Supporting Children Through Screen Withdrawal

You know the scene. Your ordinarily sweet, happy, agreeable (or mostly, anyway) offspring turns into a whining, screaming mess when you tell them screen time is over. 

We’ve all been there. And we all know that setting healthy screen limits is in our children’s best interest. But the pushback we face when we try to set or enforce those limits can weaken the resolve of even the most determined among us. 

Understanding Screen Withdrawal

When your child pitches a fit about screen time ending, they aren’t being difficult for the sake of being difficult (although it can certainly feel like that in the moment). It turns out there’s a scientific explanation for this familiar screen time woe.

Screen time, like other pleasurable activities, releases dopamine, sometimes called the “feel good hormone.” When screen time ends, dopamine levels drop, and a child may experience withdrawal. Experts say this experience can feel painful to children. 

The younger the child, the less they have developed the skills to regulate their emotions and navigate transitions, further leading to breakdowns and tantrums when screen time is over. 

How to Limit Digital Device Meltdowns

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to minimize the tantrums when screen time is over. 

1. Set Realistic Goals 

If you’re looking to reduce your child’s overall screen time, don’t do it all at once. Small reductions in screen time will be easier for them to handle and more likely to lead to new habits that stick. 

Rather than jumping right to your end goal, start by reducing screen time by one-third or one-half and work downward from there. 

For example, if your child spends four hours a day on screens, aim to cut it back to about three-and-a-half hours. After a few days or weeks, cut it back to two hours.

2. Be Transparent, Predictable, and Consistent

It’s never too young to start teaching your children digital literacy. Explain the reason for your screen time limits to your child in terms that match their age. For a toddler or preschooler, it could be as simple as saying, “It’s good for your brain to also do things that aren’t on screens.” As children get older, you can go into more detail. 

Children thrive on routines. Allowing screens at the same time each day will help them know what to expect and be better able to adjust to limits.

3. Stick to Established Screen Time Limits

If your child learns that you occasionally give in to their begging for extra screen time, they will continue to beg each time in the hopes that you’ll cave again. If you need to give extra screen time — say, when your child is home sick and you’re on a deadline at work — explain your reasons and let them know it's a temporary change. 

How to Ease the Transition When Screen Time is Up

There are things you can do to help your child transition from screen time to the next activity and minimize the chances of an outburst. 

Help them plan something fun to do after screen time

Before your child starts using screens, have them decide what they want to do after screen time is over. Give your child something to look forward to, whether it’s their favorite snack or a trip to the park. Your child’s dependence on screens may have caused them to lose interest in other activities they previously enjoyed, so you may need to suggest some activities at first. Over time, they’ll rediscover old interests — or develop new ones — and start to need your ideas less and less. 

Give countdown warnings

Giving periodic time checks can be helpful in preparing your child to transition away from screen time. 

Experts suggest involving your child in the process of countdown warnings to help minimize power struggles by giving them some control in the matter. They can help choose at what increments to receive warnings and set the timer themselves.

Pay attention to timing

Avoid ending screen time in the middle of a show or at the pivotal point of a game. This will only increase your child’s frustration at being told it’s time to stop. 

One way to do this is to set screen limits by the number of show episodes instead of a time limit.

If your child’s screen time involves a game that requires wrapping up (getting back to base in Minecraft, for example), their final countdown warning might need to include a gentle reminder to begin that process. 

Final thoughts

Screen time withdrawal is real and takes time and effort to work through. Habits don’t change overnight. Be patient with your child (and yourself!). By being intentional and starting small, you’ll be well on your way to a healthier digital balance in your household. 

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