Screen rage is the broad term describing the anger or ‘rage’ that little people, and some big people, experience when they are forced to stop using an electronic device. Screens and interactive devices stimulate our visual, auditory and tactile senses which in turn activate the ‘reward’ centres in our brains to give us small immediate boosts of endorphins and neurotransmitters- these are the ‘happy’ brain chemicals that make us feel good and relaxed. These rewarding experiences for a child’s brain become more intense as they use devices more frequently and can then lead to anger or ‘rage’ when the rewarding experience is removed.
As well as contributing to strong anger responses that we’ll talk about reducing below, too much screen time has longer term consequences that parents need to be aware of too. The growing body of research suggests that excessive screen time can lead to a variety of issues that relate to depth perception, eye tracking, long distance vision, obesity, poorer language development, poorer social skills, sleep and mood over the longer-term (Kaneshiro,2013).
How much screen time is recommended
The official guidelines from the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing (2010) recommend:
- Children under 2 – no screen time
- Children between 2-5 years old – less than one hour each day in front of screens
- Children aged 5 – a maximum of two hours per day
Though some research and our experience suggests that these guidelines may be overly cautious and unrealistic for many modern families (Houghton et al., 2010), as there is no consideration given to the increasing amount of school work being completed on electronic devices.
We think it’s more helpful for parents to evaluate their own approach and make informed decisions based on their values and situation to help minimise screen rage and adverse effects:
- How much screen time is a reward for completing necessary ‘boring’ tasks such as household chores or homework?
- How much screen time does the child get every day irrespective of how they behave and what tasks they do? Its better to keep this amount lower than the amount of earned ‘reward’ screen time
- What sort of games, shows or content are they viewing? Is there an educational learning component, or is there a proportion of violence and destruction?
- Is screen time balanced with other activities? For example 30 minutes of screen time broken up with 30 minutes of physical activity or imaginative play (e.g. Lego) then another 30 minutes of screen time, is likely to be healthier than an hour of straight screen time
- How much screen time do the adults in the house model for the children – children learn alot from their parents behaviours and will be drawn more to non-screen time activities if parents engage in them too.
Yes, yes but how do I stop screen rage?
It’s important to consider the questions above to ensure the ‘system’ you are using in your household matches your parenting values and is consistent day to day – it’s consistency over 3-4 weeks minimum that changes behavioural patterns and determines the effectiveness of strategies. So when introducing, re-introducing or re-evaluating screen time for a child:
- Consider the best times of day for a screen to be used – eg is it best they are on their devices or screens when you are cooking dinner or in the afternoon on a weekend when you know sibling conflict might be more likely. Pick the times that help the family dynamics and routines and remove or reduce the other screen times first
- Have screen times AFTER, not before less interesting activities when it is possible. Having it after household chores is much smarter than expecting a child to get off an engaging game to complete a boring chore which will only serve to make ‘rages’ more intense
- If you are experiencing screen rage at or near bedtime, it is best to plan a quiet non-screen activity you can do with your child that they might enjoy straight after getting off the screen to help them wind down before bed e.g. do a puzzle with them, watch them draw, read to them – expecting to turn off a screen and have a child get straight into bed and go to sleep is unrealistic
- Setup clear time frames for device use – use dinner time, specific times of the day or countdown timers that kids can view and hear go off, as signals for screen time ending. Many parents only use verbal reminders, that is considered nagging and ignored by many children. Using timers also helps to work on the longer-term goal of encouraging children to stop and get off the screen independently
- Set a designated off-time every night for all screens in the house – Many families find designating dinner time or another time at say the end of a favourite show, the best markers of an off time when ALL devices and screens are turned off.
- Work out a way to record or stream favourite shows that are on at times that overlap bedtimes
- Be clear about what is happening next after the screentime finishes and once they are familiar with this, ASK the child to describe back to you in their own words what will happen when the timer goes off BEFORE they start the screen time. Too many parents try to do this when children are deeply engaged in the screentime and not attentive
- Use other motivators and rewards to motivate and encourage children’s behaviours and compliance with routines – if you only use screen time as a reward you will only serve to intensify screen time reward. Although others may not be as immediately rewarding or gratifying, it’s important to use a mix of rewards to offset screen rage that might include time doing other activities, pocket money, reward charts towards longer term goals, time with parents
- Help your children learn to enjoy and look forward to other activities as ‘rewards’ – it’s important to help kids learn through experience and modelling, not lectures, that other non-screen activities can be rewarding and fun too. Sometimes children need someone to play with them and teach them how to be creative, before a task such as building a cubby house or playing dressups becomes rewarding
- Don’t engage in any discussions, negotiations for more time or arguments when the period of screentime you have set before they started is reached, stay calm and follow through – the more often you offer additional time on the screen, the more the child will expect additional time on future occasions and the more they will increase the intensity of their anger or behaviours to get this ‘predictable’ response when you do hold your ground.
Avoiding Screen Rage In Kids is about consistency
It’s hard for any parent to say no, stand their ground and implement these strategies consistently – so be patient and be prepared for some mistakes and above all try to not react back with anger (the No.1 way to undermine your hard work). And be sure to remember that like managing most other challenging behaviours, screen rage may often get worse in the short term (in the first week or so) before gradually reducing over several weeks – these strategies are unlikely to work on first use!
But if you feel you have tried all these strategies or feel stuck, it can be helpful to contact a psychologist to get some guidance and understanding of your situation as there many other factors that could also impact on screen rage that we haven’t had time to address above.
Steve Rushton and Bianca Eastman are Psychologists with Changes Psychology.
Australian Government Department of Health and Aging. Move and Play Every Day. National Physical Activity Recommendations for Children 0–5 Years. Canberra: Australia: Commonwealth of Australia Department of Health and Aging; 2010.
Houghton, S., Hunter, S.C., Rosenberg, M, Wood, L., Zadow, C., Martin, K, & Shilton, T. (2015). Virtually impossible: limiting Australian children and adolescents daily screen based media use. BMC Public Health, 15:5. Retrieved from http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/15/5
Kaneshiro, N. (2013). Screentime and children. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000355.htm