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Techno-tantrums? We’ve got some tips

Child lying on the floor
Credit: iStock.com/Aliaksandr Bukatsich

Parents know that large amounts of screen time aren’t ideal for children, especially when they are young.

At the same time, screen time can be helpful in a child’s development.

Whether it is an app that teaches letter and number recognition or an age-appropriate show or game that gives parents time to make dinner, fold the laundry or clean the house.

However, with screen time comes techno-tantrums.

Dr Kristy Goodwin, digital parenting and wellbeing educator, speaker and researcher says, “a techno-tantrum is a colloquial term to describe when children emotionally-combust and throw a tantrum when you ask them to digitally disconnect and switch off technology”.

“A techno-tantrum also describes the moody, frustrated and sometimes angry behaviour that children exhibit post-screen activity,” she says.

Dr Goodwin assures parents that tantrums after screen time doesn’t necessarily mean your child is addicted to screens.

“Techno-tantrums are considered a ‘typical’ neurobiological response to using technology and not a sign that a child is addicted to technology,” she says.

“It’s important to remember that tantrums are a normal stage of young children’s development.”

Dr Goodwin recommends the following strategies to develop healthy habits for children engaging in screen time and reduce the occurrence of techno-tantrums.

“First, have boundaries: what, when, where, with whom, how and for how long kids can use screens,” she says.

“Second, ensure that screen time doesn’t displace children’s basic needs like relationships, sleep, play and physical activity.

“Third, allow opportunities each week for children to be accustomed to being bored.

“Fourth, balance their online and offline worlds, provide green time and screen time.”

First, have boundaries: what, when, where, with whom, how and for how long kids can use screens. Second, ensure that screen time doesn’t displace children’s basic needs like relationships, sleep, play and physical activity.
Dr Kristy Goodwin

The truth about screen time for under fives

The Australian Department of Health’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines recommend the following sedentary behaviour, which includes screen time use:

For infants and toddlers under two years old, the recommendation is that they should not be restrained for more than one hour at a time (for example: in a pram, car seat or highchair) and should not spend any time watching screens (television included).

For children aged two to five years old, the recommendation is that they should not be restrained for more than one hour at a time (for example: in a pram, car seat or highchair) and should spend no more than one hour per 24 hours watching screens (television included) with less time spent in front of a screen being better.

Dr Goodwin advises that these guidelines can be a good starting point for parents.

“But parents don’t need to strictly adhere to these guidelines,” she says.

“These guidelines haven’t been scientifically validated to confirm that they’re an exact measurement of ‘safe levels’, all kids have different ‘tipping points’.

“Some kids are fine to have half an hour of watching TV or playing the iPad, but for others that thirty minutes may be too much.

“Most Australian families consider these guidelines unrealistic.”

She says that by focusing on the minutes spent in front of a screen, parents could be missing the bigger issues with screen time.

“Whilst how much time kids spend with screens is essential to consider, especially if their online time displaces their developmental priorities, such as physical movement, sleep, play, social interaction, we need more nuanced conversations about screen time and we need to adopt a broader view of screen time,” Dr Goodwin says.

“We must take a broader look and consider what kids are doing with screens: is it age-appropriate, leisure or learning, active or passive?

“When kids are using screens: for example, screen use before naps or sleep can delay the onset of sleep because of the arousal effect and blue light.

“Where kids use screens: parents need to limit the places where kids use digital devices, such as out of bedrooms and away from play spaces.

“How kids use screens: to prevent physical health issues such as myopia, noise-induced hearing loss from incorrect headphone use and musculoskeletal issues from incorrect ergonomic postures adopted when using screens.

“And with whom kids use technology.”

As for whether screen time will damage children, Dr Goodwin says that the main risk with screen time in the early years, particularly under three years old, is “when screen time displaces or compromises the time available for children’s basic developmental priorities to be met”.

The science behind techno-tantrums

“Technology is psychologically appealing for children as they don’t have to exert much cognitive effort and technology is rewarding and pleasurable and also caters for the brain’s desire for novelty,” explains Dr Goodwin.

She says that extensive screen time “causes neurobiological changes to the brain and dysregulates young children’s sensory and nervous systems”.

Dr Goodwin explains that there are five changes in the brain that lead to techno-tantrums in children.

First, “the brain gets flooded with the positive, feel-good neurotransmitter ‘dopamine’,” she says.

“This neurotransmitter hijacks the prefrontal cortex, the logical part of the brain, making it harder for kids to make logical and rational choices.”

Second, technology provides a constant state of novelty and interest, and the brain is wired for new and interesting things.

Third, “children enter a ‘state of flow’, children become so engrossed with what they’re doing they lose track of time”.

Fourth, “children enter a state of insufficiency, where they never feel ‘done’ or complete, there’s always another You Tube clip they can watch, another level they can get to in the game, or another refresh of social media”.

Finally, “children experience hyper-around nervous and sensory systems while using technology.”

“Time on screens often over-stimulates the sensory and nervous systems – the online world is like a sensory smorgasbord – so children need to self-regulate and calm down after using devices.”

“The techno-tantrum is their attempt to regulate themselves by discharging cortisol,” she says.

Dr Goodwin's strategies to help reduce the severity of a techno-tantrum:

  1. Establish and enforce firm guidelines about how long they can use screens.
  2. Focus on quantity not duration – time is an abstract concept for young children, rather than enforcing specific time limits, quantify the number of episodes a child can watch, or the level in the game they can reach.
  3. Use a timer or a clock as your child is much less likely to argue with a smart phone, microwave clock or egg timer.
  4. Give children ample warning that they need to switch off the device before it’s time to switch off.
  5. Encourage young children to switch the device off themselves.
  6. Have an appealing transition activity when you want your child to switch off a device.  Could they jump on the trampoline or ride a bike to give them a hit of dopamine and help with the transition?
  7. When we experience a techno-tantrum after using the tips above, have a direct consequence such as not allowing the same privilege the next day.
  8. Be consistent, even if you can sense your child is on the verge of a techno-tantrum enforce your media rules.

Dr Kristy Goodwin has a free online tool to support parents with screen time use.