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Is your child having screen time withdrawal?

As we slowly return to our pre-pandemic routines, families are no doubt encountering some unexpected challenges with this transition. One such challenge may be children becoming more irritable, aggressive, or throwing tantrums at the prospect of reduced screen time. During the many weeks of lockdown, parents and children have relied heavily on devices and the internet for work, education, and entertainment. From zoom calls with grandparents, to online learning and watching Netflix, devices became an essential survival tool for many children, and with this their daily screen time likely skyrocketed. Parents should not feel guilty about this increase, as it is perfectly normal for this to have occurred during lockdown. However, now that children have returned to school and are gradually resuming extra-curricular activities, they have less free time to be spending in front of screens. This may have led to more frequent screentime-related meltdowns.

What is it about screens that makes it so hard to let them go?

If you child finds it difficult to get off YouTube, social media or video games, it is because these apps have been designed to keep users engaged for as long as possible. Apart from the colourful and playful nature of digital content which appeals to children, websites like YouTube have algorithms which recommend highly curated content based on your child’s interests. The autoplay feature also ensures that there is an endless stream of videos to watch. This means that children never feel satisfied as the next best thing is waiting for them in their recommendations. Social media platforms employ a similar tactic with their never-ending feeds. Games are built such that each level of a game is challenging enough to feel just out of reach, but not so hard that the player gives up. It is these elements which keep children coming back for more.

Looking at this on a deeper level, what is happening in our children’s brains when they use screens?

The answer lies primarily in dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain which plays an important role in how we feel pleasure. It is also involved in how we plan, focus, and find things interesting. When you child experiences something rewarding, such as praise from a parent or eating a snack when they’re hungry, the pleasure centres of the brain ‘light up’, increasing the levels of dopamine. This is the brain receiving a reward for engaging in that activity. This is exactly what is happening every time your child watches a YouTube video or plays a game. Their brain receives an intense release of dopamine for relatively little effort. Children then continue to use devices searching for that next dopamine hit. When parents take away screens, they experience a drop in their dopamine levels, and this withdrawal feels painful. Children have not yet developed the necessary impulse control and self-regulation skills to be able to navigate these uncomfortable feelings without having an outburst.

There are some common behaviours that we might expect as children have less free-time and cannot use devices as much. These include:

  • Frustration

  • Irritability

  • Whining/tantrums

  • Aggressive outbursts

  • Coming up with reasons why they need to be on the screen

  • Resistance to ending screen time

Setting some rules around where, when and for how long children use devices will go a long way towards mitigating these behaviours. Here are some tips which might help with this:

  1. Schedule screen time into children’s routines. Screentime should be a planned part of your child’s day, e.g. being allowed to watch one episode of a show while Mum and Dad cook dinner. When screentime is scheduled, children will be less upset when it is over.

  2. Engage children in a fun activity when screen time is over. Make a plan to go to the park, do some colouring, or any other activity that your child enjoys after screen time is over. This gives children something to look forward to. This activity should be non-digital, as we do not want children hopping from one screen to another. Remind them before they go on their device that they will get to do that activity if they hand over the device calmly.

  3. Do not end a child’s screen time when they are in the middle of a game or video. This seems obvious but waiting until your child has finished their video or completed a level in their game will reduce the likelihood of a meltdown. Turn off the autoplay feature on YouTube or Netflix, as it will be easier to limit screen time if the next video does not automatically start playing.

  4. Stay calm if your child has an outburst. If you child throws a tantrum, stay calm and walk away. Parents should stick firmly and consistently to their plan even in the face of resistance from their children. If a child’s whining or request for additional screen time is being rewarded intermittently, reducing the frequency of this type of behaviour will be more difficult.

  5. Make a reward chart. Set up a chart where you child can earn stickers for handing over the device without getting upset. Set a prize that they can work towards collecting stickers for.

  6. Do not allow screen media in your child’s bedroom. Using screens before bed can affect how easily your child falls asleep. But more importantly, keeping phones and other devices out of the bedroom at night stops your child staying up late playing games or messaging friends.

Tips adapted from the New York Times, Is Your Child a Digital Addict? Here’s What You Can Do, by Andrea Paterson.

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