Raising Your Child in a Digital World:

Finding a healthy balance of time online without techno tantrums and conflict

Why your child can’t switch off screens

Home » Parents » Why kids can’t turn off screens

Why kids can’t turn off screens

Techno-tantrums- most of us have experienced the dreaded techno-tantrum with our kids.  This is when our otherwise well-adjusted child (not just a toddler) emotionally combusts when we ask for our smartphone to be handed back, or the TV to be switched off.

Today’s children often have digital appendages. They’re often clutching (our) smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles or remote controls.  And when we ask for our device back, or the TV to be switched off they can burst into tears and sometimes even fits of rage.

So many parents often begin to fret and start to contemplate:  Is my child addicted to technology? Is all this time with screens causing adverse effects for my child?


In most instances they’re not addicted. Sometimes they’ve formed some unhealthy screen habits and a dependence on technology. You see when kids are using screens their brains are undergoing some neurobiological and this can cause behavioural changes (the techno-tantrum is often the result). They simply haven’t learnt how to deal with these new emotions in appropriate ways and this is why the emotional outbursts and raging monsters often emerge when we ask them to unplug.


So why do our kids find it so difficult to switch off from technology?


It’s often reassuring to hear that techno-tantrums are a ‘normal’ part of a child’s development.  And they’re not necessarily restricted to toddlerhood, as is expected for ‘regular’ tantrums.


So I want to let you know what’s actually going on inside your child’s brain and body when we ask them to switch off gadgets. They’re not necessarily being defiant or trying to upset you as a parent, their brains are simply having a neurobiological response.

Why is it so difficult for them to unplug?

Below I share the four main reasons why it’s so hard for your child to turn off technology (hint hint, as adults we’re not immune to these responses either and this is why we’re often checking social media one last time before bed, or jumping into our inbox first thing in the morning):


// Dopamine- When we use technology there are structural and functional changes in the brain. According to brain imaging studies that have investigated Internet addiction (Lin & Zhou et al, 2012) it’s clear that certain pathways are activated. It’s important to note that these studies have not examined young children’s brain activity when using screens, so we’re not certain that the exact same results would be found with young children (although it’s highly probable we would).


However, we do know that the neurotransmitter dopamine is associated with the ‘pleasure system’ of the brain. It provides feelings of enjoyment motivates us to do, or continue doing, particular activities. When young children use screens, it’s highly likely (although not proven at this point in time) that their reward pathways in their brain are activated.


So when we ask them to switch off devices, we’re also terminating their supply of dopamine.


// Disrupted state of flowHave you ever had a day at work, or perhaps even a few hours in the garden where you lost complete track of time? If so, you’ve entered what Csikszentmihalyi referred to as the ‘psychological state of flow’.


The same thing can happen to children when they’re engrossed in an online activity. Perhaps they’re immersed in a video game, watching an intriguing part of a movie, or crafting something special in Minecraft. When they’re engrossed in an online activity, especially if they’re expending a significant amount of mental effort, they often enter the state of flow. This is where time seems to stand still and they are completely immersed in what they’re doing.

This state of flow is disrupted when they’re asked to switch off a screen and and they’re often left feeling frustrated as a result. Hence, the techno-tantrum results.


// State of insufficiency- the online world has no finish line. There’s no full stop. We can’t read the last chapter and shut it like we can with a book.  The online world is infinite. And so we never really feel like we’re ‘done’. Our inbox will only momentarily stay ‘empty’ and the scrolling online is endless.  


Our children also face similar dilemmas. When they’re online, there’s often no clear finish point. There’s always one more episode that they could watch on TV, or another app to entice them.


This is tricky to manage with children because we struggle with this too as adults (raising my guilty digital hand to say that I find it hard to close my Facebook app because I know there’s always something else I can look at).


So with kids, we need to impose a finish line for them. We need to have firm rules around how long they can use devices and then stick to these rules (even when they combust into the techno-tantrum because over time these will diminish if we’re consistent with our rules). And most importantly we need to have these conversations about rules before the device is switched on.


// Brain is primed for novelty- the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for managing our impulses and some of our other higher-order thinking skills, has a novelty bias. This means that it is wired for novelty and the online world offers an endless supply of sensory seductions that cater to this novelty. And so our kids (and us too) can get caught in the “compulsion loop”, where we constantly scan for new information.


This is one of the main parts of the brain that’s required to manage our attention, but it’s being constantly bombarded by a sensory smorgasbord offered by the digital world. This means that it’s easy for our focus and attention to be hijacked by something new or different that we see on a screen.  The online world offers continual sensory stimulus, especially for our kids because their prefrontal cortex is not yet developed (and actually isn’t fully developed until their twenties).


For example, children can play an app and then touch the home button and instantly launch into another app, whilst watching TV and listening to music. The sensory appeal is endless. So their desire for novelty is easily and constantly met in the digital world, but they often don’t have the cognitive skills to deal with the onslaught of digital seductions vying for their attention. And their brains like seeking novel information and stimulus and therefore, it’s ever so hard for them to switch off.


We also know that time in the offline world doesn’t offer the same levels or types of novelty. Nature doesn’t offer the same type of sensory stimulation that the online world offers- it’s much slower! So the novelty factor is yet another reason why kids are often captivated by the online world and find it difficult to switch off.

// Overloaded nervous and sensory systems- Techno-tantrums may also result because screen-time often overloads kids’ sensory and nervous systems. The online world is often fast-paced with lots of sensory seductions and this can cause a hyper-aroused state, especially in young boys. So when kids turn off a screen, their nervous system and sensory systems are trying to regulate and the techno-tantrum can often result.

So what can we do? 


In a future blog post I’m going to share simple ways to prevent the likelihood of techno-tantrums. I don’t have a fail-proof system but I do have some simple strategies that can minimise the likelihood of your child turning into a screaming monster when asked to switch off the TV.


In the meantime, I suggest establishing firm rules about technology before the devices are switched on and remember to balance their screen-time with green-time. Also, understand that like every other stage of your child’s development (the sleepless nights, the food refusal, the talking back…the list could go on) this too will pass, as long as you’re consistent with your expectations. Good luck!


In the comments below, I’d love to know how you’ve coped with techno-tantrums in your house.


I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

DK – Mockup Quiz

How digitally dependant and distracted are you?



SSPP – Logo-01

Where empowered parents and carers find peace of mind in the digital age.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *