I can’t get my teen off the screen

Many parents are noticing that after a period of screen time, children are often irritable and moody, short tempered and foul. And it’s not just with small children – we notice this with adolescents and even adults. Most agree: “Screen time equals scream time”. And the longer the screen time, the worse the meltdown.

Why is my teen addicted to the screen?

Kristy Goodwin, a researcher into the affects 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. 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.

Today’s screen time presents a different dilemma to those we have faced in past generations. Previously, we could become bored with what is on offer, making it easier to peel away from the TV. The favourite show would last a certain time and then something else comes on that is less desirable. It gave a natural brain break, so it would be an opportunity to divert to other activities. And 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. So we not only battle the unconscious bias of the brain, but the complicated dance of independence and individuation. It’s the perfect formula for a teen-sized tantrum – everytime.

“It’s like taking a half-eaten lolly away from a toddler. I’ve got a taste of the good stuff and now you want to take it away!”

Preventing a nuclear melt-down

Navigating the challenges of screen time and limiting the melt down 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 just help with the melt-down:

  • Agree the rules in advance – Before screen time begins, it is critical to agree on the rules. 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!
  • Negotiate the rules, resist arbitrary confines – During the teen years, our parent style is forced to change. While younger children need us to choose for them, teenagers want choice. Negotiation becomes a necessary skill when dealing with teens, and working out screen time is a prime example. Ask your teenager how long they think is suitable. Allow some back and forth. “Oh, so you think 2 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? Afterall, I’m halfway through my glass of wine. Is it worth it? If you fail to enforce the rules, they mean nothing. The whole idea of negotiating goes out the window. It’s all just lip service and you’re back to the drawing board. 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. Latest findings show that over 60% of 16 year olds are going to bed after 11pm, and the #1 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. By asking family members to place their device in a common place at an agreed time, we prevent them browsing for hours and hours while they should be sleeping. Being strict at the beginning will make it easier to maintain

    TIP: Join in the phone curfew yourself. Read Interview: How a phone curfew changed our lives”
  • 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 6:30pm every evening, family members know that this is “just what we do”. The fight and backlash is quashed as our response is quite calm and consistent… “This is what our family does together.” Perhaps it is setting a homework hour before the screen time. So they know that we come home and get our chores and homework out of the way, and then if it’s all done, the reward is screen time.

It’s the same with other activities. Teenagers may not be the initiators for a family bushwalk or a pattern of exercise. So it may be up to you to create some routines as a family unit. Decide in advance that on Tuesday and Thursday’s, we go bike riding together before dinner; or that each Sunday afternoon, we explore a new bushwalk or waterhole together. The rhythm will be serve your agenda to get teens off screens and engaged in real world activities.

By Dan Hardie, teen therapist & creator of the MyStrengths Assessment

Referenced: Kristy Goodwin is a children’s technology and brain researcher and the director of Every Chance to Learn.


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Dan Hardie

Dan Hardie

Dan is a counsellor and the founder of MyStrengths

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