014: [Q&A] Navigating Children’s Screen Withdrawals

20th March, 2019 Posted under Impressive, Parenting

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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, socializing 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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About Impressive

Impressive is a weekly podcast that sheds a 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.

In an approachable on-air consultation style, she listens to some of the smartest, kindest parents share their latest parenting challenge with their incredible kids. Together they brainstorm solutions and Kimberley offer handy tips and valuable resources to help bring out the best in toddlers, teens and in-betweens. Drawing mostly on two decades of experience as a child psychologist, Kimberley also shares her personal insights as a mother of two and entrepreneur with a passion for problem-solving.


[00:00:08 – 00:01:54]: As an introduction, Doctor Kimberley discusses the impact of screen time on the young people. Children has become addictive on online games like Fortnite, which is bothersome for parents because when they forcibly put a limit on the screen time, their kids begin to suffer from withdrawals.

Doctor Kimberley: Hello, I’m Doctor Kimberley O’Brien — a child psychologist, entrepreneur, and mom with a passion for problem-solving in 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.

[00:00:30 – 00:00:33]: This episode is sponsored by BriteChild.com. Now, let’s get started.

Doctor Kimberley: This is episode number 14, and we’re talking this week about screen withdrawals. I’m Doctor Kimberley O’Brien, and this is a very common issue at the Quirky Kid Clinic, particularly with the game, Fornite. 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 would have heard the game, Fortnite. And 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, or their recreation time, playing this game or others that are quite similar.

So, this week’s episode is dedicated to screen withdrawals because I know a lot of parents would be battling with this issue as in Australia, for some of our holidays are wrapping up. That’s our biggest six-week break from school throughout the year. And 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 that transition is easier for the young person.

So, let’s get started.

[00:01:55 – 00:03:58] Doctor O’Brien explains screen addiction, the episode’s main topic, as one of the common issues heard from school teachers and parents in regard to the performance of the young people. She adds that the episode will touch the topic about broadening the interests of the children as it is significant in navigating in the children’s withdrawals.

Doctor Kimberley: So, 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 listeners’ questions, and then I can come up with responses on-the-spot, which makes for a very quick episode production given that I am not in the office over summer and I needed to do some of these pre-recorded.

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. So, it’s not something that is a behavioral 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 pokie machines are highly addictive for adults and some of the gaming, the games that the 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 well-being because of their kids are not spending enough time outdoors doing exercise and they’re doing screens, entertaining themselves on screens instead of doing a whole host of other things.

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. It’s to make sure that there’s a lot of structure stimulation and excitement going on outside of the screen, which would be a nice distraction for their, that young person when they’re experiencing these withdrawals.

[00:03:59 – 00:06:25] The first question is about setting up a digital detox. The parents need to put limits on their kid’s screen time and gradually extending it to more hours. Another suggestion would be encouraging their child to engage in other structured physical activities which can be a way for them to socialize.

So, let’s hear from our first listener with the question:

Q: How can I help my child prepare for a digital detox?

Doctor Kimberley: So, this is quite common. Listeners talk about digital detoxes when they’re going on holidays, but it’s often the case when kids get back to school. They’re also experiencing a digital detox, and that could be that they go from using, you know, up to four hours of screen time per day, maybe more in some cases, to maybe just using these screens for one hour per day on the weekend, or even less, only when there aren’t screen time as a reward perhaps as an exchange for some physical exercise or in exchange for 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 socializing face-to-face, or engaged in some other sorts of structured activities, which is, you know, around skill development—swimming, some sorts of athletics activity, or social activity like tennis or chess club, whatever that happens to be. Art, music, or those extra skills that are also life-long skills, which are really important, I believe more important than gaming.

And I also believe that screen time, social time, although it’s an opportunity for some kids that are quite withdrawn to socialize, I think that it’s just the very 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, so just talking through a speaker with their headset on and that’s actually not necessary developing their social skills, it’s more a holding pattern. It’s not, it’s not developing them beyond being able to speak with the screen, and lacking eye contact and body language that’s involved in a typical to-and-fro conversation.

It’s not teamwork; it’s, in my opinion, just somebody, engaged inventor that doesn’t have a lot of meaning or a lot of skill behind it. So, I would suggest parents don’t stake socializing on screen during the course of a video game as developing social skills.

[00:06:26 – 00:12:58] Kids can get too aggressive and emotional when limits are forced on the screen time. So, it is highly suggested that parents shouldn’t let their emotions escalate as well to avoid conflict. They have the right to set the rules regarding the screen time. The child may react when the parent takes the device away, but it would only last for a short period of time.

Doctor Kimberley: So, let’s talk about those withdrawals, and 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. So, in other areas, they wouldn’t be crying and they wouldn’t be losing their temper. But when they are put in front of a very highly addictive substance, they are unable to control their emotions. So, when that substance is taken away, it’s like a drug or like someone who isn’t addictive to gambling, there is a huge stress reaction and there’s desperation that they need to get back in front of that, that substance that’s giving them the heat. So, for parents, that can look like very loud screaming, riving at the device, shoving, pushing, and even threatening physical harm or using emotional kind of hooks or triggers, mean words, put-down, some name calling, “I don’t love you.” Those are kinds of things that can be quite distressing for parents, or those are just part of the meltdown, so that feel like it’s really impacting on your parent-child relationship. It’s actually just a symptom of the withdrawal symptom from that device.

So, you’re not doing your young person any harm while taking that device away. You won’t be impacting on the parent-child relationship in the long term. 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. So, kids will use more eye contact, more humor, more interesting conversations; they’re talking about things that I haven’t heard them talk about, rather than like, kind of wanting to wrap up the session, wanting to, you know, being in the middle of having a cheek, flopping around their own chair or under the table. Those are the symptoms that I see when kids are withdrawing from their 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. But overtime, 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.

So, let me just give you an example of a really extreme case that I’ve worked with. 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’s quite aggressive to the parent he’s 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 the school. And there were some, there was actually the locking away of the device towards the end of my involvement. This young person was breaking locks and damaging property within the household, locking his parents out of the house.

So, let me just, another of that kind that I’ve worked with 8-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. So, I guess from telling you with these anecdotes is that screen addiction is real, kids are not thinking logically when they’re reacting to those withdrawals. And so, please don’t escalate the situation by considering it a behavioral issue that you need to get on top off. It really won’t help the situation if you’re also emotionally escalated. So, try to give as much warning as possible that there’s a going to be a decline, and try and engage that young person in some dialogue around what they would like to have happened as you, as they start the withdrawal from their screen use. So, it could be that you drop down just an hour a day less, or period of like, one week, and then, you know, you continue dropping it down until you’re at a level that you forgot 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, so that’s primary age up to 16 years. When you consider how much homework, older, high school kids are doing, secondary kids are doing that’s inclusive for two hours. So, it’s not two hours above gaming on top of homework or TV; it’s total screen time that includes iPad’s fine use. So, they can use that up pretty quickly, and it’s really important as parents to model, you know, limits when it comes to your screen use.

So, that’s how you prepare a young person for a digital detox. Step one, you talk to them that you’ll adhere, get some feedback on it, and work out some [middlebrow] on how you can negotiate a gradual decline, and set a timeframe for that decline. So, it’s maybe reducing one hour per week, and the next three weeks, or it could be dropping two hours per week, depending on where you’re up to, when 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. 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 based it on what you don’t want to have happened. You don’t want academic decline and a reluctance to engage in face-to-face social activities. You want, most parents do want a young person with a broad range of interests, who is doing well academically and socially and who’s physically fit. So, those are your motivators and as a good intention to our well-intentioned parent, you know, you’re within your rights to set those limits and you don’t need to feel that, that you’re doing your young person any harm at all.

[00:12:59 – 00:17:08] For question #2, the listener asks for tips on how to minimize screen withdrawals. Doctor O’Brien suggests that the family holds a meeting, then the parents set the house rules and also putting daily limit on the screen use.

Doctor Kimberley: Okay, next question:

Q: What can parents do to minimize screen withdrawals?

So, the withdrawals are the part where things sometimes get out of hand, and there can be a lot of yelling. Sometimes, young people would slam things down, throw down, you know, gaming headsets and things like that.

So, number one, it’s to just have a family meeting, usually first thing in the morning before they are using their screens when everyone’s calm, has have a rest instead of feed, and talk about what is not okay within your household, so throwing available objects is 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. And if you’ve seen some behaviors in the past that you’re not comfortable with, I would suggest you bring it up, but you kind of minimize it in your, in the words that you choose. So, if you’ve had some minor offers, where you’ve had some, some pretty loud disputes perhaps, you might feel like that’s minimizing that the young person knows exactly what you’re talking about and what you’re 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.

So, you’re looking to set, 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 the job.

So, just putting that structure into place is usually what young people respond to because that’s what they’re used to. That’s good.

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 e-mail at support@quirkykid.com.au, that’s support@quirkykid.com.au. I would 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 comes, when it’s live, and you can hear me feedback about what listeners, 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’re a mother of, or a father of toddlers, you’ll probably know pretty clearly what a screen time withdrawal looks like. It’s often a lot of shrieking and back arching, and they can look like a really serious tension 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 would probably take about, you know, two to five seconds as screen time withdrawal protest could take up to 15 minutes, so 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.

So, the screen withdrawals do look different over time, but they do tend to escalate. Yeah, it can, like I used to an example before, can get to a point of physical confrontation, which is just what we don’t want in any, any family. So, please do try being respectful with the way that you manage screen withdrawals, not putting your hands on the young person or on the device if you can opt it because you don’t want to get into a tug-of-war. But setting some limits beforehand with some reasonable expectations, so, using a timer, when the timer goes off, you can even use like a setting within the home that all the internet shops often set on time, which can be helpful, so that parents and children are using the same limits. And that’s good role modeling.

[00:17:09 – 00:24:37] For the last question, the listener asks for tips on how to help his child broaden his interests. Doctor Kimberley suggests that the parents should encourage their child to engage in different activities to know what he would really enjoy doing and divert his attention away from too much of screen use. Letting the children try new things will be a help to boost their self-esteem.

Doctor Kimberley: Alright. Last but not the least, I want to wrap up with one really good question from a listeners who says:

Q: 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. So, at the clinic, I tend to use like a visual for most of the issues. And for this one, I use an upside-down triangle, so 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 a very narrow end, and then it broadens out into the widest side of the triangle, or the widest side of the funnel, which is the broader interests.

So, think to yourself, what sort of things do you do that, you know, broaden your interests? Do you research different activities that are in your area? We’re going to have a look at a notice board next time you’re on a sport team. Then you, do you pick up flyers, and then stick them up on the fridge and consider joining, you know, a ladies’ bike riding group or a clacking 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, all those bits of information up around the house, so that you and your young person can see that you do have really broad interests and you’re not just lock into one thing, and that’s a great role model broadening your interests.

Step two, is to encourage your young person to do some research on what sort of activities they may be interested in in your local area. So, it could be a local surf compet they want to go on watch. Or it could be, in serious cases where they’re really so heavily into gaming, it might be that they want to go to a live gaming event at an area, like a bigger venue in your capital cities. Sometimes, these things happen where it’s like, big screens and a lot of very keen Mindcrafters, or all together in the same huge venue, which can be an opportunity for kids to have real-life social interaction, which instead of them sitting alone and doing too much screen time for too many hours.

So, do you think about what sort of things they might be interested in? Some parents have taken their kids away on a trip to start to reduce their dependence on the screens even if it does mean bringing their iPad for brief period, at least it’s reducing what they would be using at home. And when your young person is broadening their interests, sometimes they’re a little bit shy and a little bit out of practice and a bit reluctant to join a new sort of social group. So, just do some zooming in slightly. So, circle the venue, maybe on the first week if it’s on, or you make it a free lesson that you can just circle around, stick your head in and have a look through the door, listen to the music, have a look at the instructor, check out the carpark. Just try and zoom in as closely as you can for that first week, or if you’re going to 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.

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 4 and 8 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, you know, one hour of ballet lesson deciding that’s not what they want to do, or going to a play group, 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 8 to 14 age range, please feel free to continue researching and checking out options in your area, or even outside of your area, because if kids that age also need to try new things and develop new skills because that will boost their self-esteem. When you’re talking to your friends or extended family members about what that young person is doing, you would notice that they generally feel pretty positive when you mention all the different activities they’re doing and how well they’re doing and a whole bunch of different things.

Yeah, if you’re speaking negatively about, you know, [camping] out of the house, he doesn’t want to go to the beach, you know, that just becomes a spiral of low-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 because they’re so flat that they don’t want to participate. But I see that as part of the screen addiction. So, please do, go and talk to your school counselor 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 the psychologist, and we would be happy to help you to develop your own withdrawal plan, and that could like a family plan of how you’re going to manage it in 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 that can sometimes stop quite early, you know, like 5 AM, when parents are not going to be able to do much in terms of supervision because they’re tired. So, try to navigate that as a family; it’s often a good place to start.

So, 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.

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 e-mail me at support@quirkykid.com.au and I’ll read your response or your feedback in the 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 Doctor Kimberley O’Brien. It’s my pleasure to bring you Impressive, and I hope to having you with me again next week. This was Impressive.

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