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Why Your Kids Might be Experiencing a Digital Hangover

Have your kids/teens recently transitioned back to school after months of remote learning at home? They were probably spending more time than ever plugged-in and on devices during the home isolation period (I know my kids were). Their digital devices became their portal for leisure and learning: they used devices to complete school work, connect with their friends and family ( Facebook Messenger and House Party usage times went through the roof) and for leisure pursuits.

Now that they’ve transitioned back to school the process of weaning screens has become problematic. Many parents have described what appears to be like a ‘digital hangover’ as they attempt to implement some of the screen habits they had before COVID-19 turned things upside down. 

Kids who return home from school asking for their digital devices non-stop, unenthused about any other off-screen activity (they once loved). Kids and teens who are moody and agitated if they’re told they can’t use their devices. Constant arguments about screen limits and kids who are sneaking devices into bedrooms late at night to get their digital fix. Kids who are worried that they’re missing out on valuable play time with their friends if they don’t walk in and plug in. Teens who walk in the door with their digital appendage firmly gripped in their hands and don’t want to take it out (it travels to their bedroom, dining table and sometimes even the bathroom). Generally, just bad moods all round and constant stress around screens.

With school holidays just around the corner in many Australian states parents are worried that the lockdown tech habits will creep back in and they’ll be soon dealing with yet another digital hangover when school returns yet again.

So why are kids and teens experiencing the tech hangover?

Possible reasons for a digital hangover-

There are a myriad of reasons that might explain the digital hangover- some of them have nothing at all do with the technology (and some do).

// Cyberbullying- the Australian eSafety Commissioner reported a 40% increase in the number of reports of cyber-bullying, with 15% of those involving direct threats of harm during the home isolation period in Australia. As kids and teens spent more time online, often unsupervised because parents were often trying to work and care for other kids, the online risks heighetend.  The eSafety Commissioner reported a 21% increase in youth-based cyberbullying. The peer-to-peer harassment and unkind taunts amongst young people can be detrimental to their wellbeing at any time, but may be particularly amplified during isolation when their usual support networks aren’t on hand. This isolation may have really amplified the humiliation and sadness they might have experienced.

// Exposure to inappropriate contentthe increased time online, often unsupervised or un-regulated may have also resulted in the increased exposure to inappropriate content and predators.  Red flags that kids may have seen inappropriate content, or have had an online predator contacting them, is a sudden change in behaviour, a desire to want to use devices more and more, becoming secretive about their online activities (e.g. sneaking devices into bedrooms) and becoming angry, upset or aggressive when denied access, or if parents attempt to do a tech audit with them. The challenge of identifying if kids have seen inappropriate content or have been groomed online, is that many of the red flags are also considered ‘typical’ stages of child and adolescent development.

// Tech is filling the empty void- the absence of co-curricular and sport commitments and the usual-myriad of after-school and weekend activities that once punctuated our kids’ calendars, means that kids and teens have a LOT more time on their hands. Sure, we could suggest that they use this time to go outside and play and that’s something they definitely should attempt to do, if possible. However, I also understand that outdoor play wasn’t and still isn’t a possible option for some young people because of compromised health, geographic location, parental work commitments and safety factors. Many kids have more ‘free time’ than they ever have experienced and given that their ‘new normal’ during home isolation was to gravitate to the screen, we can understand why they may still have this desire.

// New habit- repeated habits can form mental grooves in our brain. Given that many kids spent more time than they’d typically spend on devices during home isolation (even if it was just to fulfill remote learning commitments), it’s logical that they would now want to maintain that habit. The problem with digital habits can be amplified because they’re usually associated with pleasurable and meet some of their basic psychological needs (for example, their need for relational connection with their peer group). Young people’s tech habits are often difficult (not impossible) to break because the habits have a dopamine-driven feedback loop that further perpetuates their behaviour (it’s a habit that feels good, so why would they want to stop?). 

As humans we tend to follow the Law of Least Effort, according to James Clear. This law states that when facing two options (for example, do your homework, or play on your phone), young people will naturally gravitate to the option that requires the least effort (i.e. scrolling their phone). The human brain likes to conserve energy and so it looks for the easy option.  

// They’re craving comfort and routine- The brain likes predictability. The comfort of engaging in predictable tech behaviours may have offered kids some solace during stressful times, such as a global health epidemic. Young kids may not have the emotional vocabulary to convey their feelings, but given that their entire routine and daily structures were turned on their heads, it’s likely that home isolation may have been challenging and perhaps stressful for some young people. Their daily dose of digital may have provided them with the rhythm and routines they hankered (and want to hold on to).

// Recalibrating to their ‘new normal’- the return to school left many kids and teens feeling anxious, especially if they had a positive remote learning experience. So the angry, despondent or upset after-school behaviour you may be encountering may have absolutely nothing to do with their digital behaviours.  They might just be expelling their emotions when they walk in the front door, as they worked hard all day to keep it together in front of their teachers and peers. As their safe person or place, parents and home is usually where kids emotionally-combust and ‘let it all hang out’.  The reason they may be craving more tech time, is to possibly alleviate or escape those big emotions- tech may be a self-soothing mechanism for them.

// Coping or avoidance mechanism– again, your child’s unrelenting desire to use their device, may be a means to cope with some big or difficult emotions and not be related to home isolation at all. It may be just a coincidence that they’re experiencing these emotions since transitioning back to school. Are they bored, sad, upset, angry, scared and looking for their devices to compensate for these emotional states?

// Unmet psychological needs- according to self-determination theory, as humans we have three core psychological drivers. The need for connection, competence, control over our lives. We know that our desire for connection was heightened during social distancing restrictions. We also know that our need for control and agency in our lives was also stripped away during the health pandemic and so our kids may have been looking for this safety and security via their devices.

// The online world is easy, fun and rewarding- let’s be honest, school can be mentally-taxing, requires significant effort and isn’t always fun. So after a big day of school, especially if your child has had months off their usual routine, flocking to the online world may seem like a really good option because it requires minimal mental effort, it’s instantly rewarding and usually very fun. This might also be the very same reason you binge-watched Netflix series during home isolation, or spent more time on social media than you’d normally do.

Understanding why kids are finding the transition back to school challenging and displaying signs of a tech-hangover is a topic I’ll be addressing in my next express webinar I’ll be hosting on 24th June called Stop the Digital Hangover. I’ll help you understand more about why they might be experiencing what appears to be a tech hangover, why the online world is so alluring and enticing to young people, realistic strategies to deal with techno-tantrums, some simple strategies that will empower them to form healthy tech habits (so you don’t have to resort to phone bans or confiscating consoles), the red flags that might signal something more sinister is going on, or perhaps they have problematic online habits and how to set up the impending school holidays so you’re not back to square one when school returns next term.

 

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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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