How to deal with techno-tantrums

Published on Sunday, 05 April 2020
Last updated on Monday, 03 February 2020

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Although an age-appropriate amount of screen time can be beneficial for children’s learning, too much time on a digital device does your child no favours. 

The Ministry of Health’s Active Play Guidelines for Under Fives clearly recommend no screen time for under-twos, and less than an hour a day for children aged two to five, and research suggests that too much screen time can negatively affect youngsters’ health and development.

Day to day, digital devices can also have an impact on children’s emotions, and you might find that your child throws a ‘techno-tantrum’ when the time comes to switch off their screen.  

The good news is that this kind of emotionally charged outburst is manageable. This week we look at the techno-tantrum in more detail and share an expert’s tips for encouraging healthy screen habits and dealing with technology-related meltdowns. 

What is a techno-tantrum?

Dr Kristy Goodwin is a digital parenting and wellbeing educator, speaker and researcher who knows a thing or two about techno-tantrums. 

She explains that, ‘a techno-tantrum is a colloquial term to describe when children emotionally-combust and throw a tantrum when you ask them to digitally disconnect and switch off technology. [It] also describes the moody, frustrated and sometimes angry behaviour that children exhibit post-screen activity.’

This conduct can be challenging for parents, but Dr Goodwin assures us that tantrums are a natural part of young children’s development, and that techno-tantrums are, ‘a ‘typical’ neurobiological response to using technology, and not a sign that a child is addicted to technology.’

How do brain changes lead to techno-tantrums?

Although your child might not be addicted to the family television, tablet or smartphone, Dr Goodwin says that technology is psychologically appealing to youngsters because it’s an easy way for their brain to have pleasurable, rewarding and new experiences. 

These experiences come at a price though, because there are five changes in the brain that happen when children use technology, and these changes lead to techno-tantrums:

  1. For starters, children’s brains get flooded with dopamine during screen time, and Dr Goodwin explains that this ‘positive, feel-good neurotransmitter’ makes it trickier for children to make logical and rational choices. 
  2. At the same time, technology provides a ‘constant state of novelty and interest’ for the brain.
  3. Children then become engrossed in their digital device and enter a ‘state of flow’ where they lose track of time.
  4. They also enter a ‘state of insufficiency’ where they never feel ‘done’ or finished with the app, channel or site they’re plugged into.
  5. And last, but not least, Dr Goodwin explains that ‘time on screens often over-stimulates the sensory and nervous systems.’ She likens the online world to a ‘sensory smorgasbord’ and says that ‘children need to self-regulate and calm down after using device.’

    The techno-tantrum is how children try to regulate themselves, because it involves a discharge of the ‘stress hormone,’ cortisol. 

How can parents encourage healthy habits around screen time?

A little bit of screen time isn’t necessarily a bad thing for preschoolers and older children, but it’s important that you find a healthy balance between screen time and other activities to reduce techno-tantrums and safeguard your child’s longer-term health. 

To do this, Dr Goodwin says it’s important that you:

  • Set boundaries around ‘what, when, where, with whom, how and for how long’ your child can look at their digital device
  • Make sure your child’s screen use doesn’t impinge on their basic needs, e.g. their family relationships, healthy sleep habits and opportunities for play and physical activity
  • Give your child opportunities to get bored you can read more about the benefits of boredom here
  • Balance ‘green time and screen time,’ which means balancing your child’s offline and online life, and adhering to the Ministry of Health’s screen time guidelines. 

What are some practical tips for dealing with techno-tantrums?

Although tantrums are a natural part of childhood and technology taps into your youngster’s brain in a powerful way, there are some ways to prevent, ease and manage techno-tantrums from one day to the next.  

To reduce the incidence and severity of techno-tantrums, Dr Goodwin recommends that you:

  • Establish and enforce firm guidelines around how long your child can use screens, e.g. sticking to the less than one hour a day guideline for ages two to five.
  • Focus on quantity not duration, because time is an abstract concept for young children, e.g. instead of telling your child that they can have 45 minutes of screen time, explain that they can watch three episodes of their favourite show.
  • Use a timer or clock to measure screen time, because your child is less likely to argue with the clock on a mobile phone or microwave.
  • Give your child plenty of warning that they need to switch off their device, rather than springing the news on them suddenly.
  • Encourage your child to turn off the digital device themselves, so they have control over their experience and a feeling of autonomy.
  • When you want your child to switch off their screen, suggest a fun activity that they can transition to, e.g. a visit to the playground or a treasure hunt in the backyard.
  • If your child throws a techno-tantrum after you’ve used the above tips, then it’s time to introduce a direct consequence, e.g. your child might not be allowed to watch three episodes of their favourite show the next day.
  • Focus on being consistent and enforcing your screen time rules, even if your child is about to throw a techno-tantrum. 

The key takeaway from all this is that screen time can have some benefits for preschoolers, especially when it comes to educational apps, but the Active Play Guidelines for Under Fives should be adhered to for the health and wellbeing of your child. 

It’s important that children engage in regular physical activity and outside play, and when it comes to techno-tantrums, you need to send a clear signal to your child about how much screen time they can have, when it’s time to switch off and how they can entertain themselves in other ways. 


First Five Years

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