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Preventing techno-tantrums

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Preventing Techno-Tantrums

Your child screams at you telling you, “You’re the worst mum in the world!” This might be followed by feet-stomping, huffs and puffs, clenched fists, grunting and a host of other (undesirable) behaviours.  And all of this because you simply asked for your iPhone back!


As modern parents, chances are we’ve experienced our children throwing a techno-tantrum.


So does this simply mean that we have to accept techno-tantrums, as a modern parents’ reality? 


As I’ve previously explained, techno-tantrums are completely normal and often a result of the neurobiological changes that occur when kids use technology. But this doesn’t mean that we have to simply accept that they’re part of our modern parenting reality.  


What you need to know about techno-tantrums 


  • You can read more about why kids have techno-tantrums here (and it’s not just to infuriate you);
  • Just because your child doesn’t like handing over your smartphone, or shutting the laptop lid doesn’t mean they’re addicted. It simply means that they’re having a (strong) neurobiological response and if their tantrums have been occurring for a while, you may need to establish some new healthy, technology habits.
  • Over time, if you’re consistent with your media rules, your child’s techno-tantrums are likely to subside or completely disappear.


Simple strategies to prevent techno-tantrums


There are some simple strategies that we can do to minimise the onset of a techno-tantrum. Whilst I can’t guarantee that these will always ensure that your child gleefully switches off their device when asked, they can certainly reduce the chances of experiencing an emotional explosion (aka. a techno-tantrum). These strategies will help to reduce the severity of a techno-tantrum and over time, techno-tantrums will dissipate.


// establish and enforce firm guidelines about how long they can use screens. Talk about how much screen time they can have each day. Be explicit about this before they switch on the device – it’s too late once the device is turned on.

// focus on quantity not duration. Time is an abstract concept that many young children simply don’t understand (especially if they’re under 5 years). Rather than enforcing specific time limits, quantify the number of episodes a child can watch, or the level in the game that they can reach, or the number of apps they can use, or have your child specify what they want to craft in Minecraft. Providing kids with specific amounts of episodes/levels/apps is much more understandable, especially for young children.

// use a timer or clock. Your child is much less likely to argue with a smartphone or microwave clock or an egg timer than with us! For younger children, digital clocks are meaningless unless they understand the concept of time, so analogue clocks, where the elapsed time is displayed tend to work better. BONUS TIP- many of the clocks of devices now allow you to lock the device after a certain elapsed period, so they simply can’t continue to use the device.

// provide cues and verbal reminders that they need to transition away from the device before their time elapses. Give children ample warning that they need to switch off the device before it’s time to switch off. As adults we enter this state, called the psychological state of ‘flow’, where we lose track of time. For example, we can become so engrossed in our work that we’d be frustrated if our colleague burst into our office and demanded that we cease what we’re doing and immediately attend a meeting. And our kids can also enter the state of flow when using devices and so the same type of frustration can result if we simply insist that they switch off devices at a particular time. They can become so mesmersied by what they’re doing online so make sure you establish eye contact with you and that they acknowledge the reminder that their screen-time is soon ending.

// encourage young children to switch the device off themselves. This seems trivial but it’s a really effective strategy. When our kids feel empowered and as though they’re in control they’re likely to comply with our future requests. A child switching off a device is very different to us quickly or angrily flicking off the TV or prying the tablet from their hands. They’re more likely to feel like they’ve had some control over switching it off while giving us something positive to reinforce and encourage in the future.

// have a succession planFind an activity your child will enjoy doing when they’ve switched off the device. Alternatively have a Bored Board (a menu of screen-free ideas) from which they can pick an activity to undertake after they’ve switched off the device. These need to be activities that they actually enjoy doing (this is why asking them to turn off the TV and go and do their homework is often met with whinging and complaining and techno-tantrums). Again, it’s important that you give them a choice of activities, so they feel empowered.

// play bad cop – 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. This is very effective as our child’s desire to use the device is a very strong motivator for them, especially when they realise that these limits are enforceable. (This is different to using technology as a general form of punishment, which is something I don’t recommend.) We want our kids to learn that technology is a privilege and not a right.

// be consistent– This is the most effective but hardest strategy to implement. Even if you can sense your child’s on the verge of a techno-tantrum enforce your media rules. Don’t give into their demands/pleas/whining (especially when they’re promising to walk the dog every day and unpack the dishwasher for 6 weeks). Whilst it’s certainly tempting to agree to let them watch one more episode, or reach one more level on a game, be firm with your rules. Obviously, if your child’s almost finished a level, or almost at the end of an episode, it may be worthwhile allowing them to complete it, but don’t give into their (sometimes desperate) requests for “Just one more…”.  Avoid saying ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ – it’s important to stand firm with our decision about screen time, otherwise they’ll always try to push the boundaries with with you.


Remember, techno-tantrums are often a normal part of development. They’re an emotional storm that children aren’t yet equipped to handle. That’s why our job as parents and educators is so critical – we have to show them how to deal with these big emotions without always combusting into fits of tears.


Remember, young children don’t yet have the hindsight or catastrophe scale to deal with this situation because of limited life experiences. So when you ask for your smartphone back (and their brain is giving them lots of dopamine, they might be in the state of flow and there’s novelty- something new and exciting to look at), this feels like a level 10 on the catastrophe scale.


Don’t take the situation personally. Like all ages and stages, this too shall pass.


I’ll share some strategies for coping with techno-tantrums in a future post.
In the comments below, I’d love to know if you’ve got any effective strategies that help to prevent the dreaded techno-tantrum.


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.

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