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Practicing the Lost Art of Moderation

I’ve noticed a missing word in our vocabulary for a decade now. I rarely hear the word “moderation.” Instead, I see both students and adults becoming addicted to technology, including everyday devices like phones, tablets or video games. Believe it or not, students in our recent focus groups readily admitted to an addiction to both their phones and to social media apps.

I’m not sure if they were proud of it or ashamed of it.

Did you know that for the first time ever, the World Health Organization has included “gaming disorder”(video game addiction) in a draft of the International Classification of Diseases? For someone to be classified as having the disorder, they must also continue to game despite negative consequences, the report adds.

Recently, two investors in Apple, Inc. wrote a letter to the company seeking CEO Tim Cook and his executive team to do something about iPhone addictions. They said:

“Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do,” wrote billion-dollar investors Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, a pension fund, in a letter to Apple they also posted online.

NBC News Journalist Ben Popken wrote, “There is a developing consensus around the world—including Silicon Valley—that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility,” according to the Apple investors.

In a recent article, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington lamented how technology degrades the closeness between people in the same room. She cited how heavy social media usage has been linked to higher rates of depression, especially in the young. “Our ability to succeed in the technology-dominated workplace of the future depends, in no small measure, on our ability to—right now—take back control of our technology, and our lives,” she wrote.

What Do We Make of This?

We live in a strange era of history. For the first time, our everyday habits and devices actually encourage addictive behavior and make moderation difficult:

  • We can binge watch television shows and movies.
  • Video games can be played to our heart’s content.
  • Social media can be accessed anytime of day and on any day.
  • Prescription drugs can be purchased online or over the counter.
  • We can shop on our computers anytime of day or night.
  • Food can be purchased at any time and delivered to our home.
  • Our phones are with us all day, enabling us to communicate nonstop.
  • Almost everything we want is “on demand.”

Four Steps Toward Moderation

In 2010, Steve Jobs was interviewed and asked if his children liked the new iPad. Jobs famously replied: “We don’t allow the iPad in our home. We think it’s too dangerous for them.”

We all know Steve Jobs believed in his Apple products. But he also believed in moderation. And that has to be taught these days. Ancient Greeks had a famous phrase: “Pan Metron Ariston,” which translates to “Moderation in All Things.” It’s the ability to temper our appetites; to discipline our urge to binge on anything. The dictionary defines the term this way: Moderation is about finding a balance between two extremes—deprivation and overindulging. Let me offer four suggestions for teachers and parents to develop “moderation” in themselves and young people:

1. Teach them to distinguish between APPETITES and HUNGER.

We often fail to see the difference between these two. Hunger is the physical need for food, but appetites are fueled by our desire for food. If only hunger was involved in eating, we’d eat until we’re full and stop. Appetites kick in and cause us to eat the wrong kinds of food and to overeat. We condition ourselves to yearn for certain tastes in our mouths, or screens in our face, or habits in our lives. We must learn to boss our appetites—physically, socially and emotionally. While I believe emotions are important, I believe they make a better servant than a master. They tell us to be dissatisfied with what we own or the amount of food we eat. The fact is, we need time to play, but we also need time to labor and produce. We need time for community, but we also need time for solitude. Americans tend to overdo behaviors. Distinguishing between appetite and hunger could change our lives.

2. Teach them to think BALANCE, not BINGE.

I first heard the term “binge” over 25 years ago. Young people were bingeing on food or music. I began to hear the word “addictions” more frequently. Today, we binge watch Netflix, or binge on video games or alcohol. Binging is more familiar to us than balance. What if we taught our students the value of balance—to enjoy a pleasure from time to time, but to balance it with a reciprocal behavior? For instance, when I was a young adult, I took little time for meals. I was always on the go, so when I got hungry, I took 10 minutes for a burger or burrito at a fast food restaurant. Today, while I might enjoy a burger from time to time, I set a balanced standard for myself: one salad and three bottled waters daily. I have a “two soft drink” limit each week. For me, water is a reciprocal choice to soft drinks. Salads replace burritos. The key is to consciously think about balance in our lives—moderation—in the stuff we love. Those habits then serve us instead of the other way around.

3. Teach them to focus on OUTCOMES, not OBSTACLES.

When I try to change a bad habit, I often can only see the obstacles in the way. This makes change very difficult. What if we taught our students to clearly see the results of changing a bad habit? For instance, what if they could see that limiting themselves to two hours of video games and replacing the other hour with a positive or healthy option, like working out? What if they posted a photo on their bathroom mirror of a person who’s toned after working out for a year? People tend to do what they see clearest. Playing videos games is something they can “see” themselves doing, so they may default to it. We must help them envision the outcomes of other options. Focusing on the results rather than the necessary routines to reach them can be a game changer. It could actually enable this generation to live in moderation.

4. Teach them to pursue INCREMENTAL change, not FUNDAMENTAL change.

Far too often, we try to take gigantic steps when we see we need to change. This usually fails because our biological make up seeks equilibrium. Our body and mind generally return to the patterns we’ve already set for them. In the words of George Leonard, “Resistance is proportionate to the size and speed of the change, not to whether the change is a favorable or unfavorable one.” Author James Clear puts it this way: “The faster you try to change, the more likely you are to backslide. The very pursuit of rapid change dials up a wide range of counteracting forces, which are fighting to pull you back into your previous lifestyle. You might be able to beat equilibrium for a little while, but pretty soon your energy fades and the backsliding begins.” So—I recommend helping students to plan small, incremental changes in their binging. Encourage them to cut back 15 minutes on video games; or two bites of dessert; or a half hour of Netflix. Then add a bit more change each week.

In every case, practicing moderation enables students to lead themselves well.


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