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4 Critical Skills to Help Digital Natives Unplug



Dr. Kate Tilleczek leads the Young Lives Research Lab at York University, where she and her team examine “how young people navigate well-being in the digital age.”

Over a five-year study of 185 young people, aged 16 to 25, in Canada, Australia and Scotland, Tilleczek’s team uncovered some fascinating insights about young peoples’ attitudes towards technology. Among other things her study revealed

  • That many young people described feeling unsafe without their phones
  • That many do not feel confident in their ability to carry out a face-to-face conversation, finding text easier. 
  • That some felt if they were not in touch with their community of friends online they ceased to exist in a certain sense.

In general, device and social media dependence have been associated with anxiety, poor sleeping habits and loneliness. This fascinating research from the Young Lives Research Lab can help young people and parents alike, seeking relief from the paradoxical grip of our online lives.

Taking The Phone Away Is Not The Solution

I would argue that trying to break a teen’s (or anyone’s) cell phone or social media dependence by limiting device access is a band-aid solution. For parents and their kids, it can lead to fights, resentment and rebellious responses, without addressing the core causes of dependence in the first place, hinted at in this research. 

A child who grows up dependent on a digital device for communication has perhaps missed out on time to develop other core skills and aptitudes, which in turn makes them feel more dependent on that very device.

The following four-pronged approach focuses on whole-person growth, mental and emotional well-being. Essentially, guiding a young person to develop certain skills and a sense of self empowers them to step away from a device on their own.

4 Steps to Counteract Device Dependence

Try addressing these four areas of personal development to decrease cell phone dependence.

  1. Meditation & Observation. Encourage daily meditation for short amounts of time, just three to five minutes to start. Then, plan a few “observation” field trips to a local park, mall or main drag. Sit quietly. Watch and take notes for 10 to 30  minutes. Try to learn something new about your surroundings through observation. Practice engaging with your surroundings, rather than tuning them out.
  2. Practice Conversation Skills. The art of conversation should not be taken for granted. It can be learned, practiced and mastered. These six tips are a good place to start for a guide to casual chat. Talk or journal about the anxiety that can come with a conversation (totally normal) and practice these tips to overcome it. 
  3. Explore Self Awareness. Spend some time talking and / or freewriting about these questions: Who am I without my phone? Do I exist if I am not connected constantly to my community? If I am not sharing something, am I experiencing it? Does it matter? Why or why not?
  4. Safety & Self Defense – Address the feeling of danger and insecurity that young adults might associate with being phoneless. Memorize important phone numbers. Sign up for self-defense and first aid workshops. Develop a family or friend emergency plan, including a meet-up spot. Talk about community allies and make a list of places to go for help in the case of emergency.

To start out, don’t focus too much on trying to limit a person’s phone use outside of these exercises. Rather, just aim for engaging in these phone-free activities regularly for a few weeks, and see what happens.  By nurturing the whole-person competencies our digital age neglects, you can arm yourself or your child with skills required to leave a device behind, and enjoy life on one’s own terms.

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