After our longest round of lockdowns yet, parents everywhere are celebrating as our kids are settling back into school to finish term four. But after a challenging few months of trying to juggle work and school, reliance on technology has increased and our kids are using screens more than ever, affecting their digital wellbeing.
In this article, I’ll take you through the impacts of how a ‘digital hangover’ might be affecting your kids, as well as some actionable strategies you can implement to set the tone for the upcoming school holidays to reduce techno-tantrums and keep the peace.
What is a digital hangover?
You’re probably familiar with the effects of a digital hangover from previous lockdowns and school holidays; kids asking for their devices non-stop, unenthused about any other off-screen activity (even ones they used to love). If you’ve got moody, agitated kids (and teens) who are glued to their screen and get even more-so if you try to take it away, you’ll be familiar with the constant arguments about the amount of time they are spending on their digital devices.
It feels like a constant loop of bad moods, FOMO (fear of missing out from online gaming platforms and social media), and the constant presence of a digital appendage that goes everywhere with them. It’s a significant source of stress for many families and with homeschooling normalising the increased use of screens, tech habits and hangovers are something we need to address.
Why are our kids experiencing this?
There are a number of reasons why your child might have trouble weaning the screen and integrating other hobbies into their routine.
It’s become routine
Technology has found a place in our everyday routine, now more than ever. We rely on it for everything from remote learning and working, to asking it to turn off our lights and give us the news while we make coffee. These repeated habits can form mental grooves in our brain and for kids who have spent more time on tech than ever in the last few months, it makes sense that they are naturally inclined to maintain those neural pathways.
The issue lies with the dopamine-driven feedback loop that is often associated with tech use (such as social media and connection to peers online). These are the hardest habits to break because they meet basic psychological needs like social connection and dopamine reinforces the habit, creating a cycle of digital dependence.
Tech is the stop gap
Put it this way; games, social media and other device-related activity is the perfect socially-distanced activity. With the suspension of extracurricular activities, sports, after school activities and other significant disruptions to regular routine events our kids would usually be undertaking, they had to fill their time with something.
Sending the kids outside for a few hours a day in the absence of the usual activities seems like the most obvious plan of attack, right? Well, whilst many of us have been lucky enough to have access to outdoor activities during lockdown periods, this is something that hasn’t been possible for all given health, demographic, location and parental supervision. Further to this our kids are trying to navigate a period of social isolation from friendship groups and peers, and using technology platforms has allowed them to interact with their mates to help them stay connected to a sense of normality; something they may find hard to give up.
Regardless of how old you are, your brain craves predictability. The comfort of engaging in predictable tech behaviours may have offered kids some solace during stressful times. Young kids may not have the emotional vocabulary to convey their feelings, but given that their entire routine and daily structures have been turned on their heads multiple times in the past 20 months, it’s likely that these periods of isolation and home learning have been stressful for some young people, even if they haven’t told us so. Their daily dose of digital may have provided them with the rhythm and routines they hankered for (and want to hold on to).
What are the effects of a digital hangover?
Aside from moods, difficult conversations and fights, there are also health implications for an increased reliance on technology.
w21, in the JAMA Ophthalmol Journal found that the prevalence of myopia, or near-sightedness, in Chinese children rose significantly during the COVID lockdown. The study involved 123 000 school children aged 6 to 8 years of age who were confined to home isolation during the COVID pandemic in 2020.
In six-year-olds, the prevalence of short-sightedness was approximately three times higher in 2020 than in 2015 to 2019, representing an almost 400% increase. For seven-year-olds it was two times higher in 2020 or a 200% increase, and for those children who were aged eight, it was 1.4 times higher, representing a 40% increase.
Screen related meltdowns
If you’re wondering why it seems so much harder to take away screen time after a long lockdown, there’s a good reason. As I mentioned earlier, increased screen time provides a positive feedback loop, releasing dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter). Everytime kids reinforce the habit, they need more stimulus for a dopamine release.
According to research conducted by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health into Children’s Wellbeing, increased screen time can cause deregulation of the serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitter pathways in the developing brain which means when we try to take away or reduce screen time, our kids can experience dopamine withdrawals. As a result, given their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, they lack the ability to self-regulate their emotions resulting in meltdowns, outbursts and resistance.
During the pandemic, many students themselves identified feeling ‘tired, but wired’. It’s been suggested that increased time spent with screens, especially in the evening, has not only delayed the onset of sleep because of blue light exposure, but has also resulted in shorter deep and REM sleep stages of the sleep cycle: both of which are critical for emotional regulation and memory consolidation.
Research has confirmed that good quality and quantity of sleep is vital for overall physical health and mental wellbeing. Research from the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne Child Health Poll suggested that 35% of children had changes in their sleeping habits during the pandemic, with 15% of children having more difficulty falling asleep and those children who reported a change in sleep (either more or less sleep, or difficulties falling asleep) were more likely to report having a negative impact on their mental health than those with no changes in sleep behaviours.
Slippery slope to sedentary lifestyles
As a result of an increased reliance on digital technologies, for both learning and leisure, many children and teens’ physical activity levels declined. Student self-reports, family anecdotes and data from the COVID-19 Pandemic: Effects on the Lives of Australian Children and Families report indicated that 42% of Australian children and adolescents have done less exercise during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, the data also indicated that children who were reported to be less physically active during the pandemic were more likely to be spending more time on screens (69%) compared to those who were reported to have no change or an increase in physical activity (38%).
Again, optimal physical health and mental wellbeing rely on adequate levels of physical movement. The displacement effect of movement can have significant impacts on children’s and teens’ academic performance, sleep, focus and mood.
How to Wean the Screen
Operate, don’t amputate
If there’s one thing we know for sure, ‘digital amputation’ isn’t the answer. Trying to take a device off a teenager and telling them to go cold turkey is neither sustainable long term nor good for your family’s wellbeing.
Instead, set some guidelines and boundaries around screen use in your household. This can include everything from time on a platform or app to rituals around how long before bedtime screens are down. Involving your kids and teens in these conversations is the best way and you’ll find you have more success if you’re willing to give a little ground. Establish a digital plan together and reward positive behaviour.
Availability of technology, lack of extra curricular activities and parents juggling home schooling (and work) has resulted in what we can effectively term a ‘digital buffet’ for our kids. They’ve been consuming as much as they want, when they want for as long as they can and their digital appetites have increased.
What we need to do as parents is get our kids used to an a la carte menu again; introduce them to smaller portions of technology, get them using their knives and forks to enjoy what they are consuming in a ‘quality over quantity’ approach.
Present the facts
Our kids and teens today are incredibly discerning; they understand and seek fact-based information perhaps more than any generation before them. Feel free to take this article to them; the statistics around short sightedness and the phenomenon of the dopamine feedback loop. By explaining why tech is having such a profound impact on their daily lives through neuroscience, it might help you to form a plan together to help them detox and reduce their consumption.
Get back to basics
For more information on how Dr Kristy can support you in setting realistic digital boundaries with your kids and teens, view my site for more resources or get your school involved in a Digital Wellbeing Plan (launching in 2022). Just get in touch with my team to find out more.