Screens - The Dopamine Hit

Technology - it can be incredible... fun, engaging, efficient and informative. But without boundaries, it can be potentially dangerous and harmful. We need to equip our children to be technologically literate and yet balance this with strong boundaries. Why? Because research teaches us that screen time can affect our basic needs - relationships, language, sleep, play, movement, nutrition and executive functioning skills. Too often we replace our basic needs with screen time, and problems arise (Goodwin, 2021). 

Have you ever noticed that when you ask your child to stop screen time, they become overly emotional? Dr Kristy Goodwin calls it the 'techno tantrum'. It is a neurological response that occurs when you say to your children, 'turn it off'. Us adults also can find it a challenge - how many of you find it hard to have a laptop or phone free holiday? Our bodies want the dopamine hit. Screens can give us that dopamine hit. We can also get that dopamine hit when we have worked hard towards something, such as learning to play a new instrument, learning a language, constructing something for the home. The big difference though, is that these things take time, it requires perseverance, whereas screens are often fast, and the dopamine hit comes too often. As time goes on, we can end up choosing the screens instead of living and experiencing life beyond a screen. 

The pre-frontal cortex in our brains helps us make good decisions. Did you know that our pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed until we are in our mid to late twenties? This is why we have age requirements, such as when we are allowed to drive a car. So when our children use too much screen time, the techno tantrum appears. They do not have fully developed working memory or impulse control. When the dopamine increases, it further impacts the ability for the pre-frontal cortex to function to its full potential. The child’s limbic system has been overstimulated. The adrenaline and testosterone reaction leads to aggression (Goodwin, 2020).

We are not suggesting that we completely ban screen time. However, we must be aware that this is what is going on for our children, so we can be intentional with knowing how to manage it. Researchers such as Dr Kristy Goodwin, Julia Storm and Lindsay Kneteman offer the following suggestions to parents: 

  1. 'Green time after screen time'. By encouraging your child to get outside and get involved in a physical activity, they still get their dopamine hit.
  2. Negotiate a time frame before using the screen. Often with screens, we go into a 'flow state' and we lose track of time. Set an alarm, use a sand timer.
  3. Reframe boredom. This is very important. Often when children are bored, that's when creativity comes alive. 
  4. No screens before school.
  5. No screens 60 minutes before bed. The blue light will affect their melatonin levels and may cause sleep issues. 
  6. Hug your child after they use the screen. Physical touch calms people down. It releases oxytocin. 
  7. Don't use screen time as rewards. Using screen time as rewards will not help your child long term, as they will think they can push the boundaries in the future. 
  8. Do not implement a consequence such as a ban. In 85% of cyberbullying cases, a trusted adult is not informed for fear of 'digital amputation'.
  9. Do not allow your child to use apps or games that are not of the recommended age. Even at 13 years of age, your child will not be psychologically ready, so why allow them to use them when they are in primary school? Why would we want to enhance emotional-regulation problems, self-esteem issues, raise the chance of our children viewing pornography and increase the chance of your child being in contact with a predator? 
  10. Hold off giving your child a phone. No parent of a teenager ever says, 'I regret holding off giving my child a phone'. Yes, kids pressure parents with 'everyone else has one, why can't I?' so we suggest parents of friendship groups come to an agreement that they will hold off giving their child a phone for as long as possible. The power of the parent group! 
  11. Set boundaries with your child. If they have 'buy in' there is a much higher chance that they will respect the boundaries. Humans have a desire for agency. Let them have some choice. But then stick to the plan.
  12. Model boundaries. Set timers for yourself. Be aware when you are using your devices. Conduct a self-assessment of current screen habits and develop a family plan for when, how and where screens may and may not be used. Don’t use phones at the dinner table. 
  13. Use parental controls such as and refer to sites such as and for age requirements and other helpful tips for parents. 

For more information: Goodwin, K. (2016), Raising Your Child in a Digital World: Finding a Healthy Balance of Time Online Without Techno Tantrums and Conflict. Griffin Press NSW Kneteman, L. (2020), Here's Why Screens Bring Out the Worst in Your Kid. Today's Parent Parenting Storm, J. (2018), Teaching Children To Self-Regulate and Manage Screen Time.

Larissa Cameron