It’s a familiar scenario. Your child has been online or on devices for what seems like hours and now it’s time to come to the dinner table, complete homework, spend some time on non-tech activities or get a good night’s sleep. It’s a common frustration for many parents that a simple request can lead to endless negotiation, opposition and emotional meltdowns.
Digital wellbeing and productivity expert Dr Kristy Goodwin, who is also a mum of three boys, says techno tantrums are inevitable and even normal. She says parents can minimise the meltdowns by putting some digital ‘guardrails’ in place. It helps, she says, for parents to think of themselves as the pilot or co-pilot of the digital plane (not the passenger).
If you could use some strategies to achieve more digital wellbeing, here are Dr Kristy’s top five tips to avoid techno tantrums.
According to Dr Kristy, techno tantrums are a typical neurobiological response. When you want your child to turn off their device or stop gaming, it helps to suggest an appealing transition activity. “Turn off your iPad and do your Maths homework, or put your phone away and go and tidy your bedroom, are not appealing transition activities,” says Dr Kristy.
Instead, offer children a choice of two things that you know they would enjoy. “This is important, because when they’re online – particularly if it’s their leisure time – their brain’s giving them lots of dopamine, and dopamine is the pleasure neurotransmitter, so if you ask them to turn it off, you’re literally terminating their supply of dopamine!”
PARENT TIP – Make the post-screen activity something that they enjoy, especially if it involves physical movement, or if it gets them outside. That can help regulate the dopamine that they are craving.
Simply demanding that your child or teen turn off their device, can lead to refusal which can quickly escalate to conflict.
“It’s better to prime your child and say to them: “When this episode ends, I’d like you to turn it off,” … “When it transitions from day to night, I’d like you to turn if off,” … “When this battle ends, I’d like you to turn it off.”
PARENT TIP – By giving your child transition points, or an end time, they have some autonomy and involvement in choosing to turn off screens.
Dr Kristy explains that if children have been watching rapid-fire, fast-paced content such as Tik Tok videos, You Tube shorts, playing a video game, or engaged in a dynamic group chat with their friends, their brains will often be over-stimulated.
“What happens then, is when they come off the screen, they are trying to discharge cortisol, the stress hormone that’s built up in their body and that’s why we often get them being physically aggressive when they come off the screen. We often get very moody, broody behaviour. It’s just their body’s way of trying to discharge the cortisol.”
PARENT TIP – If the weather permits, get children out in nature. When in nature, the pre-frontal cortex switches off and physical play activates the default mode network. The physical activity will release feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
It might sound like odd timing if your child is protesting about ending screen time, but Dr Kristy says loving physical touch can defuse techno tantrums.
“Physically touching your child or cuddling them helps their brain release oxytocin, which is the bonding or the love hormone. It is impossible to stay angry with someone when they are touching you,” Dr Kristy says.
PARENT TIP – Try using gentle persuasion, along with the touch with suggestions like: “Let’s give your brain a break,” OR “I’ve made a delicious fruit smoothie; it’s waiting for you on the bench.”
Rather than giving children a time limit, they often respond better to a quantity or an end point. Dr Kristy explains that children under the age of eight, don’t have a conceptual understanding of time, so it is completely abstract to try to understand what half an hour or an hour is.
“Even if they do understand time, app developers and game developers have worked very strategically, to get our young people into what we call the state of flow, with hypnotic, repetitive background music, so even if they do understand what half an hour is, they feel like they’ve only been on for two minutes!”
PARENT TIP – Give children quantity instead of a time limit: For example, “You can get to Level 7 on the game,” … “You can watch two episodes,” … “You can have three battles.” If they do understand time, set the timer so that they do understand to turn it off at that point.
So next time you are faced with a techno meltdown, try one or two of these strategies. Dr Kristy believes total abstinence or tech bans are not practical. After all, kids need to learn to engage with and manage technology in their everyday lives, but her tips on how to use technology ‘intentionally’ and disconnect from devices to create more mindful moments, will help your family move from meltdowns to digital wellbeing.
If you’d like to hear more, listen in to our latest podcast – Gen Digital: Helping kids thrive in an online world ~ with Dr Kristy Goodwin