This week on the blog I am thrilled to have Dr Kristy Goodwin sharing her expertise on why your child’s brain is wired to have techno tantrums. Kristy is a leading children’s technology and development expert, author, speaker and consultant (and mum who also has to wrangle her smartphone from her toddler!). She helps parents ditch the techno-guilt + raise happy, healthy kids who thrive online and offline. Kristy and I are certainly on the same page when it comes to helping parents raise kids today. We are both passionate about giving a realistic understanding of the challenges faced by parents today whilst ensuring our kids are getting the very best that the technology has to offer. Kristy’s focus on the healthy brain development of young kids and her extensive research in this area allows her to help parents use technology without the guilt. She has also just released her new book Raising your child in a digital world. Techno tantrums are something that many kids experience (as do many adults), so I have sought Kristy’s advice to help explain some of the science behind the techno tantrum.
Over to Dr Kristy……
So why do our otherwise, well-adjusted children emotionally combust when we ask them to switch off digital devices? It’s the same reason why we, as adults, find it so difficult to put our smartphone down. Our brains are undergoing neurobiological changes on screens.
Our children have formed a strong digital dependence because their brains undergo neurobiological changes when they use technology. It sounds dramatic (and a little scary if we pause and think about this), but we’re just beginning to understand the impact of growing up in a tsunami of screens. Thanks to advances in neuroscience and developmental science and emerging research on the physical and psychological impact of technology, we’re gaining a more comprehensive picture of our digital infatuation.
Why do our kids find it so hard to switch off devices? And no, they don’t have techno-tantrums to simply infuriate or embarrass us.
When our kids are throwing techno-tantrums (and it’s usually at the most inconvenient of times and places) their brains are having neurobiological response. If we can appreciate why they behave in this way we’re better equipped to deal with, or even prevent techno-tantrums (and no, there isn’t an app that can prevent the techno-tantrum…yet!).
There are four key changes that occur in the brain that can account for techno-tantrums (and also explain why we find it so hard to unplug from our devices too):
Screens cause structural and functional changes in the brain (but don’t be alarmed because we know that all experiences, be they with or without a screen, cause changes in brain architecture). However, screens, with their sensory seductions and rewards can have a rather dramatic impact on the developing brain.
Studies have shown that certain reward pathways and regions of the brain are activated when using screens*. When children use screens it’s usually a pleasurable experience so the neurotransmitter dopamine is activated. Their brains are secreting dopamine and the reward pathways in their brain are activated. The subsequent feelings of enjoyment motivates them to want to continue doing particular activities that elicit such feelings. Whilst these studies have not examined young children’s brain activity when using screens (for ethical reasons), based on what the developmental science tells us, it’s highly probable that we’d see similar results.
So when we ask kids to switch off devices, we’re terminating their supply of dopamine and this is why children often appear frustrated, angry and irritable after they’ve been ‘screening’. They’re having dopamine withdrawals.
Tip- Offer your child appealing transition activities to entice them off the screen. Demanding that they shut the laptop and go and do their homework is not an appealing transition activity. Give them a choice of 2-3 different activities that you know that they like, so that their dopamine supply isn’t completely terminated when they unplug.
- Disrupted state of flow–
When children are engrossed in an online activity (for example, playing Minecraft or watching funny episodes of TV, or watching an intriguing part in a movie) they enter the ‘psychological state of flow’. Csikszentmihalyi coined this term to describe how we can become so engrossed and immersed in a task that we lose track of time. When children expend a significant amount of mental effort, like they often do when gaming, or creating content on computers, they often enter the state of flow.
When we walk in the room and demand that they switch off the movie, or finish playing Minecraft, we’re literally disrupting their flow state. They’re often left feeling frustrated and as a result the techno-tantrum erupts.
Tip– Give your child ample warnings before their screen time will end. Only use time warnings if your child’s old enough to understand the abstract concept of time (for example, telling a 3 year-old that they have five more minutes of TV is meaningless because time is such an abstract concept for young children under around 6 years of age). Make sure that you make eye contact with your child to ensure that they’ve actually heard you because chances are that they’re so engrossed with their online activity, that they may not actually hear you when you give them a verbal warning. “Yeah Mum!” is often a default, generic response our kids give when we bark orders at them.
- State of insufficiency-
The online world causes children to feel like they’re never finished. There’s always one more episode to watch, or another level in a game that they can reach, or another app to play. We never feel like we’re complete in the online world, as there’s no finish line. Unlike a book that has a final chapter, or a Lego set where there’s a sense of completion, we don’t ever get that feeling of satiation or satisfaction in the digital world. There’s always more digital seductions enticing them.
This is tricky to manage with children because we struggle with this too as adults (raising my guilty digital hand to say that I find it hard to go to bed without one final check of my inbox because I know there’s always something else I can look at).
Tip- We need to establish and enforce firm boundaries around screen-time. We need to impose a finish line for our kids. We need to have firm rules around how long they can use devices and then stick to these rules (even when they combust into the techno-tantrum because over time these will diminish if we’re consistent with our rules). We need to have these conversations about rules before the device is switched on.
- Brain is primed for novelty-
The prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for managing children’s impulses and some of their other higher-order thinking skills, has a novelty bias. It’s always seeking novel information and stimulus. The prefrontal cortex is under constant threat in the digital world as it’s continually bombarded by the sensory smorgasbord the online world offers. However, the developing brain is not yet wired to cope with this constant onslaught of information (actually this part of the brain isn’t fully developed until their twenties).
The offline world simply doesn’t offer this constant state of novelty and interest. Time in nature is a lot slower paced and doesn’t offer the immediate rewards and pleasure that the online world provides.
Tip– Balance your child’s screen-time and green-time. Provide plenty of unplugged time in nature each day where they don’t use screens. This will ensure that their brains become accustomed to the slower pace and not conditioned on the constant rewards that the online world offers.
By far the most effective, but also the most difficult thing to implement when it comes to dealing with techno-tantrums, is modelling healthy technology habits ourselves as parents. We need to show them the value in unplugging. We also need to establish firm rules about technology before devices are switched on and remember to balance their screen-time with green-time.
Like every other stage of your child’s development (the sleepless nights, the food refusal, the back-chatting…the list could go on) this too will pass, as long as you’re consistent.
Kristy is the author of Raising Your Child in a Digital World, where she arms parents with facts, not fears about what kids really need to thrive in the digital world. The dreaded ‘techno-tantrum’ is a relatively new phenomenon that many modern parents are enduring… often on a regular basis. The term ‘techno-tantrum’ describes children’s tantrum-like behaviour that results when children are asked to switch off the iPad, or shut the lid on the laptop. Sadly, techno-tantrums aren’t restricted to toddlers. Some adolescents and adults also have techno-tantrums too.
You can get a copy of Kristy’s book here
*Lin, F., Zhou, Y., Du, Y., Qin, L., Zhao, Z., Xu, J., & Lei, H. (2012). Abnormal white matter integrity in adolescents with internet addiction disorder: a tract-based spatial statistics study. PloS one, 7(1), e30253.
Small, G. W., Moody, T. D., Siddarth, P., & Bookheimer, S. Y. (2009). Your brain on Google: patterns of cerebral activation during internet searching. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 17(2), 116-126.