The Dopamine Detox: How to Balance Kids’ Screen Time

Walking In Nature is a great way to take some time out, reset your dopamine levels and boost serotonin (Photo Credit: Orlando Allo via Unsplash)

Why are screens SO alluring (for us AND our kids)?

Last night, Spotify alerted me to Emma Chamberlain’s latest podcast (insta @AGPodcast @EmmaChamberlain) where she discusses her recent experience trying out her own version of a dopamine detox. It’s not surprising that it’s had so many shares. With our lives becoming increasingly technology-driven, we are all so constantly hyper-stimulated and it’s not good for our mental or physical health – nor that of our children! So I thought it was time I shared what I know about this powerful hormone: dopamine. It’s a neurotransmitter that plays a significant role in your child’s (and your own) screen time habits. Understanding its impact can help you make informed decisions about managing your family’s tech consumption.
(If you’d prefer to watch my video on this topic rather than read, here’s the link.)

The Role of Dopamine in Motivation and Reward

Let’s start by understanding what dopamine is. Often referred to as the “motivation chemical,” dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s released in anticipation of a reward. It’s what makes us act, propelling us towards activities we believe will result in some gratifying outcome.

This hormone comes into play quite prominently during screen time. Video games, in particular, are dopamine-reward powerhouses. They’re designed to constantly reward players, whether it’s progressing through levels, defeating bosses, or unlocking new content. As kids engage with these games, they experience a continuous dopamine release, which can be quite enticing.

Understanding the Dopamine Threshold

However, this constant exposure to dopamine-inducing activities isn’t without consequences. Our brains have a dopamine threshold. If we engage in rewarding activities too often, this threshold increases, meaning we need more dopamine to feel the same level of motivation or enjoyment. This concept is similar to alcohol tolerance; someone who rarely drinks might feel tipsy after just one glass, while a regular drinker might need several.

When it comes to screen time – especially video games (but also social media) – kids may develop a higher dopamine threshold, necessitating more and more rewarding experiences to feel satisfied. Consequently, off-screen activities like helping around the house or playing with toys seem uber-dull in comparison, providing little motivation. 

The Power of a Dopamine Detox

Now, this may sound alarming, but there’s good news. If you manage to reduce screen time, the dopamine threshold drops rather quickly. After a few days without screens, regular activities start to become more engaging. This reset is what we call a “dopamine detox.”

Managing a dopamine detox doesn’t necessarily mean going cold turkey on screens. It could be as simple as creating screen breaks during the day to give kids’ brains a chance to reset. And let’s not forget, adults can benefit from a dopamine detox too. Many of us find ourselves drawn to social media, anticipating the reward of likes and comments. A little detox could go a long way in breaking this cycle. Doing it as a family – even better! (If you DO want to do a complete screen detox, click here to read my recommendations about how to do it whilst keeping your sanity intact). And of course, ScreenCoach is a fantastic tool for facilitating this – not only in the short term, but to keep the habits going and set your kids up with great routines for life.

Encouraging Off-Screen Engagement

To make off-screen time more appealing, consider brainstorming rewards for traditionally “boring” activities. Rewards could include additional screen time, compliments, playing a board game together, or a trip to the park. For teens, perhaps time spent with friends could serve as a compelling incentive.

Remember, each child is different, so what motivates one may not work for another. The goal is to make screen-free activities more enticing and satisfying. (Exactly the reasoning behind the ScreenCoach design)

Boosting Serotonin for Balance

While we’re on the topic of hormones, let’s touch on serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and ample sunshine (which boosts vitamin D levels) can enhance serotonin production, promoting a sense of overall well-being.

Considering our modern indoor lifestyle, vitamin D deficiency can be common among kids. Encouraging outdoor play, considering a vitamin D supplement, and promoting physical activities like bike riding or kite flying can help address this.

Please remember, I’m not a medical professional, and any health concerns should be discussed with a healthcare provider. But understanding the interplay between dopamine and screen time can be a valuable tool for modern parenting.

I’ve found this information helpful in explaining screen time balance to my own children, particularly my intelligent 19-year-old son. I first discussed dopamine levels with him when he was around 8-10, which helped him understand why it was difficult to disengage from screens. Knowledge of how his brain works gave him a framework to manage his own dopamine levels and screen time.

The Bigger Picture

The reality is, our children are growing up in an age of constant digital stimulation. As a result, teachers and parents alike can find it challenging to keep kids engaged in non-digital activities. Recognizing the role of dopamine in this digital engagement is an essential first step in addressing the issue.

So consider this a call to action, parents. By understanding dopamine and the impact of screen time, we can strive to implement a balance that fosters both our children’s digital skills and their real-world engagement. A dopamine detox might be just the thing to reset their motivation and reward system, and make those everyday activities feel a little more rewarding.

I hope this information helps you manage your family’s screen time more effectively and brings a better understanding of the fascinating world of dopamine. Remember, our mission as parents is not to completely eradicate screens but to create a healthy balance that serves our children’s well-being.

Thanks for reading, and remember, every small step towards understanding and balance counts. If you’d like to find out more about how ScreenCoach can help your family manage better balance, shoot us a message!

Stephanie Kakris

Stephanie Kakris

Stephanie Kakris has a Masters in Psychology and is a published parenting author. She is the co-founder of ScreenCoach, a combined hardware and software platform where kids are allocated a set amount of screen time, and after their time is up, they need to go and complete activities such as exercise, chores or non-screen play to earn more time before they can resume.
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