Why Screen Time Turns Into Scream Time

15/03/2016 1:49 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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computer addiction, parent taking out touch pad from child

Many modern parents have experienced a 'techno-tantrum': when our otherwise well-adjusted child (not necessarily a toddler) bursts into tears when we ask for our smartphone to be handed over, or the TV to be switched off.

Unfortunately, I don't have a solution (or even an app) that prevents a techno-tantrum, but I want to explain why your child experiences a complete meltdown when they're asked to switch off a screen. This won't prevent the onset of a techno-tantrum, but it will help you to reconcile their behaviour.

It's actually the same reason that we, as adults, find ourselves constantly tethered to our laptop, or distracted by our smartphone at our children's sporting matches and swimming lessons.

The use of screens and gadgets actually causes neurobiological changes in the human brain. It happens in our more mature, well-developed adult brains and it also happens in our children's developing brains.

Why do our little ones become infatuated and obsessed with screens?

Dopamine release

Whenever we do anything pleasurable with technology (whether it's watching funny cat videos on YouTube or looking at lovely pictures on Instagram) our brain releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. Our brains naturally want more and more of this feel-good state, so crave more use of technology.

The same applies to our kids when they're using technology, except many young children are still developing their impulse control skills and self-regulation skills, so their response to being asked to switch off a device is often amplified. In essence, 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.

Brains are novelty seekers

The brain craves novelty and technology offers constant novelty. The digital world offers continual sensory seduction. For example, when using tablet devices children can play an app and then touch the home button and instantly launch into another app. They can be watching YouTube clips and find a menu of other videos that entice them on the right-hand side of the screens. Their desire for novelty is easily and constantly met in an online world.

The prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for managing our impulses and some of our other higher-order thinking skills, has a novelty bias. This means that it's easy for our focus and attention to be hijacked by something new or different that we see on a screen. The prefrontal cortex is one of the main parts of the brain that's required to manage our attention, but it's being constantly bombarded by a sensory smorgasbord offered by the digital world.

Again, children's prefrontal cortex is still developing (and actually isn't fully developed until their twenties), so they may not have the skills to deal with the constant desire for novelty.

Enter the state of flow

Have you ever had a day at work, or perhaps even a few hours in the garden where you lost complete track of time? If so, you've entered what Csikszentmihalyi referred to as the 'psychological state of flow'.

The same thing can happen to children when they're engrossed in an online activity. Perhaps they're immersed in a video game, watching an intriguing part of a movie, or crafting something special in Minecraft. When they're engrossed in an online activity, especially if they're expending a significant amount of mental effort, they often enter the state of flow. This is where time seems to stand still and they are completely immersed in what they're doing. This state of flow is disrupted when they're asked to switch off a screen and and they're often left feeling frustrated as a result. Hence, the techno-tantrum results.

Language skills deficit

For young children, especially toddlers and pre-schoolers whose language are still developing, being asked to switch off the TV can cause an avalanche of emotions. Younger children may not have the language skills to convey their feelings and so a techno-tantrum often results. (This is actually one of the main reasons why we endure the 'dreaded two-year old tantrum' stage).

Developing self-regulation skills

Young children are also still developing their self-regulation and emotional skills and so it's a 'natural' (albeit unpleasant) response for our children to have a techno-tantrum. They haven't yet learnt how to deal with their big emotions, like frustration and boredom and often the techno-tantrum ensues.

Unfortunately, techno-tantrums are a natural part of a child's development. We have to ensure as parents that we have firm parameters around their screen time and minimise our use of screens as a 'digital pacifier'. Otherwise, we're potentially setting our children up for unhealthy screen habits.


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