That Battle You’re Having With Your Kid Over Screens? It’s Not a Fair Fight. (But Here Are 3 Things Parents Can Do.)

Emily Cherkin, M.A.Ed., is a tech-intentional parent, educator, speaker, and founder of The Screentime Consultant, LLC. Her work has been featured in local and national news including in The New York Times and on The Today Show (twice) and Good Morning, America. She can, ironically, be found on social media.

No question: Parents can and should do a better job of setting limits on screentime. But parents need to understand that when it comes to screentime battles with our kids, we are fighting products intentionally designed to hijack their brains…and it is not a fair fight.

As The Screentime Consultant, parents have shared with me how excessive use of screentime during COVID has negatively impacted family stress. As the New York Times recently pointed out, unsurprisingly, children’s use of screens went up during the pandemic. And we know it went up for us as adults, too.

Screens for School, Screens for Socializing

In March of 2020, we handed over iPads and gaming as a way for kids to “connect” socially to friends and to allow us to get our work done, while they also logged in for hours a day for remote learning. Now over a year later we are well into a viral pandemic but facing a second, technological pandemic that takes unfair advantage of children’s brains. (Which, notably, was an issue prior to COVID, but has been exacerbated by the past year’s increased use.)

Parents tell me all the time that their biggest family conflicts now are around screentime. But parents don’t realize this is an unfair fight because the products our children use are designed to hook and hold attention.

So what is going on? It’s called “persuasive design.”

Persuasive design is something every parent (and child) needs to know about. Persuasive design is the use of psychology and technology to change our behavior. Technology companies have actually hired developmental psychologists to help them design products that tap into our emotions and our need for social approval. And our kids, with not-fully-developed brains, are especially susceptible to the power of persuasive design.

Feel-good Brain Hormones Flowing

Tristan Harris, former Google ethicist and founder of the Center for Humane Technology, describes our phones as “slot machines in our pockets.” And of course, slot machines are highly addictive because we only win some of the time and at irregular intervals. Psychologists refer to this as “intermittent variable rewards.” This is what makes devices, apps, social media, and games so desirable to our brains — we might win (or get a like), so we keep coming back.

Our brains seek predictability, so when we don’t get something at a predictable rate, we feel compelled to keep playing because this time, there is an increased likelihood we may win. Each time we receive a “win” (or get a “like”) our nervous system sends pleasure hormones through our bodies. It literally feels good when we get this feedback. We want to keep feeling good, so we keep scrolling or tapping.

The trouble is, our brains and bodies adapt. Each new surge isn’t as intense as the previous one. In order to get that same level of feel-good hormones, we have to repeat the behavior more frequently to get the same level of satisfaction. This is why our kids demand to play more and for longer each subsequent day. Their brains are adapting.

And when our kids fall apart when screentime ends it is because we have interrupted that surge of feel-good hormones in their brains that keeps them on and wanting more.

“Just let me finish this round, Mom…”

Dr. Richard Freed, author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age, in a 2018 letter with Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to the American Academy of Pediatrics, pushed back on the role his profession is playing in supporting more sophisticated forms of persuasive technologies.

Freed cautioned that “when parents find out that psychologists are developing the very products they can’t get their kids off of” there is trouble to be had. If a psychologist’s job is to “exploit vulnerabilities in order to change [children’s] behavior for profit,” Freed argues, something is deeply wrong.

We would never dream of testing the addictiveness of cocaine on young children; yet we seem to have no qualms about letting technology companies test the addictiveness of their products on our children’s brains.

Fundamentally, of course, adults have trouble avoiding the distraction of our devices. (How many of us have said, “Just one more episode!” and then four episodes later we are still on Netflix.) If it is hard for us — and our brains are fully developed — we should not be at all surprised when our kids fall apart at the end of screentime. The apps and devices are designed to make this happen.

We aren’t fighting our kids; we are fighting their hijacked brains.

Parents tell me they feel guilty about how screentime has morphed their tween into someone who doesn’t look up from her phone or the gamer who refuses to come to the dinner table. Younger children completely fall apart when the iPad time is up, and find it challenging to enjoy any non-screen-based activity. (“I’m bored and don’t know what to do” is a frequent complaint).

Of course, the requirements of remote learning due to the pandemic meant children were spending an additional four, five, or even six hours on a screen just for “school,” which is far beyond the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of one hour per day for screentime for children age 2–5. Although there is no time limit recommendation for children over 6, the AAP instead emphasizes exercise, sleep, and limiting screentime for entertainment.

But how many of us adults were meeting our desired amount of exercise, sleep, and screen use this past year? No one I know, myself included. Of course, the onus for managing any screen use for school this past year (which was problematic pre-COVID) fell on already-overworked parents. Screen use for remote or hybrid learning exceeded hourly recommendations, but parents were stuck between a rock and an iPad.

And it sure is hard to go backwards. As a parent, educator, and expert on screentime, I am concerned about the impacts of excessive screen use on children. We’re living a continuous cycle of screens for learning and working, socialization, and entertainment, and it’s taken a toll on families. As we shift to a post-COVID (or co-COVID) world, it will be difficult to dial back all the screen use — but still important to try.

Here are 3 things parents can do.

  1. Displace screentime. There will be an end to this, and the upcoming summer provides a transition point to plan for screentime to look different. Start talking about it now. Screentime for this school year can and should be displaced doing other things. We are sick of Zoom. It is time to help kids remember what it means to play and be bored without a device. Challenge them (and yourself) to find ways to do that.
  2. There is tremendous value for parents to “live your life out loud” by sharing your own screentime challenges with your children. This means talking through how and when and why you reach for your phones. (“I’m checking the weather,” “I’m bored so I’m using Instagram,” etc.). This not only promotes executive functioning skill development and shows our kids that we, too, struggle, but it also provides them with the vocabulary to talk about how excessive screen use can impact everyone.
  3. We must teach our children about persuasive design. When kids learn their brains are being manipulated, they get mad. Harness this outrage for good and help your child to see how and when persuasive design techniques make it harder for them to get off when asked. (Use phrases like: “Your brain really wants to keep playing this game and I know it is hard when the time comes to turn it off.”) We have to remember that it isn’t a character flaw or weakness that makes this a battle; it’s literally a hijacked neural pathway.

Parents, we definitely have a lot of work to do to manage our own use of screens. But above all else, we need to remember that our relationship to our children should come above and before our need to be on our devices. Even though our kids will push back on any limits and continue to demand the iPad or the game, we have to remember that it is their brains talking, not their personhood.

If we can remember that and separate the two, that is a fight worth having.

Worth Fighting For

Emily is a mother of two (9 and 12), a former middle school teacher, and the founder and owner of The Screentime Consultant.

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