Put Your Phone Away: The 1 Best Piece of Advice for Today’s Adults and Teens?

I’ve been asked to speak to a group of high school student leaders this week.  I’m always open to almost any topic the organizers want me to cover that I have expertise in.  In this case, what started off as a talk about communication skills morphed into talking about building confidence. The adult leader said that she felt as though this was a challenge for most youth of today.  

I see this point and also see where there are a variety of factors contributing to it. One factor that I see related to both challenges in communication skills and confidence is the frequency of time that youth (and adults) spend on their phones.  

I consider this a note to myself as much as it is advice in general, but the phone has become what I call the marshmallow of our times.  

Remember the marshmallow study in the 1970s which showed that children who were able to delay gratification and wait to get two marshmallows instead of one were shown to be more successful by a variety of measures? As stated in this article 

The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures. (You can see the follow-up studies here, here, and here.)

I’m not one to say that any piece of technology is the source of all evil, but when used to an extreme, which is what it has become for many, the modern cell phone has become:

  1. A source of instant gratification (the marshmallow) that we can’t seem to put down or delay looking at.  
  2. It is has become a way to avoid direct communication with people. 
  3. It has become a way in which youth especially judge their self-worth through social media and other online interactions that aren’t based on reliable or useful sources for building self-worth and confidence.   
  4. All of which I believe is leading to lower confidence levels (among other negative things) in youth and adults.  
  5. Which then leads us all to fall victim to not shining our light in the way that positively reflects the talents, abilities, and gifts we have to offer, further thwarting self-confidence.  

In the marshmallow study, the same article cites environmental factors that affect a child’s ability to have self-control and delay gratification, namely if they have been in situations where adults don’t follow through on what is promised.  This leads children to be conditioned to not believe that the second marshmallow will ever come (maybe their parents are on their phone and that’s why they don’t follow through?).  

But the article emphasizes that we can cultivate behavioral patterns that help us delay gratification (put the phone down) and build our own confidence levels: 

You and I can do the same thing. We can train our ability to delay gratification, just like we can train our muscles in the gym. And you can do it in the same way as the child and the researcher: by promising something small and then delivering. Over and over again until your brain says, 1) yes, it’s worth it to wait and 2) yes, I have the capability to do this.

Building the muscle of putting down the phone when it isn’t necessary can help build confidence and patience in us all.

Some ideas to do this:  

  1. Commit to putting up your phone in certain environments, situations, or times of the day.  Just like going to the gym at a routine time, find routine situations and times where the phone is off limits.  This exercises your self-control and patience.  
  2. Intentionally engage in face-to-face conversations with your peers and family at regular intervals. Commit as a group to put your phone up during certain times and interactions. 
  3. Take social media apps off your phone that you find yourself spending too much time on and/or ones that you can tell sabotage your self-confidence.  If you find the social media outlet as one in which you are constantly comparing yourself to others or you find yourself putting off doing more important and life-fulfilling things (things that build your gifts and build relationships) because you are constantly on the app, this is a clear sign it is eroding your confidence. Remove it. Use the time you would normally devote to your phone engaging in activities and relationships that help your light to shine. This produces a double boost in self-confidence. It removes that which is diminishing your confidence and focus on activities that build skills and abilities leading to a strong sense of self-worth and fulfillment.  This skill-building and confidence can then end up impacting others in a positive way too.

I find it hard when speaking to youth not find a way to incorporate this clip from the movie Coach Carter into my talk.  So somehow in talking about cell phones, marshmallows, communication, and confidence, I’ve found myself back in a place where this clip conveys a most important message that we all need a reminder of from time to time. 

Please don’t hide your light behind the glow of your phone.   

Mary Ila Ward

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