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Self-Control vs. Distraction in the Digital Age

When I was in school, my digital distractions were pretty limited. We had a television, but I had to watch the shows when they were on. There was no PVR or Netflix or 24-hour Disney XD. There was a fixed schedule and a rainbow of colours that appeared along with an annoying beep during the hours when you were supposed to be asleep. Add on top of that the fact that I had to share the television with my three siblings and the number of hours I sat in front of a screen were pretty minimal.

At some point in my teenage years, we got a Nintendo and a computer. Those were fun, but again limited. We could only have as many games as our birthdays, Christmas and allowance or babysitting money could buy. There weren't thousands and thousands of free apps providing constant entertainment and diversion. There weren't ways to connect with our friends online.

In fact, the first time I interacted with anyone digitally was in 1992, the year I graduated from high school. That is when I got my first 1200 baud modem and joined a few local BBSes. Even then, the number of people, the number of conversations, was limited. I would reach a point of boredom and log off.

For three of the four years that I was doing my undergraduate degree, I didn't have a television. The one year I did have a television, we got a grand total of three channels. While I had a computer in my room, it didn't connect to the Internet. I had to go to a computer lab or a library to do that. Tetris and solitaire were as good as it got.

When it came to getting my reading done and my essays written, the only distractions were the clouds floating by outside, the allure of a nap, or making myself a snack. Other diversions were possible, for sure, but required more effort. Going shopping, meeting up with friends, or watching one of my few loved televisions shows were welcome diversions to plan for. They weren't things tempting me, one click away, 24 hours per day.

I was organized. Perhaps even a bit obsessive compulsive organized. I would plan out my week in terms of the classes that I needed to attend, the reading and writing I had to get done, and the diversions that I had carefully planned (Seinfeld at 9:30pm on a Thursday, dancing with friends on Friday evening, a Sunday afternoon nap). If I didn't struggle through four chapters of Aristotle, I didn't get to laugh with Jerry.

My organization brought rewards in the form of great marks and a feeling of accomplishment.

But these days? OMG it is harder. So much harder.

It is hard for me, as someone with YEARS of practice at staying on task and on schedule and getting things done. It is hard for me, as someone who gets to put money in the bank or buy nice things as a reward for getting my shit done. Even as I write this, I also have facebook open in another tab and the little (1) in the corner is nagging at me. Can I finish this paragraph before I go and see what it is all about? Will I get this article finished before I need to go and pick up my kids at their birthday parties and play dates?

What if I don't? Meh. In this case, no one is counting on me. Maybe you like reading my blog and would enjoy this article. But if I didn't write it, would your day be ruined? Not really. Would I be uanble to feed my family? Also nope. Would I experience any negative consequences? Perhaps a little nagging feeling that it would have been nice to get an article written. But it would also be nice to see what is happening on facebook.

You get my point, right? 

Now the real reason for writing this: My kids, our children. I wonder sometimes, in this day of constant digital distractions and instant amusement at the click of a button, if they'll ever be able to develop the willpower or the skill or whatever it is to ignore the nagging of the digital distractions. Right now, as their parent, I can set limits and enforce them. Whether on a schedule or in terms of rewards dolled out for getting things done, I can impose limitations and motivation.

But what happens when I am no longer there to provide structure and rules? What happens when the school no longer has rules about no electronics at school or at least no electronics in the classroom? Will they ever come to a point of self-control? Will it be easier for them to control themselves (because they've almost always had these distractions, the way I always had clouds floating by)? Or will it be harder?

The reason I was motivated to write this article is that I decided to check in on facebook instead of unloading the dishwasher while my kids were playing minecraft and watching Netflix. When I went on facebook, I saw an article called Measuring Students' Self-Control: A 'Marshmallow Test' for the Digital Age, posted by my friend Emma Waverman who writes at Embrace the Chaos when she isn't busy being distracted by twitter (or doing her other writing jobs).

Quick Tangent: Months and months ago, Emma tagged me and asked me to write a blog post about my writing process. Another thing that I haven't done, because we finally got Netflix and I watched all of Orange is the New Black and Brooklyn Nine-Nine this summer. Sorry, Emma. But in fairness, Emma still owes me a guest blog post from YEARS ago. So perhaps, this can stand in as my blog post about my writing process. Basically, my process is:

  1. Come across something that inspires me enough to write (the article Emma posted)
  2. Find the time to write (kids at birthday party/play date)
  3. Limit other distractions as much as possible (sitting in a coffee shop, avoiding the little (1) on the facebook tab)
  4. Write, write, write, add links, add pics, publish.
  5. Edited to add: Go back hours later and edit the typos that don't appear until after the blog post has been published.

Where was I?

Oh yes...the article I read. In Measuring Students' Self-Control: A 'Marshmallow Test' for the Digital Age, the article discusses a distraction test given to students. Students are given the choice between doing math problems, watching videos, or playing a video game. Here is an excerpt from the article explaining the test:

So they devised a task that uses behavioral responses to measure academic diligence, which they define as “working assiduously on academic tasks which are beneficial in the long run but tedious in the moment, especially in comparison to more enjoyable, less effortful diversions.”

The rationale behind the test is that with many subject areas or skills, such as mathematics, the basic process of building fluency and mastery involves a lot of practice. It requires “hard work that is perceived as tedious, even though people know it’s immensely important,” D’Mello said. “But that’s just the reality.”


To measure this skill in a scenario simulating real life, D’Mello, who is an assistant professor of computer science and psychology, designed the diligence task with a split computer-screen interface (click here for a demo). On the left side, students can choose to do a series of boring skill-building math problems — simple, single-digit subtraction. On the right side, they can play Tetris or watch short, entertaining YouTube video clips of movie trailers or sports highlights. The test is delivered online.

Overall, the teens doing the test spent about half of their time on the math problems, but some did a lot more math than others. What would motivate them to do that and what does that mean in terms of other outcomes for their lives? The students who did more math problems were more likely to graduate from high school and had higher IQs (chicken, egg?).

Some students gamified the math itself, challenging themselves to see how many math problems they could complete. That is definitely something that I employ myself in my work and in my fitness activities. I think my personal trainer has figured this out about me and is using it to push me even further and harder. But is that something that is hard wired in my genes and if so did I pass those down to my kids and if so why am I not seeing it yet? Or is it something that is learned and that I developed over time with my planning and scheduling and rewarding myself with diversions?

Some children legitimately have ADHD and are well served by pharmaceutical or non-pharmaceutical interventions to manage that. But what about the rest of the kids out there who don't have ADHD, but still experience the nagging of that digital device that wants to distract them from the things they need to get done? Are they going to figure it out on their own eventually, find that motivation, and push through? Or is there something that we should be doing as parents and educators to help them learn self-control?

I don't have the answer, but I'm certainly open to ideas and suggestions. Being a self-starter and an "I can do that" person is something that I think serves people well in life in terms of their success and their happiness. But does that fire need to be lit or does it kick in on its own?

So, I got the article written. The dishwasher will need to be unloaded when I get home while I try to motivate my children to do their French homework.

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Reader Comments (22)

I feel like it might be more nature than nurture. My younger brother and I had the same access to tech distractions, as did my husband. Of the three of us, I'm the self-starter with an unrelenting appetite to experience the world with abandon, and find it easy to unplug and focus on the experience at hand. My brother and husband, not so much. They're easily distracted by video games and TSN sports tickers. Of my three kids, two of the three are natural self starters and self-motivated, and quick to drop their iTouches for outdoor play or a good new book for the library. The third is harder to entice away from any sort of tech distraction. They've been raised with the same limitations and expectations. I don't know what the answer is.

September 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Deveau

Damn, I thought you had forgotten about that guest post. I had finally took it off my brain's to-do list that keeps me up at night. I'm not sure I would have graduated from university with all these distractions around. And I would have failed this particular test because I don't like math problems or tetris -- in fact they feel like the same to me. We will see how this generation does -- I think eventually the tech will be more integrated into what they do and how they see the world. Perhaps the gamification of work will become a good thing and keep them on track?
I dunno, I'm just procrastinating...

September 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEmma Waverman

What do you think about not "imposing limits" at all, but letting children self-regulate by lifting limits?

September 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTijana

You have described my worried thoughts perfectly, Annie. So far, so good. Because, like you, I am able to set limits. I do use the screen time as a motivator (and I don't like to use the word bribe here, because they would have done what I asked anyway)..."get the homework finished now, so that you can look forward to some time on Minecraft" so that I'm presenting the screen time as a prize, versus part of the process. I hope I can drill that into their minds. I often think about the distractions from my undergrad: food, time with friends, time in bed. That was it. We had it good. They have it good, too, with the technology that will be integrated into their learning, but WOW what a challenge it will be in the days before that pre-frontal cortex grows up. Great post. Thanks for focusing long enough to write it ;)

September 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLouise


I think that is certainly a desirable outcome. I guess the question is how to get there.

If my children were homeschooled, that would be an option that we could experiment with. As it is, however, they need to meet requirements set by the school in terms of homework, reading, preparation for tests, etc. They also need to get enough sleep and wake up at a specific time in order to make it to school.

I've also found that the more time my children spend in front of screens, the more likely they are to be moody and rude to others and the more difficulty they have eating and sleeping properly.

September 22, 2014 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

This is great food for thought. My kids are still very young, but I have also noticed that the more time my oldest (2 1/2) spends in front of the t.v. the more moody and irritable he gets.

We're not yet at the stage of 'required' screen time for homework, research, etc., so for now we're limiting it to one show or movie before supper. We've also kept the car a 'screen free' zone. For now this is working great, but I can see that it may become more of a challenge as they get older.

I think as a society we're really starting to lose the ability to just 'be'. It's like we (myself included) can't sit still with our thoughts and always need to be checking something on our phones or computers. I'm trying to embrace the 'nurture' side of the debate and encourage my boys to be comfortable in the silence without turning to outside distractions. I guess time will tell...

October 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKelly Bourne

Good article thank you !

November 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoel

Amazing and useful article.

December 11, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermatt

Today's children do not see it as technology, it just is. We grew up with TV so we learned how to moderate our own time. If they have learned to moderate their own time, then limiting their exposure to digital, would be like limiting their toy and reading time.

The brains of generation's Baby Boom, X and Y were not genetically designed to handle the large amount of information that we can now soak up online. I believe that the conversion from minimal knowledge to hyper knowledge has caused some issue's in the chemistry of the brain, but children born from parents who were extensively digitally exposed have received the evolutionary DNA, and are better able to adapt to this fast pace of life.

December 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Calhoun

As a chronically distracted person since I was a kid - luckily they did not have ADD diagnosis for active kids who had hard time focusing on things they were not specifically interested in - I had teach myself to focus. When I was a kid there weren't any technology to distract me but that didn't stop me from getting up to watch outside the window during class, draw fashion sketches instead of doing homework or daydream while trying to read a book. I had to figure out, what type of a learner I was, by myself (visual/written) and customize my own test preparation. At 37, I am still working on it. Technology is working both for me and against me. I use lots of apps and online tools to keep myself on task, keep my lists and notes, while social media distracts me. I guess, with this in mind, one should blame social media, rather than technology in general, for distractions.
My daughter and my son are very different from each other with technology. My daughter, who is inherently very focused and task oriented (completely unlike me), uses media mainly for her homework and learning purposes and can easily get off of media without being reminded, by herself. My son on the other hand, not only has hard time keeping track of his time, but begs us to play more, spend more time to a point where it's very annoying. If we leave him in front of a screen by himself, he could easily spend a whole day without sleep (luckily he'll look for food). I don't believe the things he does with tech is all productive, creative and educational either. So we keep tabs on him, with occasional trials to see whether he can manage himself or not. They'll have to live in this type of environment when they grow up, like we do. So they'll either inherently figure it out growing up. Or they'll have to teach themselves to manage their screen time and productivity like I had to do.

January 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPractical Mama

Technology can be distracting, especially games. But, we have already seen people in their 30s who have grown up alongside games and seem to be managing their lives quite well despite that. I guess every generation finds its own way to harness and enjoy technologies from around them. Our older one spends a lot of time on sites which are nature oriented like Nature's Nuggets while our younger one loves pet games. As parents it is for us to help kids understand that technology can be more than entertainment. Then their imagination will help them get motivated to go places using the same technology.

January 7, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

Oh, gosh! I stay up nights wondering about this. Trying to generally teach work now, play later but it's lots harder when the distractions are so at hand. Nice article.

February 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChris Chandler

I've been struggling with this a lot over the years. My son is now 11. I suddenly realized that it's not necessarily about limiting screen time and reward systems, per se. It's about childhook experiences. They're teaching my son school stuff in school. I realized that my job as a parent is to teach him the home/life stuff at home. I've also notices that he does not have many of the basic skills I had when I was his age. In other words, rather than watching him take all the time I'll allow him to take on screens and getting frustrated by it, I've started doing things with him as a parent/teacher around the house that he doesn't get in school and that I feel he needs for life. How to do laundry, cook, and clean. But also fixing the gutter when it leaks, weeding the garden, et cetera. As well, not accepting the argument that he gives that I spend all my time on computers (for work). He's a kid, I tell him. He needs to run, skip, jump outside! He should be spending his free time outdoors at the moment, and developing a healthy (growing) body. He is the type who really likes his "introvert" lifestyle. He reads voraciously, but also loves video game time alone. If I'm not there to counterbalance that with sending him out or teaching him household and world skills, who will?

April 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Gemmell

You need technology to beat technology, a good productivity app like Self Control App can help block distracting websites for a fixed period of time.

April 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSalman Patwegar

These Digital age self control on their Distraction i like your technology productivity.

August 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMonika

i have no problems with self control, and I am a toddler. I also ate 36 chocolate cakes yesterday! x

November 1, 2016 | Unregistered Commentergel

Parents need to help their kids minimize technology and social media distractions.

Technology has become a parenting challenge today. Kids today are spending too much time on their smartphones, which hampers their attention from having face-to-face interactions. They can’t focus on their school work because they want to check the latest updates on their news feeds. Because of technology, our kids are having difficulty focusing on other important things.

Teach your children to use technology wisely. It’s a great tool for online communication and learning. Find the root cause of their distractions to help them become better digital citizens.


December 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMomSecure

I wouldn't blame digital age. The problem of distraction was here for ages. It has just slightly changed it's face.

April 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

Be aware of your own time as parents and monitor your children’s use. If you replace that screen time with fun, creative or educational activities with your family, you are on the right track to achieving great balance for your family.

Giving our kids a right time to be spent of, will make them more creative and get more involved in physical activities rather than spending time with Gadgets. https://bit.ly/2vhHety

July 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFrank

Are you worried about your teenager's use of the Internet, considering the amount of time she spends on it every day? Here are some tips on how to teach her to use the Net responsibly.

August 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJenitha Joseph


February 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthis article is biased

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