Self-Control, Smartphones, Rewards, & Success

Researchers from Freie Universitat in Berlin Germany published some interesting findings about smartphones, self-control, and rewards. Specifically, their research revealed that participants who “had a greater total amount of screen time (spent more time on their phones and tablets) were more likely to prefer small, immediate rewards to larger, more delayed rewards,” especially when screen time was spent on gaming and social media.

In addition, participants with greater self-control spent less time on their phones while those with lower levels of self-control spent more time on their phone. Altogether, more time on smartphones, especially in combination with lower levels of self-control and a preference for gaming and social media, was associated with a preference for smaller, more immediate goals. Limited self-control and a preference for smaller, more immediate goals sounds like a formula to impede success, doesn’t it? After all, success generally implies a level of self-control that enables a person to persist through struggles and setbacks, delaying the immediate, easy reward, so they can achieve the larger more challenging goal.

The authors were not saying smartphones caused or led to less self-control and a preference for smaller, more immediate goals. In fact, I tend to think that people who struggle with self-control are likely drawn to the gaming and social media apps because they offer smaller, more immediate rewards. It satisfies their need for reward without having to manage the frustration of persisting through the greater struggles necessary for a long-term reward. The gaming and social media apps may simply reinforce those tendencies. So, the question is not whether a person should have a smartphone or engage in gaming or social media—our children will do that just like we do. No, the question is: how do we teach our children self-control?

  1. Model self-control. Children emulate what they see. Practice self-control when in traffic, when in disagreements. The more children see you practice self-control, the more likely they will practice self-control as well.
  2. Build a trusting relationship with your child. The more reliable you are, the easier it is for your children to practice self-control. Follow through on your word. Do what you promise. Build a reputation as trustworthy and your children will likely grow in self-control.
  3. Give your children the opportunity to wait—it’s a gift. Receiving everything immediately will hamper your children’s development of self-control. Learning that “good things come to those who wait” and “effort over time contributes to success” can promote the development of self-control. Teach your child the art of waiting.
  4. Encourage self-control practices. When you see your children getting upset, present them with ideas that promote self-control. For instance, you could encourage them to soothe themselves: “Take a moment to pull yourself together and we can talk about it then,” Or “Take a deep breath and calm down so you can manage this better.” “I wonder how your friend feels about this?” can offer them the opportunity to take a different person’s perspective, which will help them develop self-control. On the other hand, “How does this decision fit into your goals?” encourages them to keep their priorities and goals in mind as they move through the world. This, too, will help them develop self-control. Each time you encourage your children to soothe themselves, consider another person’s perspective, practice self-awareness, or keep goals and values in mind you help them grow in self-control. (For more ideas, read Teach Your Child Self-Control.)

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