What can I do to cut screen time without the tantrums?

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Switch off the smartphone, or take away the tablet – and cue the tech tantrum.
Switch off the smartphone, or take away the tablet – and cue the tech tantrum.

After a long day of work and parenting, all you need is five minutes to yourself. So, you switch on the TV or tablet and get a (kid-friendly) show going.

Yup, having a little one brings new meaning to "Netflix and chill" – giving your child something to watch gives you some much-needed breathing room. But you know how the saying goes, too much of a good thing…

Drawn to the glow

Eyes wide open and shut off from the world, children and toddlers assume a zombie-like expression when they’re watching something. And there’s a reason why children are drawn to the glaring glow of a smartphone or tablet like a moth to a flame – the technology and devices we use today are inherently addictive.

"Dopamine – a hormone that, among other functions, is associated with feelings of euphoria, motivation and concentration – has a huge role to play in us being addicted to screens," explains Jeanine Lamusse, a clinical psychologist based in Joburg.

"The amount of dopamine released while playing video games, for example, is comparable to the amount released during sex. It has been compared to the effects of cocaine, as screens and games bring about the same neurological changes in the brain as what we see in addiction."

"There are also similar brain changes to other psychological illnesses brought about in children, and we would see these in ADHD, autism and schizophrenia."

While we do live in a digital world, and it's nigh-on impossible to keep our kids away from it, exposure to smartphones and other tech devices have far-reaching side effects.

Read: Toddlers missing milestones due to too much screen time

"Smartphones and media in general also impact our nervous system. The variety of sensory information phones and media provide overstimulate our nervous systems," Jeanine explains.

"And the same is true for your child. Our brains can only take so much stimulation, and after they’ve reached capacity, our fight or flight, or stress/trauma response system, goes into overdrive."

"This continuous 'high' of endorphins and adrenaline is addictive. Simply put, once we reach this natural capacity, the fight or flight system gives us the energy and resources we need to deal with the activity at hand. We later 'crash' to restore our depleted resources, but in that way crave another fix of energy and endorphins – and so the cycle continues."

Jeanine says she has seen parents battling with the repercussions of their children not being able to regulate their emotions, fall asleep at night or sleep properly. Also, she adds, children whose nervous systems respond more sensitively to sensation or sensory input tend to become dysregulated and present with anything from anxiety and depression to behavioural issues.

But our kids aren't spending that much time glued to a screen, are they? Well, last year's Healthy Active Kids South Africa Report Card, which reflects the physical and nutritional health of children in the country, shows that in one of the contexts, more than 90 percent of infants and toddlers exceed screen-time guidelines.

According to the latest screen-time guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO), children under one should not be exposed to screens at all, which includes watching videos or TV and playing on phones or computers. For kids between the ages of two and five, the WHO recommends an absolute maximum of an hour per day.

Also read: Nannies on the frontlines in war on screentime

"I have found 20 minutes per day for preschoolers during school weeks to be the upper limit of what is recommended. For school-going children, 30 minutes at the most, and one hour per day for adults – this is confounded by the fact that we generally work with computers that play on the same systems," says Jeanine.

"For children, whose brains are still developing, these limits are pivotal, as limiting digital stimuli has a positive impact on their ability to play and learn how to regulate their emotions."

Additionally, explains Jeanine, violent games or shows have shown a strong relationship to increased aggressive behaviour – even after small doses of exposure.

"I have found that many parents find their kids are more emotionally contained if they don't watch any TV during the week. But, don't ban it altogether, as there is an amount of social development that happens in being able to share anecdotes from their viewing with peers, and some intellectual development with exposure to useful media content."

Taming the tech tantrum

Switch off the smartphone, or take away the tablet – and cue the tech tantrum. Because our access to technology is so easy, and our children are growing up in a digital world, it's very difficult for little ones to stop using it.

TV viewing had something going for it, after all – it taught us that programming was finite, and ad breaks provided relief for our overstimulated brains. Not so in the age of on-demand viewing.

Remember that addictive flight or fight cycle created from overstimulation? "Some children are grumpy even when it is taken away with a warning – you have taken away their ‘drug’, and they are now left spent and without the resources to cope," Jeanine explains. So, what can you do to cut the screen time without the tantrums?

Set a limit

Try to curb watching to the guidelines above, even if it means using an app that turns your device off automatically after a set period of use. As Jeanine says, it is amazing the difference something as simple as no screens or bright lights an hour before bed can make in a child's behaviour.

Explain to your child beforehand that he can only watch one episode of his favourite show, or that he can only watch for a set period. It might also help to give him a two-minute warning before turn-off time.

Must read: Is your tot addicted to your smartphone?

Creating a routine around viewing is also a good idea, such as switching it off before dinner. Watch what they watch Try to be around while your child is watching something or playing a game.

By vetting their viewing, you're making sure that it is age-appropriate and that they're not being led down any paths you'd rather not see them go down, but also know that your child does not have to be entertained 24/7.

"Boredom is healthy for the brain, as it helps the brain digest all it has not been able to make sense of before and is helpful in self-regulation," Jeanine says.

"A-ha moments usually happen when the mind is quiet, so you do not need to keep your child busy all of the time."

Pick and choose

In the same vein, try to choose shows and games that give your child something more than just pure viewing pleasure – that also aids in their development. "Our brains work in such a way that the nervous pathways we use more regularly are the ones that we are more primed to use moving forward," Jeanine explains.

"In a similar way, what you regularly apply your mind to is what you're wiring pathways for in your brain. So, when choosing media for your child, ask yourself what type of child you want to raise, what values you want them to embody, and choose media that align with that," explains Jeanine.

"Educational apps and games can be very useful for introducing and consolidating certain skills and learning constructs." But she also warns that they could be detrimental to learning so should be used sparingly and withheld completely from children younger than four.

Talk through the tantrum

While no one likes them, tantrums are a normal part of growing up. Instead of disciplining your child for his feelings, rather embrace the tantrum – or rather, the feelings behind it.

"For little kids, labelling the feeling being experienced usually helps them. So, say something like, 'I wonder if you feel a bit disappointed?' or, 'It seems like things are a bit too much right now...'" Jeanine says.

"Then meet them where they're at – let them stomp their frustration out on the grass, scribble it on paper or push on a wall hard. Check in with them to see how they're feeling after that and if there is anything else they feel they may need."

"If they have no ideas, introduce a task that redirects them to a more healthy emotion – like a hug, or to go outside for a swing or jump on the trampoline, for instance."

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