It feels like the pandemic has turned life into one giant screen. Our phones, tablets, TVs, and computers are used all day for work, school, socializing, entertainment, and escape. All of us have seen an increase in the need and desire to stare at a screen, our kids included.
The topic of screen time is a polarizing discussion between the families who have strict rules and those who have loose ones. Most of us can agree, though, that since social distancing started, screen time has increased for each family — no matter where you fall on the acceptable-screen-time spectrum.
My own kids have loved the extra screen time since the pandemic canceled everything. But one of my twins has a particularly hard time coming off of screens, and on some days the screaming and her manic behavior after the tablet or television is turned off is not worth it. I set clear reminders about cut-off times and give warnings as that time approaches. The consequence of intense outbursts is a loss of screen time the next time she is allowed to be on. Nothing seems to help, and I’m at a loss on how to help her transition to screen-free undertakings.
Because of this, I can’t help but wonder — now that kids are binging on Netflix, Disney+, or spending hours at a time playing video games or doing homework online, is too much digital intake a problem? Like all polarizing questions, the answer is somewhere in the middle. The answer also depends on each child and on the type of screen time.
The pandemic and need to physically distance ourselves from friends and activities we love has created a breeding ground for adults and kids alike to feel more depressed, hopeless, agitated, and tired. Turning to our favorite shows and apps makes us feel better because our brain produces dopamine when we binge-watch episode after episode. Delaney Ruston, MD, is a physician and creator of Screenagers, a film that shows the risks of screen time for young people and explores ways to use social media and screen time in healthy ways. She talked to Dr. Clifford Sussman, MD, who is a child and adolescent psychiatrist; Dr. Sussman focuses on internet and video game addiction, treatment, and education. He, like other experts, explains that it’s not just the amount of time that is spent staring at a screen, but on the type of screen time content and what it does to our brains.
In an interview with Dr. Ruston, Dr. Sussman explains that screen time can be seen in terms of being a high vs. low dopamine producing activity. High dopamine screen time includes scrolling social media, playing video games, or getting lost in shows. We experience a constant flow of dopamine which feeds a constant state of gratification or feeling high. In the interview, Dr. Sussman explains, “If your brain gets bombarded continuously by dopamine, you start to develop a tolerance to it — meaning the intensity of good feelings decreases.” We can feel this from drugs, food, and sex too, which is why addiction is often talked about when we see our kids spending a lot of time on screens.
This is part of the debate about screens even among credible medical sources. The World Health Organization (WHO) added “gaming disorder” to its International Classification of Diseases in 2018, yet the American Psychiatry Association’s DSM-5 manual, the DSM-5 did not.
Dr. Ruston tells Scary Mommy, “Addiction really means that they are experiencing some types of significant negative consequences from their tech use—such that they are no longer doing their school work, they have really lost relationships-such that they don’t talk with family and have very few friends.”
If kids are constantly worried about their time away from screens and are obsessively thinking about it, then an intervention may be needed. But spending a lot of time gaming or socializing with friends online does not necessary mean they’re isolating themselves, or have a problem navigating social and emotional situations.
Taking screens away from our kids during a pandemic is either not possible because of schoolwork, or not fair because of the importance of staying socially connected. But the balance needs to come in the form of breaks and mixing in low dopamine activities. Taking a break from screens allows our brains’ dopamine receptors to return to their “normal” levels. The longer we are doing high dopamine gaming, the longer it takes for our brains to regulate. Examples of low dopamine activities without screens are baking, free play, or board games. Low dopamine screen time includes doing homework or reading or practicing a skill using an educational website or app that forces a student to be engaged and thinking critically and creatively. These low dopamine activities result in a slower or delayed gratification, but can still be enjoyable.
Drs. Sussman and Randy Kulman Ph.D. of Psychology Today reassure parents and caregivers that these are unusual times. Excess screen time is serving many purposes. It’s almost impossible to not have the day filled with more screen time than usual, but we should check in with kids to be sure they’re responsibly using screens. And we need to be sure their brains are getting time to recover between high dopamine activities. Otherwise, our kids are likely to be cranky and miserable to be around when not watching shows or playing video games. Dr. Sussman calls this the “residual effect” of binging on high dopamine screen time.
So to help combat my kid’s resistance to being off the screen, I’m going to be more mindful of the content she is consuming, and build in opportunities for more engaged and low dopamine activities. I am also going to take Dr. Ruston’s reminder to praise my daughter when she does turn off the screen without a fight: “Point out and praise whatever small steps they are able to do.”
Another approach, recommended by clinical psychologist Isabelle Filliozat, is to help kids bridge the gap back to reality. Sitting next to your child and making them aware of your presence, and of the real world, helps bring them back to the present. By asking your child questions about the show they are watching or asking them to show you what game they’re playing, you are creating a connection with your child that is more interesting than the screen — and padding the effects of those lowered dopamine levels. I tried it today and it seemed to help, but tomorrow (and all of the days into the foreseeable future) will provide another opportunity to test this approach.
Digital binging is part of our life right now, but it doesn’t mean our kids are in danger or that our lives have to be miserable. We’re simply adjusting to a “new normal” where everything is different than before — even screen time.