Why children cannot regulate their tech use

In my work, I am often asked about how to regulate children’s technology use and screen time. This subject always leaves people divided into two camps:

Camp 1 – The belief that children should be able to regulate their tech use

Camp 2 – Feeling lost as to how to regulate it without meltdowns

So, why is it so hard?

Let’s start at the beginning. First and foremost, the expansion of tech, as much as it is incredible, is something that nobody saw coming, and therefore we are navigating responsiveness and parenting this, backwards. However, understanding why it is so hard to come off tech (not just for children and young people, but also adults) is vital.

Technology is clever, many apps and games are created in conjunction with psychologists, so firstly, be kind enough to appreciate that this has been done on purpose. The developers do not want you to come off it – they want their games and apps to go viral, and they have been designed for ultimate addiction.

Secondly, tech has been designed to release dopamine which is the pleasure system in our minds. Traditionally, we released dopamine (a neurotransmitter – a chemical substance) when we exercised, ate a nutritious diet, got adequate sleep, social behaviours and fun activities). Dopamine motivates us to complete behaviours. However, as technology became more enhanced, dopamine pathways were integrated into this. The use of technology means that every time we get a message, watch something engaging, get likes or comments on social media, up-level on games, swipe or get a positive outcome, our brains get a dopamine hit. This provides pleasure, validation and attention, which quickly become addictive.

However, counterintuitively, it can also mean we begin to feel LESS pleasure in everyday life. How can our friends, family and routine ever compete with a constant stream of dopamine being released? Therefore, everything else begins to feel ‘boring’. Talking to friends cannot release the same pleasure as winning at games, a walk in the country may not feel at satisfying as the persistent interactions online and we can therefore watch as individuals become more and more engaged with technology, as the world cannot keep up. Dopamine makes us feel good, and everyday life cannot compete with how good it sometimes makes us feel.

We are all at risk

However, social media and tech addictive based behaviours are not reserved for young people, adults are just as susceptible. Our dopamine seeking brains are all open to a boost of feel good chemicals, and many of us have found ourselves lost in doom scrolling through social media and losing hours. Research has shown that adults fully have the ability to be addicted to tech. Therefore, we need to consider our own usage and monitoring our onscreen use.

Why children cannot stop

When we think about the ability of a child to walk away we need to consider their stage of development. As adults, we can often wrongly believe that children can respond in the same way as adults, and that they have the ability to think like us. They can’t and they don’t. Children’s brains take from conception until they are 25 years old to develop their functioning. In the immature stages of development, they have their reptilian brains (fight-flight-freeze-fawn) and their limbic brains (emotions) to contend with, which is why children can be reactive and impulsive when things happen. At 12 until they are 25, their prefrontal cortex (problem solving, logic, reasoning, self-awareness, empathy, analysis and evaluation etc) begin to connect. However, this stage requires positive adult leading and input.

Simply, children even in their adolescence, do not have the functional ability to make positive decisions about their technology use. They cannot decide between constant dopamine induced pleasure and school work. They cannot make the ‘right’ decisions, and as adults we need to consider this when using tech as a family and individually.

Further, if a child has a diagnosis of conditions such as ADHD and Autism they naturally have a lower dopamine level in their brains, and therefore their susceptibility to tech may be higher.

What do we need to be aware of?

It is important to be aware of the signs of dependence on technology, which include:

  • Not being able to relax when off technology
  • Thinking of, or talking about tech all the time
  • Not being able to come off of tech easily
  • Cannot find satisfaction in activities that are not tech based
  • Using tech to avoid life or situations
  • Dishonest behaviours or lying about tech use
  • Meltdowns or aggressive behaviour when using tech or coming off of it
  • Inappropriate use of technology
  • Unable to entertain themselves without tech

Supporting children

Some starting points for tech use at home:

  1. Review technology use at home regularly looking at time limits we spend on screens
  2. Have tech free time for the whole family
  3. Agree together the time allotted on screens, and when they are to be switched off (consider that guidelines are a maximum of 2 hours of screen time a day for young people)
  4. Come off tech at least 90minutes to 2 hours before bed to improve sleep quality
  5. Identify pleasurable activities which are not tech based to enjoy together
  6. Acknowledge that children may need a lot of support and interaction in the transitions from tech time to non-tech time
  7. Be consistent – once agreements are in place, maintain them

Want to learn more? 

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Further help 

For more articles about mental health visit – ARTICLES 

To learn more about child and adolescent mental health visit – COURSES 

For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit –RESOURCES 

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