Supporting younger children to switch off the screen

Some parents might wonder “what is the big deal around screens – my child is social, good at studies, has hobbies and does not show signs of depression or anxiety. So what if he is on the screens for longer hours?”  In reality, there is a lot of harm being done which might not be visible yet. The neurological imbalance due to an overdose of dopamine in the brain can take about one year to reverse and accommodate other chemicals like serotonin in the brain!


Though we don’t see any behavioral issue immediately, one can observe how a child will want more and more of screen time at the cost of her studies and co-curricular activities. Eventually weaning her off becomes increasingly hard.


In today's article we explore ways of helping children switch off from a screen after they have been engaged with it for some time.


The first step would be


Self – empathy: As in the case of airplane turbulence, one is advised to put on their own oxygen mask first before assisting their child. Similarly, we can take a moment to get in touch with our own feelings and help centre ourselves before attending to our child’s big feelings. Supporting your child through the upcoming storm will be easier when you are not feeling stormy yourself.


Empathy for the child: Knowing that screens can be addictive, we are in a position to understand that children may feel upset when it’s turned off. So, by empathising we are giving the child a sense that we understand his big feelings. 


What I have discovered with my five year old daughter is that if TV time lasts for more than 75 minutes, when asked to switch off there a “tantrum”. Clearly, her reward system has been greatly over stimulated (see article 1 of this series). 


When she begins watching videos, this is what I do:


Set a timer:  I set a timer for 40 minutes. This helps me to keep track of time and complete my chores without getting immersed in social media myself! 


Prepare the child for switching off the screen: We both hear the timer going off and that avoids any verbal clash. We pause the screen and check on the remaining minutes the video will run for. If 10 minutes are left, I set the timer again at 8 minutes to remind us. When the timer rings this time, I go and sit with her. After the video is over, there are times when she switches it off by herself. 


State the rule and give choices:  There are times when she hides the remote behind her. She hits and kicks me wanting me to go away. I try to stay calm and continue to establish the boundary of the amount of screen time by giving her a choice - “Screen time is over. Would you like to switch it off by yourself, or would you like me to help you switch it off?” Or “Screen time is over. Would you like to go out and play now?”


Giving choices within the boundary sends her the message that I care about her sense of autonomy.


Take action:  If she shows no inclination to switch it off by herself, it’s time for me to set the limit with empathy - “Looks like you need help switching it off. And that’s okay. I’m here to help you.” And I go and turn off the main switch calmly.


Of course she is furious at me for doing that! But we now know it’s not her fault.

Empathizing with children and acknowledging, “I know this is hard for you. I’m here to help”, helps in bringing their stress levels down. When they feel supported by us in keeping within those boundaries instead of hearing blame for their bad behavior, it makes children feel safe. As children grow up, they will be open to guidance from us only when they perceive that we are making the effort to connect to their feelings, yet thinking about their well being.


It is so much less work when they are sitting quietly in one place engrossed in watching videos. Our house is cleaner, doing chores become easier and we don’t have to deal with their energy or anger when it is turned off. 


We are the adults in this relationship and cannot afford to be helpless. Just like we would step in to limit sugar in our children’s diet knowing how harmful it is for their health, it’s the same for gadgets. Using this information and being proactive is the way forward for our children’s well being.