$100K for No Phone? When does Bribery Work?

What incentives work to help decrease screen time for our kids (and ourselves)? That question drives much of the research journey I have been on for many years. Tech Talk Tuesdays (TTT) is all about having weekly 5 or 10 minutes calm conversations about tech time with our kids to help them understand their screen time habits and promote them to optimize their habits from their own internal drive. But, of course not all healthy behaviors will come purely from an internal drive, that is why TTT conversations are also about establishing clear limits (external incentives) regarding how tech is used and the times and places that it is turned off.

Incentives came to my mind a few days ago when Vitamin Water announced that they would be awarding $100K to someone who was willing to give up their smartphone for a year. People enter by declaring what they will do with their time saved by eliminating the smartphone from their lives. The winner will receive $10,000 if they make it past the 6 months mark—they are allowed to use a flip phone—and the full $100K if they make it the whole year. This is a relatively cheap way for Vitamin Water to get a lot of free advertising, and clearly, it is working. (By the way, don’t let them trick you into thinking that because they have the word Vitamin in the name, that this is a healthy beverage. There is a large amount of sugar in these drinks, which is a whole other topic for which there is a great documentary called That Sugar Film).

So what do people think of this external incentive—would you do it for that much? Would your teen do it?

There is no doubt that when a person is internally motivated to change their behavior from the get-go, the chance of success is higher. What is the impact of external motivations in changing behaviors when the person had not been thinking about changing it? There are indeed times that with external incentives we can get a person to engage in behaviors that could lead to long-term changes. Think about a child who is rewarded for trying a certain new food and then ultimately likes that food and keeps eating it in the future.

That same principle was applied in this large study. Forty elementary schools tested whether providing short-run incentives can create habit formation in children. Over a few weeks, students received an incentive for eating a serving of fruits or vegetables during lunch. They were incentivized with coins that could be used in school stores, a school book fair or a school carnival. Providing incentives doubled the number of children that ate at least one serving of fruits or vegetables. Two months later a large portion of those kids were still eating fruits and vegetables.

There are studies that do not show such a sustained effect in changing behavior with incentives (such as trying to achieve long-term weight loss). Also, there are many studies that show that external rewards can lead to decreased internal motivation. I will write about those in the future. But today let’s focus on how and which incentives can work for the kids and in our lives.

I encourage you to scroll through some of our past Tech Talk Tuesdays to find ways to support good habits that reduce screen time, such as:

Unhooking from Video Games, Including Fortnite

How To Model Good Screen Time Habits

Tell Them You Love Screen Time

Cell Phones Are Getting Out of Schools Thanks To You  

Failing at Screen Time Rules?

Fortnite Addiction and What To Do About It?

Why 3 Hours Is Too Much

For this week, here are some questions to get the conversation going:

  • Ask your kids/students what they think about this contest.  

  • What is the minimum amount of money someone could give you to give up your use of a screen or—if they have one—a phone for the year?

  • How much time do you think you would save if you got rid of your smartphone?

  • What would you do with that time?

    We would love for you to share this TTT any way that works for you, whether that’s on social media or via a newsletter. If you want to send it out in your newsletter we just ask that you credit us and link to our website, and let us know at lisa@screenagersmovie.com.


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