As we welcome 2024, let’s look at the tradition of New Year’s resolutions. Many of us reflect on how to eat better, improve our sleep, or fit in more exercise. It can be a helpful goalpost or one that causes frustration. In a recent conversation, our Youth Advisory Board offered some key insights and suggestions on how to build healthier habits – especially when it comes to our digital ones.
“I set a time limit on all of my social media apps,” shares board member Lane, highlighting a self-directed approach to digital wellness. “I find that sticking to this is all about whether or not I’m feeling productive or have decided to be productive. Overall, I try to take it very seriously and turn off my device when this happens.”
Dr. Mark Bertin, M.D., a developmental pediatrician and faculty member at New York Medical College says beginning with manageable steps can be more effective than striving for ambitious ones. For example, if you have a goal to hit the gym for one hour every day, try aiming for three days to start. Or take a ten-to-fifteen-minute walk at lunch the other two days a week, to get used to the new activity. Finding habit partners and remaining patient is also key to remaining successful in any changes you wish to implement.
A good rule of thumb is to keep an open dialogue about responsible tech use and what is considered quality screen. Whether we like it or not, digital technology is a part of our everyday lives from schoolwork to scheduling a doctor’s appointment. MPY’s programs like Digital Wellness for Families are designed to help parents, caregivers, and educators facilitate these discussions with children and students. There was general consensus among the teen leaders on our board that teaching young people how to properly use social media is essential to keeping kids safe.
Recognizing and planning for barriers increase the likelihood of success when trying to build a long-term habit. Our brains are designed to recognize patterns as shortcuts to understanding information. This is especially true of developing brains which are constantly absorbing and making sense of new data and experiences. If the brain has experienced barriers before, it’s going to anticipate those in the future. Life is messy by nature. Obstacles will always find us. But in planning for those ahead of time, we can reduce stress and find support we need.
Take the goal of reducing screen time: “The challenge with [screen-time limits] is that it’s very easy to click the ‘ignore’ button,” Paige reflects, suggesting the importance of self-awareness in tech usage. “Another strategy that helps limit my screen time is to make an effort to develop my non-screen-related hobbies!”
Do you like hiking? Reading? Volunteering at animal shelters? Find an activity that ignites your passion and keeps you engaged off of social media. Learning an instrument and making art are all fulfilling alternatives to get in touch with your creative side. If you find yourself constantly checking your phone when you’re hanging out with friends, find an activity that requires two hands like taking a pottery making class or meeting up with friends at a climbing gym.
It’s much easier to start a new habit than to break a bad one. This truth highlights teaching youth how to build healthy habits when they are young is especially important. According to the PEW Research Center, most teens (96%) are on the internet daily. This isn’t just about reducing screen time, but about using it mindfully.
Using social media consciously and engaging in content that is enriching helps people avoid the pitfalls of ‘doom-scrolling’. Instead of being preoccupied with Snapchat scores or your “TikTok for You” page, invest in the activities and relationships that will enrich your life, such as friends, siblings, parents, mentor-figures.
Some technology in our lives can be useful in building healthy habits! Take Peloton, or NordicTrak’s iFit machines. Their technology specifically aims to build community and accountability to stick with a healthy habit. Seeing others stats while working out, and having instructors cheer you on offer a virtual pick-me-up. Virtual or otherwise, human connection is essential to well-being.
When it comes to the educating space, programs like Kahoot can be used to help teens study by building virtual flashcards and make learning fun. Hiking apps like All Trails help you, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, experience nature deliberately. It’s all about balance!
Our board members are acutely aware of barriers to success. “Social media apps are designed to cause no obstruction…forcing users to be easily absorbed,” observes Pranav. This highlights the need for critical engagement with technology. “I think a lot of youth right now, including myself at some points, use social media as escapism, which is becoming very mentally draining,” Zoë elaborates.
Let 2024 be the year we actively engage with building healthier habits. Check in with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile and share your long and short terms goals. Find an accountability buddy and set a goal together. Ask your kids to plan an adventure for the whole family that doesn’t involve screens. You never know what you could discover together!