The Toronto Star

3 Ways To Fight Cellphone Addiction In Schools

I was speaking at a principals’ conference recently. Want to take three guesses at what most of the questions were about? If you said “cellphones, cellphones, and more cellphones” you’re right.

“How do we pull students off devices?”

“How do we remove cellphones as a distraction and regain focus and attention in classrooms?”

“What can we do to cope with growing cellphone addiction and anxiety and other problems rising up?”

Well, first off, it is an addiction. We’ve talked before about how when everyone is addicted to something it looks like nobody is. It’s not the only thing! Caffeine, sugar, you guys know what I’m talking about. But, on phones, my old answer used to be to ban cellphones. Not allowed! Keep them away from classrooms, lunch rooms and hallways. But the tide has shifted. When I asked the room of 300 elementary and high school principals how many didn’t allow cellphones in classrooms … nobody put up their hand.

And then I stared a bit closer at all the conference tables around the room. What was sitting in front of everybody? Cellphones. Of course.

That’s when I realized.

Pandora’s Box is already opened.

You can’t stuff demons back in that easily.

It wasn’t even a few years ago I remember CEOs or conference MCs holding up cardboard boxes and asking everyone to toss their cellphone in before a big meeting began. But now all we do is tell people which hashtag to use.

Why are we so afraid to tell others to give up their phones? Because we don’t want to give them up ourselves.

And it’s not our fault as the devices are designed to be more and more irresistible and addictive and, since we are the most social species on the planet, our phones have become the primary connective tissue to our family, friends, coworkers, tribes, subreddits, fantasy football leagues, celebrity follows … all our social connections.

2017 study looked at how people with high and low nomophobic (no-more-phone-phobia) tendencies perceive and value their smartphones. The findings suggest that we see our phones as extensions of ourselves, which is what creates separation anxiety to our phones. That’s right — high cellphone users literally feel anxious when separated from their devices.

Clinical psychologist Brenda K. Wiederhold further elaborates on this subject: “Nomophobia, fear of missing out (FOMO), and fear of being offline (FOBO) — all anxieties born of our new high-tech lifestyles — may be treated similarly to other more traditional phobias. Exposure therapy, in this case turning off technology periodically, can teach individuals to reduce anxiety and become comfortable with periods of disconnectedness.”

But it ain’t that easy!

So what do we do?

Well, I have three suggestions.

1. Zones

After a moment one principal bravely put up her hand and said “You know, we’re trying something at our school. We have 25-minute nutrition breaks twice a day. And in those breaks we say cellphones aren’t allowed. The students sit at tables, face each other, and if we see a cellphone … we take it.”

“How’s it working?” I asked.

“Well, we end up taking a bunch of cellphones every day. It’s really hard for them. But most of them have figured out they can make it 25 minutes and be able to use their phones right afterwards.”

So if you can’t yank the drug, how about a cellphone free zone? It can be schedule-based or maybe location based. Like no cellphones in the library.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is an Austin, Texas-based movie theatre chain that is growing in leaps and bounds. While movie theatres nationally experienced a 3.4 per cent drop in box office sales in 2010, Alamo saw a 2.6 per cent rise in sales, and if you include food and drink revenue, that number is up to 4.8 per cent.

What differentiates the Alamo from the rest? Well, it has set in place policies to improve the customer’s overall experience … including one no other movie theatre has: if you use your cellphone a bouncer kicks you out.

Like I said, the chain is growing in leaps and bounds.

2. Modelling

Are you complaining about students using cellphones with your phone sitting on your desk?

Last month the New York Times released an article on why Silicon Valley parents are becoming increasingly obsessed with keeping their children away from phones … and why many are now asking their nannies to sign “no cellphone” contracts to help keep technology away from their kids.

One Silicon Valley nanny said: “Most parents come home, and they’re still glued to their phones, and they’re not listening to a word these kids are saying … Now I’m the nanny ripping out the cords from the PlayStations.”

Are children using their phones more because their peers are … or because their parents are?

This all reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon I saw recently. Two women are sitting beside each other on a park bench. Each has a young girl beside them, presumably their daughters. One mom is holding a phone. Her daughter is looking at a phone. The other mom is holding a book. Her daughter is reading a book. And the caption is phone-holding mom asking book-holding mom: “How do you get your kid to read?”

3. Fasting

How often do you say “Wow, I drank too much at that wedding. No drinks till next weekend.” Or “I gained five pounds over the holidays. I’ll walk to work this month.” These fasts are little mental systems put in place to prevent slipping again. Systems always beat goals.

So if you’re leading a group of people (in a school, sure, but it also applies elsewhere) you can apply the fasting principle to the group.

How? Start by saying you’re going on a fast.

A Facebook fast, an Instagram fast, a “no social media apps on my cellphone” fast. You pick the fast!

Then ask who else is in, draw up a leader board, and track who lasts the longest. Throw in a prize if it helps. Use a website like or if it’s helpful.

Declare cell free zones! Model the behaviour! Take a fast!

Yes, our tools may be dull and rusty.

But we can win this war yet.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star

The Power of 1000

I didn’t realize it at the time, but something special happened to me on June 20, 2008.

I was in a pretty depressive state with my marriage heading the wrong direction and my best friend suffering from severe mental illness. I needed an escape. An outlet. A place to go. A place to vent.

So, I typed “How to start a blog” into Google and pressed that “I’m feeling lucky” button, which no one ever presses. And 10 minutes later, I started up a tiny website called 1000 Awesome Things.

My idea was to write down 1000 awesome things for 1000 straight weekdays to cheer myself up.

Why 1000?

Well, 100 awesome things sounded too low. Too easy! I could whip that off in a few months and I’d be finished. I didn’t expect I’d have things figured out in my own head that quickly.

And one million awesome things sounded like too much. A million! How many years would that take? Oh, not many, just a couple thousand. Since I’m not Gandalf, I knew I was aiming too high.

So, 1000 was my baby bear bowl of porridge.

It sounded jussssssssst right.

For the next four years, for the next 1000 straight weekdays, I really did write 1000 awesome things on my blog. And while my marriage fell apart and my best friend sadly took his own life, that tiny blog became a salvation, a place to escape to, a place to disappear to.

On April 19, 2012, 1000 weekdays after I launched it, I announced the No. 1 awesome thing in a downtown bookstore beamed live to the CBC National News.

And then … that was it. I hit 1000. The project finished. The blog ended. And I moved on.

But something happened to me over the years.

And it’s something I never put a finger on until pretty recently.

The number 1000 kept appearing in my life.

I thought maybe it was just the famous Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. You know, when you keep seeing the same obscure word jump out at you after hearing about it for the first time. Does that happen to you? In 1994, a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s online discussion board came up with the term after hearing the name of the ultra-left-wing German terrorist group twice in one day.

But the number 1000 felt deeper than that.

When researching The Happiness Equation, I looked a lot at lifespans around the world. I was trying to understand why people in Okinawa, Japan, for example, live seven more years than North Americans and have no word for retiring.

So, guess what our average lifespan is? Here’s the interesting thing. It’s 1000 months. Or just over 83 years.

“There’s that number again,” I thought to myself.

A year later, I was working on my journal 2 Minute Mornings. I found I was stressed out so I came up with a routine to help me chill. Each morning, I would wake up and answer three research-backed prompts to both clear and focus my mind:

  • 1. “I will let go of …”

  • 2. “I am grateful for …”

  • 3. “I will focus on …”

When part of your life is doing interviews with media, you get good insight from journalists. And that’s what happened. I was doing the TV, radio, and podcast circuit on this journal and a host said something that struck me. She said:

“Today, we welcome Neil Pasricha on the show. His challenge? You’re awake 1000 minutes every day. Could you take two of them to make the other 998 even better?”

Wait a minute.

You’re alive 1000 months.

You’re awake 1000 minutes a day.

What an incredibly helpful way to measure what you’re doing in life in the broadest possible sense.

Renovating your fixer-upper for three months? Feels awful. But maybe small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. After all, it’s only 3 of your 1000 months. Hate your 100-minute commute? Well, that makes sense. You’re only awake 1000 minutes a day, so you’re burning 200 or 20% of them in the car.

What’s another reason 1000 is such a powerful number?

Because it’s a moon shot number that’s actually realistic.

When you’re only alive for 1000 months (or roughly 30000 days), then doing something for 1000 of them is a massive commitment … that you can actually do.

Can you do 1000 morning runs?

Can you cook 1000 homemade dinners?

Can you teach 1000 students?

Can you help 1000 people?

Yes, you can. It will take you a while. But you can.

And why 1000?

Because it is clear and measurable and big and daunting … but reachable. I wanted to so many times to quit while writing 1000 Awesome Things. But I had that number, that commitment, those three big zeros staring me in the face.

Once I’d spent a year writing a few hundred awesome things, could I look at myself in the mirror if I quit? I decided I couldn’t, which is where duds like, say, #806 Ducks came from on my blog.

How do I use it in my life today?

I decided I wanted to try and read the 1000 most formative books in the world before I die. Easy math. About a book a month. I realized there was no list of 1000 books I could trust and no algorithm that could feed me these 1000 important, life-changing books.

So, I made my own. I decided to interview 333 people who I find inspiring and ask each of them for the three books which most changed their lives. Who? Authors like Judy Blume, David Sedaris, and Mitch Albom. Creatives like Sarah Anderson of Sarah’s Scribbles or Chris Anderson who runs TED. Or inspiring people I stumble upon like Vishwas Aggrawal, the world’s greatest Uber driver with a 4.99 rating and over 5,000 rides.

I record these conversations in a podcast called 3 Books with Neil Pasricha and I release one chapter on the exact minute of every new moon and full moon since March 31, 2018 till 5:52 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2031.

2031? Yes! That’s the magic of 1000.

It’s a moon shot — I may never make it. I started the project at 38 years old and I’ll be in my 50s when it’s over. But it’s 1000 books, so it will take me a long time. But I now know, and I now believe, in the power of 1000 to lead me there.

As George R.R. Martin wrote: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies … the man who never reads lives only one.”

There it is again. A one with three zeros.

What can you do a thousand times?

Just sign up for doing 1000 of something and then get ready to drop your jaw and stare back at yourself as you accomplish your massive goal.

Good luck!

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star