[Q&A] Navigating Children’s Screen Withdrawals


Leonardo Rocker

[Q&A] Navigating Children’s Screen Withdrawals

Now that the world is living on the digital age era, it is inevitable for the young people to spend most of their time using their iPads, laptops, and other similar gadgets. This actually takes a toll on the kids’ wellbeing because they would rather be confined at home with these devices and playing online games instead of going outside, exploring new things and broadening their interests. Most of all, socialising is lessened. And for the parents to force limits on the screen time would result to the child’s withdrawals.

In this Q & A episode, Doctor Kimberley O’Brien answers the questions coming from our listeners about how parents can help manage and minimize their kid’s screen withdrawals.

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Impressive is a weekly podcast that sheds new light on the world of parenting. Join host, Dr Kimberley O’Brien PhD, as she delves into real-life parenting issues with CEOs, global ex-pats, entrepreneurs, celebrities, travellers and other hand-picked parents.

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Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 00.08

Hello, I'm Dr. Kimberley O'Brien, a child psychologist, entrepreneur, and mum with a passion for problem solving and family adventures. Join me each week for practical tips and on-air consultations with the smartest, kindest parents and their incredible kids. Find answers faster, do things differently, and take your family further. This is Impressive.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 00.34

This is episode number 14 and we're talking this week about screen withdrawals. I'm Dr. Kimberley O'Brien and this is a very common issue at the Quirky Kid Clinic, particularly with the game Fortnite. I hear that name a lot for primary-school-aged boys. So boys between the age of 7 and 12 years, even slightly older. I'm sure most parents will have heard of the game in Fortnite. It is something that is highly addictive and the withdrawals can be quite aggressive as well as very emotional and very upsetting for people who are really into using screens as a way to communicate with their friends and to use a lot of their downtime while their recreational time, playing this game, or others that are quite similar.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 01:23

So this week's episode is dedicated to screen withdrawals because I know a lot of parents will be battling with this issue as in Australia, the summer holidays are wrapping up. That's our biggest six-week break from school throughout the year. This can be a time when lots of boundaries and rules come into play, particularly in the classroom. But before kids go back into the classroom, most parents are starting to get some order, some more routine in place so that transition is easier for the young person. Let's get started.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 01:56

This week on Impressive, we're going to stick with our Q&A format which has been very helpful for me during our summer holidays because it's a whole lot faster to edit. I don't need to listen to a recorded interview again, I can just line up a string of listener's questions and then I can come up with responses on the spot, which makes for a very quick episode production, given that I'm not in the office over summer and I needed to do some of these pre-recorded.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 02:27

Now, the reason I came up with screen addiction or screen withdrawals as one of my topics is because usually when school returns, that's one of the biggest issues that I hear from teachers and also from parents that's impacting young children in terms of their focus. It's not something that is a behavioural issue, it's more, I see it as, well, a product of the gaming industry. They've created some games that are highly addictive and they're purposely developed to be addictive. Just like poker machines are highly addictive for adults, some of the games that young people play are also highly addictive, and very interactive, and very stimulating, and very interesting, and also very social. So you can understand why they want to play them more and more at the detriment to their physical wellbeing because often kids are not spending enough time outdoors doing exercise and they're entertaining themselves on screens instead of doing a whole host of other things.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 03:31

So this episode is about navigating children's screen withdrawals, but it's also about broadening children's interests because that's the first step when it comes to navigating the withdrawals, is to make sure that there's a lot of other structure, stimulation and excitement going on outside of the screen, which will be a nice distraction for that young person when they're experiencing these withdrawals. So let's hear from our first listener with the question.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 04:02

"How can I help my child prepare for a digital detox?" So this is quite common. Listeners talk about digital detoxes when they're going on holidays, but it's often the case that when kids go back to school, they're also experiencing a digital detox. And that could be that they go from using up to four hours of screen time per day, maybe more in some cases, to maybe just using their screens for one hour per day on the weekend, or even less, only when they've earned screen time as a reward perhaps in exchange for some physical exercise or in exchange of some jobs around the house. So using it only as a motivator and only rewarding on weekends because that way outside of school hours during the week, students are socialising face to face or engaged in some other sorts of structured activities, which is around skill development like swimming or some sort of athletics activity or a social activity like tennis or chess club, whatever that happens to be. Art, music, all of those extra skills that are also lifelong skills which are really important, I believe, more important than gaming.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 05:19

I also believe that screen time, social time, although it's an opportunity for some kids that are quite withdrawn to socialise, I think that it's just the very first step when it comes to developing social skills and parents should continually push for face-to-face engagement with their peers because kids can get quite stuck in screen time social activities, just talking through a speaker with their headset on, and that's actually not necessarily developing their social skills, it's more a holding pattern. It's not developing them beyond being able to speak and look at a screen. Lacking eye contact and the body language that's involved in a typical to-and-fro conversation. It's not teamwork, it's, in my opinion, just somebody engaged in banter that doesn't have a lot of meaning or a lot of skill behind it. So I would suggest parents don't mistake socialising on screen during the course of our video game as developing social skills.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 06:27

Let's talk about those withdrawals. This is possibly one reason why I do feel quite negative towards the gaming companies that have developed some of these really addictive games for young people because the withdrawals can be quite emotional for young people that are beyond that stage. In other areas they wouldn't be crying and they wouldn't be losing their temper, but when they're put in front of a very highly addictive substance, they are unable to control their emotions. So when that substance is taken away, just like a drug or someone who is addicted to gambling, there is a huge stress reaction and this desperation that they need to get back in front of that substance that's giving them the hit.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 07:16

For parents, that can look like very loud screaming, grabbing at the device, shoving, pushing, and even threatening physical harm or using emotional hooks or triggers, mean words, put downs, name calling, "I don't love you," those kinds of things that can be quite distressing for a parent. Those are just part of the meltdowns so don't feel like it's really impacting on your parent-child relationship. It's actually just a symptom of the withdrawal from that device. You're not doing your young person any harm by taking that device away. You won't be impacting on the parent-child relationship in the long term.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 07:58
In the short term, yes, it can feel to most parents that I've worked with in the clinic, it can feel like there is a decline in the parent-child relationship during the first three to four to five days, just in that first short-term period of the withdrawal. But it will be worthwhile. Let me reassure you that kids that I've seen that have reduced their screen use and have come back to the clinic after a week or even two weeks, the results seem to continue to improve. Kids will use more eye contact, more humour, more interesting conversation. They're talking about things that I haven't heard them talk about rather than wanting to wrap up the session, being really lethargic, flopping around either on the chair or under the table. Those are the symptoms that I see when kids are withdrawing from screen time, they don't really want to participate in family activities and they certainly don't necessarily want to talk to a psychologist about their screen use.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 09:05
But over time, with boundaries in place and a slow weaning off from that device, psychologists that work with children are very capable of helping parents to navigate that period of time through the screen withdrawal without violence and without needing to lock things away necessarily. Let me just give you an example of a really extreme case that I've worked with.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 09:30

In that case, it was a 16-year-old boy that was actually being quite aggressive towards one of his parents. It was a single-parent household and he was quite aggressive to the parent that he was living with. He was also refusing to go to school. So there was a serious addiction going on and the school was involved and we had case conferences to try and work together to encourage that young person to come back to school. There was actually the locking away of the device towards the end of my involvement. This young person was breaking locks, damaging property within the household, locking his parents out of the house. Another client that I worked with, eight-year-old boy, threw a massive rock through the window of their house when the parent locked him outside so he couldn't access the screen.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 10:21

I guess what I'm telling you with these anecdotes is that screen addiction is real. Kids are not thinking logically when they're reacting to those withdrawals, so please don't escalate the situation by considering it a behavioural issue that you need to get on top of. It really won't help the situation if you are also emotionally escalated, so try to give as much warning as possible that there's going to be a decline and try and engage that young person in some dialogue around what they would like to happen as they start to withdraw from their screen use.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 10:58

So it could be that you drop down just an hour a day less for a period of one week, and then you continue dropping it down until you are at a level that you feel comfortable with. Based on the research. Two hours of screen use per day is sufficient and more than enough for a young person below the age of 16 years. That's primary age up to 16 years. When you consider how much homework older high school kids are doing or secondary school kids are doing, that's inclusive of the two hours. So it's not two hours of gaming on top of homework or TV, it's total screen time that includes iPads, phone use, so they're going to use that up pretty quickly. It's really important as parents to model limits when it comes to your screen use. That's how you prepare a young person for a digital detox.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 11:51

Step one, you talk to them about your idea, get some feedback on it, and work out some middle ground on how you can negotiate a gradual decline and set a timeframe for that decline. It may be reducing one hour per week over the next three weeks, or it could be dropping two hours per week depending on where you're up to and where you want to get to. So decide on that as your goal because you're the parent and you get to set those rules that you're comfortable with.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 12:18

You don't need to be manipulated or pressured into going beyond what you're comfortable with and you can stick to the research and base it on what you don't want to happen. You don't want academic decline and a reluctance to engage in face-to-face social activities. Most parents do want a young person with a broad range of interests, who's doing well academically and socially and who's physically fit. So those are your motivators. As a good-intentioned or a well-intentioned parent, you're within your rights to set those limits and you don't need to feel that you're doing your young person any harm at all.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 12:59

Okay, next question. "What can parents do to minimise screen withdrawals?" The withdrawals are the part where things sometimes get out of hand and there can be a lot of yelling. Sometimes young people will slam things down, throw down gaming handsets and things like that. Number one is to just have a family meeting, usually first thing in the morning before they're using their screens, when everyone's calm, has had a good rest, had a feed and talk about what is not okay within your household. Throwing valuable objects, it's not okay because we don't want to damage things that we've worked hard for. Screaming, insulting people is not okay. So set your house rules so that the young people are clear on what's reasonable and what's not.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 13:48

If you've seen some behaviours in the past that you're not comfortable with, I would suggest you bring it up, but you kind of minimise it in the words that you choose. We've had some minor outbursts, we've had some pretty loud disputes, perhaps. You might feel like that's minimising, but the young person will know exactly what you're talking about and what you are not comfortable with. You don't need to dwell on it for more than two minutes. Keep it brief so you can sustain their attention and then just work straight towards what you're looking for. If you're looking to set a daily limit at one hour of screen time, then you're going to let them know when that hour can take place, if that's what you'd like to do. Set some structure around it or you may wish to break it up. So they'll get 15 minutes after doing four jobs around the house and they get 15 minutes in exchange for a job. Just putting that structure into place is usually what young people respond to because that's what they're used to. That's cool.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 14:50

What sort of things have you found helpful as a parent when it comes to setting screen limit? I'd love to hear from you if you'd like to drop me an email at support@quirkykid.com.au. That's support@quirkykid.com.au. I'll include your feedback in future episodes. So please do subscribe to the Impressive podcast and then you'll be the first to hear the episode when it's live. You can hear me feedback about what listeners have said about what has worked with screen time withdrawals for their young people. It does differ depending on the age. So if you are a mother or a father of toddlers, you'll probably know pretty clearly what a screen time withdrawal looks like.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 15:38

It's often a lot of shrieking and back arching and it can look like a really serious tantrum that lasts quite a lot longer than any other trigger. So it could be that this young person doesn't like having carrots on their plate. A little bit of a protest will probably take about two to five seconds. A screen time withdrawal protest could take up to 15 minutes. Highly addictive for toddlers and not recommended as something to fill their time because you don't want that to lead to more screen use as they mature. Screen withdrawals do look different over time, but they do tend to escalate. Yeah, it can. I used in that example before, it can get to the point of physical confrontation, which is just what we don't want in any family.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 16:34
So please do try and be respectful with the way that you manage screen withdrawals, not putting your hands on the young person or on the device if you can help it because you don't want to get into a tug of war, but setting some limits beforehand with some reasonable expectations. Using a timer, when the timer goes off, you can even use a setting within the home that all the internet shuts off at a certain time, which can be helpful so that parents and children are using the same limits and that's good role modeling.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 17:09
All right, last but not least, I want to wrap up with one really good question from a listener who says, "How can I help my child expand their interests outside the home?" Great question. So when it comes to expanding interests, it's good to use a diagram. At the clinic I tend to use a visual for most of the issues. For this one, I use an upside down triangle, it looks like a funnel and at the very top it's a tip with a little opening, which is where at the very pointy top is the screen time, which is very narrow end and then it broadens out into the wider side of the triangle or the wider side of the funnel, which is the broader interests.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 17:57
So think to yourself, what some things do you do that broaden your interests? Do you research different activities that are on your area? Or go and have a look at a notice board next time you're at a sporting venue? Do you pick up flyers and then stick them up on the fridge and consider joining a ladies bike riding group or a kayaking club or a singing group? There's so many different things that you could look into. A book club, whatever it is that you're into, dance lesson. Put those flyers or those bits of information up around the house so that your young person can see that you do have really broad interests and you're not just locked into one thing. That's a good way to role model broadening your interests.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 18:43
Step two is to encourage your own person to do some research on what sort of activities they may be interested in in your local area. It could be a local surf comp that they want to go and watch, or it could be, in serious cases where they really are so heavily into gaming, it might be that they want to go to a live gaming event at an area, but like a bigger venue in your capital city. Sometimes these things happen where it's big screens and a lot of very keen Minecrafters all get together in the same huge venue, which can be an opportunity for kids to have real life social interaction, which is better than sitting alone and doing too much screen time for too many hours. So do think about what sort of things they might be interested in. Some parents have taken the kids away on a trip to start to reduce their dependence on their screens, even if it does mean bring the iPad for a brief period, at least it's reducing what they would be using at home.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 19:45
And when your young person is broadening their interests, sometimes they're a little bit shy, a little bit out of practice and a bit reluctant to join a new social group, so just do some zooming in slowly. Circle the venue maybe on the first week that it's on or you might get a free lesson that you can just circle around, stick your head in, have a look through the door, listen to the music, have a look at the instructor, check out the car park. Just try and zoom in as closely as you can for that first week, or if you go and do some research in the term before the new term starts, you can have a look at the age of the kids that are participating and hopefully spike an interest in your young person when it comes to doing something new.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 20:32
"When was the last time your young person did something new?" Usually when you come and look at developmental psychology, kids are generally learning new skills between the ages of four and eight years. So that's when they're starting swimming lessons and doing music classes and parents become quite accustomed to taking kids to new venues, testing out a one-off ballet lesson, deciding that's not what they want to do or going to a playgroup, whatever it happens to be. That is definitely a skill for parents when it comes to navigating a new activity, deciding whether they like it, whether that timeframe fits their family schedule. So just because kids are slightly older, if you're looking at that eight to fourteen age range, please feel free to continue researching and checking out options in your area or even outside of your area because kids that age also need to try new things and develop new skills because that will boost their self-esteem.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 21:39
When you are talking to friends or extended family members about what that young person is doing, you will notice that they generally feel pretty positive when you mention all the different activities they're doing and how well they're doing in a whole bunch of different things. If you're speaking negatively about, "I can't get him out of the house, he doesn't want to go to the beach," that just becomes a spiral of low self-esteem and reluctance to participate and then parents get frustrated with that resistance. That can be a time when psychologists get involved and it can even look like depression when kids are so flat they don't want to participate. But I see that as part of the screen addiction.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 22:21
So please do go and talk to your school counsellor or another psychologist in your local area or even have a look online at the Quirky Kid website. We have some great fact sheets there. You can find out some more resources to look into for managing screen addiction. But it's probably best if you set up a Skype or a telephone call with a psychologist and we'd be really happy to help you to develop your own withdrawal plan.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 22:51
That could look like a family plan of how you're all going to manage it, certain times of the day, which are your peak times, and that's the time when kids are most often triggered. It could be Saturday morning when they get to use their screens and it can sometimes start quite early like 5:00 AM when parents are not going to be able to do much in terms of supervision because they're tired. So trying to navigate that as a family is often a good place to start.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 23:18
If you'd like to set up a family session at Quirky Kid and you're based in the Sydney area, we can do that, or we're happy to have a session via Skype. So check out quirkykid.com.au if you'd like to find out more. Or if you'd like some resources, we also have a bookshop where we've curated a whole bunch of different books and games and things that are helpful for parents, children, and teachers, so you can have a look at therapeuticresources.com.au and you'll also see some Quirky Kid resources there as well.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 23:51
Thanks so much to our listeners out there who are listening to Impressive as we wind up. If you're listening in real time, the last of the summer holidays in Australia, and if you're listening overseas, please do drop us a line. I would love to hear from you. You can email me at support@quirkykid.com.au and I will read a response or your feedback in a future episode. If you haven't already done it, please do click subscribe on your podcast app so you get to hear the Impressive podcast each week as it drops. I'm Dr. Kimberley O'Brien. It's my pleasure to bring you Impressive, and I hope to have you with me again next week. This was Impressive.

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