Many parents are noticing that after a period of screen time, children are often irritable and moody, short-tempered and foul. It’s not just small children – we notice this with adolescents and even adults. Most would agree: ‘Screen time equals scream time.’
Dr Kristy Goodwin, a researcher into the effects of technology on a child’s brain, says that whenever we do anything pleasurable with technology – whether it’s watching funny cat videos or looking through people’s feed on Instagram – our brain releases the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine. Our brains naturally want more and more of this feel-good state, and so we crave more use of technology.
The digital world offers continual sensory seduction. We can bounce from one excitement to the next with less than a second to wait between applications. For example, when using tablet devices, children can play an app and then touch the home button and instantly launch into another app. Their desire for novelty is easily and constantly met in an online world.
Today’s screen time presents a different dilemma to those we have faced in past generations. In the past, our favourite show would only ast a certain time before something less desirable would come on. It gave us a natural brain break, providing an opportunity to divert to other activities. Until we could buy videos, we had little control over what program was next.
Nowadays, we have access to unlimited entertainment and discoveries. Our brain loves online media because we just don’t know what’s around the corner. We don’t want to miss out on something funny, interesting, amazing. So we keep flicking. Longer and longer. Hours can pass and we’re still immersed – almost in a trance-like state.
“Why are you doing this to me?”
Dragging a teen out of that narrow, all-encompassing world is like taking a half-eaten lolly from a toddler. I’ve got a taste of the good stuff, and now you want to take it away. It feels like a punishment.
Dr Godwin reflects that our kids are reluctant to turn off technology because it will mean terminating their supply of dopamine. Their response is often more pronounced if they’re playing apps or video games where there’s lots of external rewards and praise.
For adolescents, it also taps into that desire for independence, self-determination and personal choice. We’re not only battling the unconscious bias of the brain but the complicated dance of independence and individuation. It’s the perfect formula for a teen-sized tantrum, every time.
Preventing a nuclear melt-down
Navigating the challenges of screen time and limiting the meltdown requires some very intentional steps, and the ability to negotiate with a young person who wants to be treated as an adult. Here are some tips that might help:
Agree on the rules in advance
How long do we agree that this session should last? How would you like me to prompt you at the end? What will you be using and looking at? What will we avoid looking at? It may be worth creating a written, visual checklist for how we manage screen time, and if necessary, sign off on it like a contract.
Ask your teenager how long they think is suitable. Allow some back and forth. “Oh, so you think two hours is good? I was thinking half an hour. Could we find somewhere in between? What if before you watch YouTube, you finish your homework first. What do you think?”
Follow through on agreements
One of the common failings of all negotiations is that we get to the pointy end of the deal and avoid the hard conversations because it takes time and energy. The agreed hour passes and the home is quiet. Why disturb it? Why have conflict? After all, I’m halfway through my glass of wine. Is it worth it? Yes. If you fail to enforce the rules, they mean nothing. The next time you actually want to stick with the rules, there is a bigger conflict because the teen brain has noted all the times when the rules are bendable.
Create a phone curfew
Screen time before bed is causing a dramatic rise in sleep disorders among young people. The latest findings show that over 60% of 16-year-olds are going to bed after 11 pm, and the number one thing they are doing before bed is using social media.
Families who have an agreed curfew on their screen time instantly increase the opportunity for healthy sleep patterns, decreasing white light to the retina of the eye, and allowing the brain to enter REM sleep in a more stable pattern. Being strict at the beginning will make it easier to maintain. Plus, consider modelling your own screen curfew – adults need sleep too!
Consider your broader family rhythms
Creating family rhythms is a perfect way of breaking from screen time and getting back into real-world activities. If dinner is consistently at 6:30 pm every evening, family members know that this is “just what we do”. Perhaps it is setting a homework hour before the screen time. That way, they’ll know that if they get their chores and homework out of the way, then the reward is screen time.
With these tips and knowledge in mind, you’ll be well on your way to helping your teen build a sustainable, healthy, and positive relationship with their screens. As with most things in life, communication is key.
Referenced: Kristy Goodwin is a children’s technology and brain researcher and the director of Every Chance to Learn. She is a contributor to Kidshealth.com.au.
Dan Hardie is the founder of MyStrengths, an organisation that delivers strength-based programs, courses and research to high schools and parents across Australia. Dan has worked with thousands of teens to help them discover their Top 5 Strengths through the MyStrengths Assessment and school programs.
Dan has a degree in Assoc Counselling with a major in Positive Psychology and has been providing professional counselling for over 15 years. He specialises in working with adolescents and their families, taking a strengths-based approach, focusing on what’s right with them. During his years working as a teen therapist in Sydney, Dan found that the insights and labels given to teens during a diagnosis – unmotivated, distracted, down, anxious, socially disconnected – simply reinforced many of the negative scripts that teens had about themselves.
He started to wonder: what if instead of diagnosing what is wrong with them, we could diagnose what is right? That’s when MyStrengths was born. MyStrengths has designed a series of tools and programs to help students and parents recognise their strengths and build resilience, including the MyStrengths Assessment, which has reached over 30,000 students to date in NSW.