School leaders spend many hours cultivating a partnership with the parents of their students in a complex learning journey that ensures their children are able to access the best version of themselves. Frequently, during confidential discussions or generalised education events attended by parents, the revelation emerges that managing the relationship between technology and children is challenging for parents, and is a major source of tension across households. Similarly, it is also a source of conflict and concern throughout schools.
At Moriah College, we frequently consult with one of our partners in cyber-safety and online health, ySafe, on these matters. Part of our ever-evolving blue chip technology education program is to ensure that our students use technology purposefully and as the master of the tool, rather than technology being the driver of their world. ySafe research confirms that parents often brace themselves for the inevitable meltdown when it’s time to put the device away. Prying technology out of children’s hands is a practice that is common in many family homes. The tears, outbursts and sometimes aggressive behaviour from kids can be enough to make parents want to put all technology in the bin. Even worse, it can lead to parents feeling defeated as they throw in the towel and say, “do whatever you want.”
By understanding why children suffer from the dreaded ‘techno tantrum’, we can locate what we can we do about it. Whilst research suggests many reasons for this behaviour, the two reasons named below assist us to understand the responses we witness; they explain brain functioning and its interaction with technology and the impact of screen time.
The Brain and Goal Interruption
Many screen time activities require reaching goals or endpoints. All games, for example, have some sort of goal that children will be trying to achieve, whether it be winning a level or getting enough points to earn some sort of prize. Even videos have an endpoint as they close with the final satisfying resolution.
Our brains thrive when we are goal-orientated, releasing dopamine (the neurotransmitter associated with joy) when we obtain that goal. Our brains are also more focussed when we are goal-orientated, which often results in information from the external environment such as parents calling for children to do chores and homework, to fade into the background.
Consequently, when children are interrupted while trying to reach their ‘screen goal’, it can be both emotionally and cognitively shocking. The brain is on a path to achieve the goal, and the emotional disappointment is very frustrating, often resulting in dysregulated and angry behaviour.
A recent study found that young children who spend more than two hours attached to a screen without a break, are more likely to display irritability and emotional outbursts when screens are taken away. The sweet spot for young children was an hour or less, which resulted in them being less grouchy after technology was removed.
Because screen time offers so much depth of stimuli (resulting in visual and audio processing, and engagement in decision-making and other cognitive functions), children can become overstimulated and experience sensory overload. This can result in erratic behaviours and emotional outbursts. This is exacerbated when children are using multiple devices at once or jumping between lots of different screen-based activities.
So, what are some things you can you do to tame the digital tantrum?
- Set a limit BEFORE screen time starts
Children by nature are optimistic thinkers, and often overestimate the amount of time they are going to be allowed to use their device. It goes without saying that when their expectation of screen time is three hours, as compared to the 30 minutes the parent intends, there’s going to be some disappointment from at least one party.
It’s helpful to have clarity over how much screen time your child can expect before they jump on their device. This helps build a realistic expectation for them and also helps to build their self-regulatory skills. If your child does not have a strong grasp of time, use a visual prompt to show how much time has passed and how much time is still available.
We all need clear limits. That is why, even as adults, we attempt to restrict our Netflix viewing to ‘just one episode’.
- Give an alert when screen time is ending soon
Many parents get to the end of the screen time allocation, and immediately expect screen time to end. Considering what was outlined earlier about the brain’s state when it is goal-orientated, an abrupt end to screen time can be very jarring for a child, both emotionally and psychologically.
To minimise the shock from ending screen time, it’s helpful for parents to give a warning or alert when screen time is ending. Let your child know 10 minutes before they need to finish up. This allows them to adjust their expectation that screen time is over soon.
Once that 10 minutes is up, go and sit with them while they’re on their device, and take a look at what they’re up to. If they are playing a game or watching a video, and it looks like they are close to finishing, then let them finish, even if its another five minutes or so. We all feel satisfied when finishing a task, so allowing them the time to do this can be helpful.
Think of it this way, if you’re watching Netflix and you have five minutes of an episode left, it can be infuriating when someone simply turns off your viewing stream. Adults can control their emotions a little better than children, so we need to try and scaffold the end of screen time with as much warning as possible.
- Have a transition activity ready to go
When using devices, our attention is often deeply concentrated on the content. During this time, we experience what’s called the ‘immersion effect’. As the name suggests, we can become so immersed in the screen-based content that our connection to and awareness of the external world is dulled down. Added to that, children can experience sensory overload from screen-based activities. These two factors lend themselves to a digital meltdown.
To assist with transition back to the ‘real world’ in a smooth and calm way, we can have a transition activity. While children are still on their device, and you’re giving the warning (as described in Step 2), you can help their transition from online to offline by informing them of what the next activity will be after their screen activity has finished. This helps their brain start to transition from what’s happening inside of the screen, to what’s about to happen outside of the screen. Educators do the same thing to transition students between lessons and foster a deep connection to learning activities.
To help with the sensory overload, it’s best if the transition activity is some sort of quick physical activity, like taking the dog for a walk or even just a quick three-minute dance party. It is suggested that parents try not to make the transition activity a chore or something like homework. This won’t help the digital tantrum! The activity doesn’t have to be lengthy, just something quick and fun to assist transition back into the ‘real world’.
Many parents approach the College and say that they face the above challenge when their children are experiencing deep immersion in the gaming platform Fortnite.
The following pathway might assist to manage associated challenges and inform the formal and informal educational pathway that we extend to our students.
Commonsensemedia.org is a website that offers assistance to parents by helping them to understand the app or game the child is using and how it could possibly impact the child. This assists the parent to empower their children to interact with the app in a healthy, happy way.
The website explains that each match in Fortnite Battle Royale lasts about 20 minutes and that it’s easy to fall into the trap of “just one more”, in the same way as a Netflix series elicits binge viewing. Parents can take advantage of the quick matches by using them as a natural stopping point in gameplay. Some children benefit from using a timer, limiting themselves to a certain number of matches per day, or using some of the tips in the Rules of Engagement which conclude this article.
In terms of the game being addictive, we learn that many elements are introduced that make it compelling to play, from characters with fun outfits and dances, to ever-changing weapons, landscapes, and challenges. For children who play with friends, the social and competitive aspects are hard to resist. But true addiction is a different story. Researchers have indicated that it is possible to be addicted to video games but that the condition named Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) is associated with underlying conditions.
Games like Fortnite utilise a “lure strategy” to ensure children continue playing. We must therefore impact the decision point between games by helping children to respond better to the bridge between games that insists they game on. Certain tactical plays like rewards and offers occur at this point, which influences the child’s decision point and carries them further into play. By educating the child and parent on strategies impacting decision points, participation becomes more user controlled and less device driven.
At Moriah, we educate our students in coding and other tech languages, which empowers them to use technology as informed critical consumers instead of passive receivers.
Similarly, the eSafety and Friendology programs we offer guide students towards appropriate, healthy social interaction on chat groups and social platforms to facilitate wellbeing, happiness, and age and value compatible friendship. Whilst we don’t demonise technology, games like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite open the pathway for connection with those who prey on young children and continue their grooming and discourse on apps such as Omegle. Omegle is particularly sinister and enables young children to access highly inappropriate material and is also a fertile hunting ground of child predators. Sadly, it holds intrigue and attraction for our youth and no parent can assume their child has no connection with such contexts. It is essential that parents retain open channels of communication and implement safety nets within their home network by using provisions enabled by services such as Family Zone.
The battle of wills between adults and children and blanket bans on access to contemporary communication tools is not a positive driver in the lives of our children. Giving up and giving in to the pleas of our children to enable a free-flowing licence to interact with all and sundry is even more damaging. It is necessary for parents to help their children to build on the “i-social-communication” (technology-based communication) skills that they learn at school.
There is an excellent social chat app called Messenger Kids, which has been developed specifically for children aged 6-12 years. Parents create access to the app and attach it to their Facebook account with the parent dashboard interface showing a continuous review of the interpersonal exchanges involving their child. This is the best way to give feedback to a child, grow their ability to interact safely and healthily online and avoid punitive measures that need to be administered after the fact, when all has gone horribly wrong.
The snapshot that has been shared in this article is part of a bigger picture and a slice of the understanding brought to the present by experience and collaboration with experts. The context is dynamic and brings new challenges at every turn. What helps to keep a potentially overwhelming context in check is a set of guiding rules that promote shared understandings and boundaries for safe participation.
A Zoom workshop with the Moriah College ySafe educator will be held on 15 September to assist our parents to better understand the context of gaming and i-socialisation and discover what they personally can do and what others can do to assist them. In the interim, the 10 Rules below might be of assistance.
10 Rules of Engagement
- Set limits. Establish device-free zones such as bedrooms and weekly screen time limits. Aim for a balance of activities throughout the week so that green time such as reading, face-to-face playing and exploring does not exceed screen time.
- Choose age-appropriate, high-quality media.
- Co-view and co-play when you can. You won’t be able to stop what you’re doing every time your child plays Roblox or Minecraft, but make an effort to understand or appreciate the activities they participate in. Ask questions, get them to explain the game or concepts therein, and listen with an open mind.
- Treat tech as a tool, not a treat. Children who use tablets or smartphones only to socialise and play games, see only the entertainment side of technology. Demonstrate the utility of devices, such as tools to analyse, quantify and make sense of the world, send emails, research and give form to their thoughts.
- Be a family of media critics. Media-literacy skills developed at school and continued at home, help children think critically about what they watch, play, and interact with. Encourage deep thinking about shows, books, and games. Ask “Who made this?”, “Who is it for?”, and “What is it telling you?”
- Be a media role model and lead by example. Simply put your own device away during family time and look up.
- Never house devices in a child’s room – encourage usage in a shared space.
- Talk to your children.
- Be consistent.
- Mean what you say and think carefully about whether you can carry out the actions before you say it.
MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lynda Fisher is the Head of Primary School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.