It's easier than you think.
Do you ever struggle with how to turn off screen time? Does it often end in tears (both theirs and yours)? Like so many other parents, I used to give my children warning. "Five more minutes, then it's dinner!" I'd yell from the kitchen. This statement would either be ignored or grunted at.
Five minutes later, I march into the living room and turn the gadget off, expecting them to silently accept and for us all to have a lovely, quiet dinner together. Cue screams. Cue tantrums. Cue cold dinner. Cue grey hairs.
I realized something was wrong in the way I approached the issue. My children aren't naturally prone to tantrums, so I was thrown by this. I couldn't work out what I could do to stop the sudden screaming at the end of every screen time session.
I wanted to find a way of gently disconnecting my children from the screen, of bringing them back into the real world without continual bumps and bruises along the way, but I didn't know how. Then a friend introduced me to a little trick by clinical psychologist, Isabelle Filliozat. My world changed. I suddenly knew how to handle the end of screen time without the screams, the tantrums, the cold dinner, or the grey hairs.
Why is it hard for kids to stop screen time?
Have you ever had the electricity cut off just as the football game reached its most nerve-wracking stage? Or your toddler pressed the "off" switch just as the protagonists in the deeply engrossing romantic comedy were finally going to kiss?
When human beings (not only children!) are absorbed in a film or playing a computer game, we are, mentally, in another world. Screens are hypnotic to our brains. The light, the sounds, the rhythm of the images puts the brain into a state of flow. We feel good, and don't want to do anything else. We certainly don't want the situation to change.
During these moments, our brains produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter which relieves stress and pain. All is well—that is, until the screen is turned off. The dopamine levels in the body drop fast and without warning, which can, literally, create a sensation of pain in the body. This drop in hormones, this physical shock, is where children's scream time begins.
It doesn't matter that we are clear when screen time ends. After all, we'd discussed and arranged it beforehand, and/or given them warning. Cutting them off forcefully is hurtful. So instead of simply switching the off button, the trick is not to cut them off, but to instead enter their zone.
Here are three tips that Isabelle Filliozat recommends to turn off screen time without a fight:
1. Enter your child's world.
Whenever you decide that screen time should come to an end, take a moment to sit down next to your child and enter his world.
Watch TV or sit with them while they play their game on the screen. This doesn't have to be long, half a minute is enough. Just share their experience.
2. Ask questions.
Asking, "What are you watching?" might work for some kids, others might need more specific questions. "So what level are you on now?" or "That's a funny figure there in the background. Who's he?" Generally, children love it when their parents take an interest in their world. If they are too absorbed still and don't engage, don't give up. Just sit with them a moment longer, then ask another question.
3. Build a bridge back to reality.
Once the child starts answering your questions or tells you something they have seen or done on screen, it means that they are coming out of the "cut-off" zone and back into the real world. They're coming out of the state of flow and back into a zone where they are aware of your existence—but slowly. The dopamine doesn't drop abruptly, because you've built a bridge—a bridge between where she is and where you are. You can start to communicate, and this is where the magic happens.
You can choose to start discussing with your child that it's time to eat, to go have their bath or simply that screen time is over now. Because of the minute of easing-in, your child will be in a space where they can listen and react to your request. They might even have been smoothed back into the real world gently enough, and is so happy about the parental attention that they want to turn off the TV/tablet/computer on their own. (I've experienced my children do this, hand to heart.)
To me, simply the awareness of what is going on in my children's minds helps me handle end of screen time much better than before. It isn't always as smooth as I want it to be, but we haven't had a scream time incident since I discovered Isabelle Filliozat's little trick.