How to Outsmart Dopamine and Limit Your Kids' Screen Time

 How to Outsmart Dopamine

In a recent broadcast, NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff talked with Anne-Noel Samaha, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal about why it is so difficult to limit kids’ screen time and junk food, what dopamine really does in the brain (hint: it’s not happiness) and how to curb overconsumption.

In short, dopamine is all about motivation; it makes you want things. Ancient neural pathways designed to help us survive by telling our brains what is important. Whether it is seeking out something or continuing to do what you're doing, it tells your brain to pay attention to whatever triggers the surge.

But in our modern world, the neural pathway made to ensure we seek out water when we're thirsty or continue to forage for berries is now urging us to watch another TV show or eat another cookie. The brain reacts to any dopamine surge as if it’s critical to survival so when parents turn off the screen or take away the plate, it prevents kids' brains from finishing this "critical" task and they feel irritated, restless, and even angry. With firm limits set ahead of time, physical boundaries, and consistent follow-through, the feelings (and problematic behaviors that go with it) go away within 2 to 5 minutes, especially if the activity is minimal to begin with (think 30 minutes of screen time or one cookie) and then put out of sight. 

There are healthy sources of dopamine too: activities that we feel good doing and then afterwards we feel even better. Parents can outsmart dopamine by focusing on doing more of those, and think very carefully before introducing a new app, device or other trigger that makes you or your child feel worse afterwards. Read the transcript from the conversation on

StepUp Note

This shows us how the brain chemistry of “wanting” can interfere with the social behaviors of waiting, taking turns, and problem-solving that help children engage in playing and learning, at home and at school. The author includes four suggestions and examples to help us understand what we can do, and why: 1) remove the object cueing the problematic “I want” behavior; 2) look for activities that trigger enough wanting but not too much; 3) create micro-environments where the child cannot see or hear or be reminded of the “too tempting” device or toy; and 4) experiment with “less tempting” apps, games or toys.   

Note by Nancy W. Rowe, M.S., CCC/A



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