the website Reddit has communities for everything from baking, to learning guitar, to managing chronic diseases, to learning about history. 

While some time interacting online is positive, encourage your children to have face-to-face playtime with their peers. This might look like meeting up to walk around the mall, having classmates over for an afternoon of playing in the yard, or encouraging your child to join in pickup games of basketball after school. These real-life environments counterbalance time online and teach children how to interact with others. 

Step 2: Schedule-Building

The second part of coaching your child in indistractability is helping them understand their responsibilities and how to balance them. Explain traction and distraction to your child, and teach them to regularly check in and ask themselves: “Does this behavior make me feel good? Do I feel like I’m doing the right thing?”

Then, help them build a schedule that will help them gain traction—like you, having a clear idea of how to spend their time makes them less likely to make impulsive, distracted decisions. Don’t forget the importance of allowing your children autonomy—you’re helping with the schedule, not imposing it. Walk them through scheduling the three responsibilities of their lives:

Responsibility 1: Themselves

Discussing the core responsibility of self-care to children is vitally important because it demonstrates why their needs—exercise, health, hygiene—should be their highest priority. This will help them maintain their physical and mental health throughout their lives. 

  • To help your child make informed decisions about how to schedule their needs, explain the importance of quality sleep so that they can choose a reasonable bedtime. You can also talk about the psychological need for relatedness, and encourage them to spend time playing in real life rather than online. 

Responsibility 2: Their Relationships

Let them determine how much time to allow for family and friends—it’s possible you won’t like their answers, but it’s crucial that you respect their decisions. This can look like: 

  • Not forcing them to reschedule time with friends to spend more time with you. 
  • Being present for the time they want to spend with you. Don’t reschedule or give up family dinners for the convenience of everyone doing their own thing. Make sure you’re mentally present as well, being sure not to check your phone instead of paying attention to your child. 

Responsibility 3: School and Chores 

While time spent in school is non-negotiable, you might encounter arguments when it comes to scheduling household responsibilities or homework. Don’t force them to schedule these activities. Instead, take a two-part approach:

  1. Ask them if they understand why chores and homework are important to them and you, and make sure they understand what will happen if they don’t make time for it. 
  2. If they refuse to make time, let them experience the consequences of their actions—be it a punishment from their school or punishment from you. 

Step 3: External Triggers

The third part of raising an indistractable child is teaching them about external triggers and helping them understand healthy technology use. Children are especially prone to external triggers because they don’t understand exactly why these triggers work or how to set boundaries around their attention. Teach your child to manage external triggers by slowly increasing their exposure. 

Just as you wouldn’t throw your child into the deep end of a pool to teach her to swim, you shouldn’t throw her into technology without teaching her to control her use. You might start with a phone that only has basic texting and calling functions. This introduces technology as a tool, not a box of visually exciting triggers. Eventually, try moving your child up to a slightly more advanced phone, such as a smartphone with parental controls. 

As your children grow older and more accustomed to technology, pay attention to how they use their devices and the steps they take to diminish distraction. Some factors to consider include:

  • Do they keep devices out of sight when they’re with friends or at dinner?
  • Do they know how to turn off distracting notifications and use features like Do Not Disturb when they’re studying? 

If your child can’t seem to control herself, remind her of different ways to reduce triggers, and explain that she can’t move up to a more advanced phone until she learns control. 

Approach all technology with this type of slow, supervised introduction. Instead of allowing your children to have laptops or televisions in their rooms, keep devices in common areas. Here, you can keep an eye on their use and step in to explain how to diminish triggers as necessary. 

Remember That People Are External Triggers

Be mindful of your actions, and remember that you may be the external trigger distracting your child. Respect your child’s schedule. If they’ve timeboxed homework, don’t interrupt them for any non-emergency reason—such as bringing laundry into their room or asking them to see who’s at the door—and don’t allow anyone else in the family to interrupt them. 

  • This applies to all timeboxed activities. If they’ve timeboxed playing video games, don’t ask them to stop and unload the dishwasher because they’re “just playing anyway.” Wait until their chores timebox comes up to remind them.

While it may seem silly or extreme to avoid all interruptions, recall that you’re not just teaching your child to have a schedule. You’re teaching them to be indistractable, to do what they said they would do when they planned to do it. 

Step 4: Precommitments

The final part of coaching your children in indistractability is helping them learn the vital skill of self-control with precommitments. From an early age, explain to your children that apps and games are made by people who want to take up all of their attention, for their own profit. This helps children understand that it’s up to them to make smart decisions about their time—they can’t rely on app makers.  

Then, help your child set limits on their screen time. Your child must determine her own limits. When a parent imposes limits, they diminish the child’s sense of autonomy, which may lead to more distraction. Furthermore, the child learns that they can do whatever they want as long as their parents aren’t there enforcing the rules. On the other hand, when a child sets their own limits, they learn how to self-regulate—they’ll stick to limits, even when their parents aren’t there.

There are three steps to helping your child set a technology time limit. 

  1. Explain why too much screen time is unhealthy, and ask your child how much screen time she thinks is reasonable. If her suggestion is reasonable, agree to it. If it’s unreasonable, suggest a lower limit. 
  2. Ask her how she’ll avoid going over her limit. For example, she might set a timer or mark the time with an event: “I’ll play on the iPad at 5:30 and finish when we have dinner at 6.”
  3. Explain that if she breaks her “promise to herself”—a simple way for a child to understand a precommitment—you’ll have to have another conversation about being healthy and smart about her time.

Let Precommitments Change

As your children grow, their precommitments will likely change.

  • They might use their time differently. For example, they use their screen time for video games instead of TV episodes or switch from a daily screen limit to a weekly limit so they can spend more time online over the weekend.
  • They might find different ways to self-regulate, such as downloading app-blocking extensions or setting their laptops to disconnect from the internet at a certain time.

Allow for these developments. It’s not important what your child’s rules look like or how they’re managed—it’s important that they’re finding ways to establish and maintain healthy habits without parental intervention.

Distraction in Children: Tips for Parents

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Nir Eyal's "Indistractable" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Indistractable summary :

  • How to become indistractable in a world full of distractions
  • Why your schedule should be based on your values instead of tasks
  • How to start driving your life instead of letting its distractions drive you

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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