The thing you haven’t factored into your quest to manage screentime

Parents often fret over how to manage screentime and budge their kids off video games and their phones. Here’s something to consider – factor in the dopamine.

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What is dopamine?

Dopamine is a natural brain chemical. If I solve a problem, I get a little shot of dopamine in my brain and I feel good. When I finish a job, more dopamine, I feel good. If I go for a bike ride, my body might ache but I get a shot of dopamine in my brain, and I feel good.

We like dopamine, and so we do the things that release dopamine – it’s a reward system. It’s natural and it’s often the reason we do things that are hard and worthwhile – that little squirt of dopamine in our brain says, “Well done!” When people say they are addicted to the gym or work or music – it’s actually dopamine they are hooked on, natural highs from doing good things (and, occasionally, bad things!).

What has dopamine got to do with screentime?

Yes, drugs can hijack the system – amphetamines and nicotine and most ‘feel good’ drugs increase dopamine. But some of the biggest artificial sources of dopamine are in your home already. They’re our phones, tablets, computers and TV screens. Thousands of brilliant software and game designers are working as hard as they can to make them totally immersive, stimulating and engaging.

So when you tell your kids, “Shut that game down. Turn off the TV. Turn that noise down! Get off Instagram!” we are cutting off their dopamine fix and they will actually feel bad. So set and enforce your limits, but add in some empathy and understanding too.

Help your kids find better sources of dopamine

Friendships, busyness, sport, clubs, challenges, running, fun, achieving goals, jokes, sailing, games – all the good healthy things proven to make for a healthy life – they all deliver dopamine.

So add more of these to your child’s life but don’t expect the natural highs from a life lived well to give the same immediate, intense, addictive rush that a video game can deliver. It would be like someone saying, “Leave that donut – you’ll find this salad is much more enjoyable!”

They will, in time, but while you’re weaning them over – helping them discover the buzz from these new habits and patterns – they will need another way to feel good. The best substitute? Your encouragement, smiles, affection and approval. They’re some of the few things powerful enough to make kids feel better than an Xbox.

Attend a Toolbox parenting course

Toolbox courses inspire and equip whānau. They are bursting with great advice, humour and encouragement, offering practical strategies and insights into developmental stages. Parents leave reassured that challenges are common to all families and that they’re not alone on their parenting journey. The courses are run over a number of weeks in a relaxed and conversational small group setting with a trained facilitator. The five courses – Building Awesome Whānau, Baby and Toddler Years, Primary Years, Intermediate Years, and Teenage Years. Find out more and register here.