Switch off with­out tantrums

Well, the dig­i­tal one any­way. Ker­ryn Massyn takes a look at how you can cut your tot’s view­ing time with­out the melt­downs – and why it’s im­por­tant to do so

Your Baby & Toddler - - CONTENTS -

AF­TER A LONG DAY of work and par­ent­ing, all you need is five min­utes to your­self. So, you switch on the TV or tablet and get a (kid-friendly) show go­ing. Yup, hav­ing a lit­tle one brings new mean­ing to “Net­flix and chill” – giv­ing your child some­thing to watch gives you some much-needed breath­ing room. But you know how the say­ing goes, too much of a good thing…


Eyes wide open and shut off from the world, chil­dren and tod­dlers as­sume a zom­bie-like ex­pres­sion when they’re watch­ing some­thing.

And there’s a rea­son why chil­dren are drawn to the glar­ing glow of a smart­phone or tablet like a moth to a flame – the tech­nol­ogy and de­vices we use to­day are in­her­ently ad­dic­tive.

“Dopamine – a hor­mone that, among other func­tions, is as­so­ci­ated with feel­ings of eu­pho­ria, mo­ti­va­tion and con­cen­tra­tion – has a huge role to play in us be­ing ad­dicted to screens,” ex­plains Jea­nine La­musse, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist based in Joburg.

“The amount of dopamine re­leased while play­ing video games, for ex­am­ple, is com­pa­ra­ble to the amount re­leased dur­ing sex. It has been com­pared to the ef­fects of co­caine, as screens and games bring about the same neu­ro­log­i­cal changes in the brain as what we see in ad­dic­tion. There are also sim­i­lar brain changes to other psy­cho­log­i­cal ill­nesses brought about in chil­dren, and we would see th­ese in ADHD, autism and schizophre­nia.”

Right, so that ex­plains why so many of us are still reel­ing from the end­less num­ber of Baby Shark videos we had to en­dure re­cently.

And that’s not all.

While we do live in a dig­i­tal world, and it’s nigh-on im­pos­si­ble to keep our kids away from it, ex­po­sure to smart­phones and other tech de­vices have far-reach­ing side ef­fects.

“Smart­phones and me­dia in gen­eral also im­pact our ner­vous sys­tem. The va­ri­ety of sen­sory in­for­ma­tion phones and me­dia pro­vide over­stim­u­late our ner­vous sys­tems,” Jea­nine ex­plains.

“And the same is true for your child. Our brains can only take so much stim­u­la­tion, and af­ter they’ve reached ca­pac­ity, our fight or flight, or stress/trauma re­sponse sys­tem, goes into over­drive.

“This con­tin­u­ous ‘high’ of en­dor­phins and adren­a­line is ad­dic­tive. Sim­ply put,

once we reach this nat­u­ral ca­pac­ity, the fight or flight sys­tem gives us the en­ergy and re­sources we need to deal with the ac­tiv­ity at hand.

We later ‘crash’ to re­store our de­pleted re­sources, but in that way crave an­other fix of en­ergy and en­dor­phins – and so the cy­cle con­tin­ues.”

Jea­nine says she has seen par­ents bat­tling with the reper­cus­sions of their chil­dren not be­ing able to reg­u­late their emo­tions, fall asleep at night or sleep prop­erly. Also, she adds, chil­dren whose ner­vous sys­tems re­spond more sen­si­tively to sen­sa­tion or sen­sory in­put tend to be­come dys­reg­u­lated and present with any­thing from anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion to be­havioural is­sues.

But our kids aren’t spend­ing that much time glued to a screen, are they?

Well, last year’s Healthy Ac­tive Kids South Africa Re­port Card, which re­flects the phys­i­cal and nu­tri­tional health of chil­dren in the coun­try, shows that in one of the con­texts, more than 90 per­cent of in­fants and tod­dlers ex­ceed screen­time guide­lines.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est screen-time guide­lines from the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WHO), chil­dren un­der one should not be ex­posed to screens at all, which in­cludes watch­ing videos or TV and play­ing on phones or com­put­ers.

For kids be­tween the ages of two and five, the WHO rec­om­mends an ab­so­lute max­i­mum of an hour per day.

“I have found 20 min­utes per day for pre-school­ers dur­ing school weeks to be the up­per limit of what is rec­om­mended. For school-go­ing chil­dren, 30 min­utes at the most, and one hour per day for adults – this is con­founded by the fact that we gen­er­ally work with com­put­ers that play on the same sys­tems,” says Jea­nine. “For chil­dren, whose brains are still de­vel­op­ing, th­ese lim­its are piv­otal, as lim­it­ing dig­i­tal stim­uli has a pos­i­tive im­pact on their abil­ity to play and learn how to reg­u­late their emo­tions.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, ex­plains Jea­nine, vi­o­lent games or shows have shown a strong re­la­tion­ship to in­creas­ing ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour – even af­ter small doses of ex­po­sure. “I have found that many par­ents ac­tu­ally find their kids are more emo­tion­ally con­tained if they don’t watch any TV dur­ing the week. But, don’t ban it al­to­gether, as there is an amount of so­cial de­vel­op­ment that hap­pens in be­ing able to share anec­dotes from their view­ing with peers, and some in­tel­lec­tual de­vel­op­ment with ex­po­sure to use­ful me­dia con­tent.”


Switch off the smart­phone, or take away the tablet – and cue the tech tantrum. Be­cause our ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy is so easy, and our chil­dren are grow­ing up in a dig­i­tal world, it’s very dif­fi­cult for lit­tle ones to stop us­ing it.

TV view­ing had some­thing go­ing for it, af­ter all – it taught us that pro­gram­ming was fi­nite, and ad breaks pro­vided re­lief for our over­stim­u­lated brains. Not so in the age of on-de­mand view­ing. Re­mem­ber that ad­dic­tive flight or fight cy­cle cre­ated from over­stim­u­la­tion?

“Some chil­dren are grumpy even when it is taken away with warn­ing – you have taken away their ‘drug’, and they are now left spent and with­out the re­sources to cope,” Jea­nine ex­plains.

So, what can you do to cut the screen time with­out the tantrums?


Try to curb watch­ing to the guide­lines above, even if it means us­ing an app that turns your de­vice off au­to­mat­i­cally af­ter a set pe­riod of use. As Jea­nine says, it re­ally is amaz­ing the dif­fer­ence some­thing as sim­ple as no screens or bright lights an hour be­fore bed can make in a child’s be­hav­iour.

Ex­plain to your child be­fore­hand that he can only watch one episode of his favourite show, or that he can only watch for a set time pe­riod. It might also help to give him a two-minute warn­ing be­fore turn-off time. Cre­at­ing a routine around view­ing is also a good idea, such as switch­ing it off be­fore din­ner.


Try to be around while your child is watch­ing some­thing or play­ing a game. By vet­ting their view­ing, you’re mak­ing sure that it is age appropriat­e and that they’re not be­ing led down any paths you’d rather not see them go down, but also know that your child does not have to be en­ter­tained 24/7.

“Bore­dom is ac­tu­ally healthy for the brain, as it helps the brain digest all it has not been able to make sense of be­fore and is help­ful in self-reg­u­la­tion,” Jea­nine says. “A-ha mo­ments usu­ally hap­pen when the mind is quiet, so you do not need to keep your child busy all of the time.”


In the same vein, try to choose shows and games that give your child some­thing more than just pure view­ing plea­sure – that also aids in their de­vel­op­ment. “Our brains work in such a way that the ner­vous pathways we use more reg­u­larly are the ones that we are more primed to use mov­ing for­ward,” Jea­nine ex­plains. “In a sim­i­lar way, what you reg­u­larly ap­ply your mind to is what you’re wiring pathways for in your brain.

“So, when choos­ing me­dia for your child, ask your­self what type of child you want to raise, what val­ues you want them to em­body, and choose me­dia that align with that,” ex­plains Jea­nine. “Ed­u­ca­tional apps and games can be very use­ful for in­tro­duc­ing and con­sol­i­dat­ing cer­tain skills and learn­ing con­structs.” But she also warns that they could ac­tu­ally be detri­men­tal to learn­ing so should be used spar­ingly and with­held com­pletely from chil­dren younger than four.


While no one likes them, tantrums are a nor­mal part of grow­ing up. In­stead of dis­ci­plin­ing your child for his feel­ings, rather em­brace the tantrum

– or rather, the feel­ings be­hind it. “For lit­tle kids, la­belling the feel­ing be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced usu­ally helps them. So, say some­thing like, ‘I won­der if you feel a bit dis­ap­pointed?’ or, ‘It seems like things are a bit too much right now...’” Jea­nine says. “Then meet them where they’re at – let them stomp their frus­tra­tion out on the grass, scrib­ble it on pa­per or push on a wall re­ally hard. Check in with them to see how they’re feel­ing af­ter that and if there is any­thing else they feel they may need. If they have no ideas, in­tro­duce a task that redi­rects them to a more healthy emo­tion – like a hug, or to go out­side for a swing or jump on the tram­po­line, for in­stance.”


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