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How to Help Your Child Focus on Schoolwork vs. YouTube

“What?!? You are supposed to be doing math and you are watching cat videos on YouTube?”

Charged with attending school on a device filled with more entertaining activities, our children will have a very difficult time staying on task.  

When children toggle back and forth between schoolwork and other online activities, not only does it take them longer to finish assignments but research indicates that media multitasking is linked to lower levels of short and long-term memory, especially on tasks that require sustained, goal-directed attention (schoolwork).  This behavior needs to be addressed to ensure our children can learn effectively this fall.

How do we handle this scenario when we can’t take away their device?  How can we ensure they get their education when the online world is so enticing?  Here is what to do:

Blame the device, not your child

Though completely understandable, when we get angry at them for being on YouTube children feel judged and wonder what is wrong with them that they cannot stay on task online. This will disconnect you from your child and also further decrease their ability to focus on schoolwork.  Not the direction we want to go.

To find a new strategy, let’s take a look at the root of this problem. The fact is that most of us struggle with distractibility while working online. Platforms and Apps are designed intentionally to hook our attention, and these designs work on all of us, including our children. In other words, the design of the device is the problem - not the child. Our children toggle to YouTube not because they are inept or irresponsible, but because the developers are really good at what they do.

Rather than reacting with anger, take a breath, and remember to blame the device, not the child.  Say:

You are on YouTube rather than math! Oh, dear! It is so hard. YouTube is designed to grab your attention. So hard to resist those pictures of those cute cats - and right next to a hard math assignment!”

Approaching the problem this way helps keep you connected to your child. Now you can move on to solving the problem.

Assume That Your Child Doesn’t Know How to Resist Media Multitasking

Young children do not have the executive functioning ability to consistently resist clicking the tempting cat video, and pre-teens and teens are just beginning to develop the cognitive capacities to do so.  Assume that your child does not know how to resist multitasking.  

In this case, your job is to help them develop this ability.  Think - how do I solve this problem in my own life?  Here are some common strategies to teach your child.

  • Turn off sounds/alerts
  • Temporarily disable chats
  • Move tempting apps out of sight
  • Close unneeded windows
  • Make work assignments fullscreen
  • Set focus goals ex: When I finish my assignment, I will take some time to watch YouTube
  • Use timers ex: 30 minutes of focus followed by a 10-minute online break
  • Sit near others who help ensure focus

Tell your child:

It’s not your fault that you click on YouTube... and I do need to teach you how to avoid doing this.  If we give in to these temptations, the constant switching around can actually decrease our brain’s capacity to learn and remember.  It also takes much longer to complete work.  Believe me, I’ve been there! Here is what I do to deal with this.  What do you think would help you? 

Work with your child to put a plan in place. It will take time for your child to develop this skill. Be patient. Stick with it. With practice, your child can learn this!

Check to See if Schoolwork Help is Needed

Adults and children will naturally toggle more when faced with particularly challenging OR particularly unengaging tasks. Becoming distracted by other online activities can be a sign that they are struggling with their schoolwork.  Ask them which subjects tend to be harder to focus on, and explore why this may be so.  Help them get more support in these particular areas.

Hold Firm Limits

I suggest holding a firm limit on media multitasking.  This does not mean obsessively looking at your children’s screens while they do school work this fall.  This will drive them crazy and it is not possible to enforce a rule that they can never get off task, especially with pre-teens and older.  Instead, pay attention to whether this behavior is interfering or compromising their schoolwork, and if so - make a change.

The overall message should be that they can only have the freedom to do their work online away from adults if 

  1. They have shown that they know how to avoid media multitasking AND
  2. They are reasonably willing to do so

If either of these is not the case, your child should do their schoolwork within the supervision of adults until they meet the above criteria. When they do, let them try doing schoolwork in their room once or twice per day, and build up from there.  If media-multitasking again interferes, bring them temporarily back into common space.  

Remember this like every new skill, this takes time and practice.  Be patient but stick with it.  Though they may not enjoy this process, at a deeper level they will be relieved to have help learning to manage this tricky aspect of the online world.  And the skills you are teaching are critical to their future success in the screen-filled world in which they will live.  

Sign up for our newsletter to get healthy screen time insights and tips from clinical psychologist, Dr. Demi Rhine.  

About Beyond Limits Academy

Beyond Limits is a simple step-by-step online program that teaches parents how to prepare their children for a lifetime of safe and healthy technology use. Going beyond just screen time limits, our skills-based approach provides a clear roadmap that reduces conflict and sets children up to manage their own tech use independently and responsibly. In an increasingly digital world, preparing our children to use technology wisely is no longer an option . . . it's a necessity.


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