Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t been there; struggling with a hangover. It’s never pretty and often involves you wanting people to leave you alone, to lie still, and to consume copious quantities of snack foods in an attempt to feel better and stop the churning.

Digital hangovers – well, they’re not that different really. With screen time often sneaking up in school holidays, and young people spending long periods of time with their heads buried in their screens, it goes without saying that the aftermath is often far from pretty.

What’s going on with that mood?

Ah yes – school term is approaching so you’re trying really hard to get your routine back under control and to starting to limit screen time. Fun times! It’s every parent’s joy to hear the mournful wailing of their youngster about their friends not having such strict (OTT, awful, controlling) parents, and about their parent just generally being an intentional digital fun-wrecker.

Enter moodiness that comes dressed up in all sorts of fun disguises. There’s sulking, resistance, tantrums, huffiness, irritability and exhaustion just to name a few of the key residents who move right in and take up emotional space in a child and carve out a fair chunk of family life and happiness.

There are a number contributing factors at play:

Sensory processing – On screen, a child isn’t processing a range of sensory factors all at once like they are in family life where the TV might be going, a chore might be underway, a parent might be talking and a sibling screaming. The ability to regulate and co-process in a regular sensory environment takes lots of practise.

When a child is immersed in the online space, it’s busy but just them and the screen. Yes, there might be some audio, but it’s all focused around this one little world, so returning to the busyness of family life with chores, siblings, smells and demands can prompt a moody meltdown.

Dopamine crash – The in’s and out’s of dopamine and screen-time needs lots of explanation – let’s do that another time. Suffice to say that on-screen, children’s dopamine levels are high. It’s our focus and reward brain chemical and lots of it makes us feel in the zone, engaged and buzzed. I don’t know about you but wiping down the bathroom bench and unloading the dishwasher often don’t leave me feeling engaged or buzzed. So, after a period of dopamine high on-screen and then a return to family life, it is little wonder that a dopamine crash follows and takes down with it a child’s mood and ability to cope with the mundaneness of everyday life.

Exhaustion – Online, our children are being hit with a barrage of information – from friends, gaming platforms, chat apps, banner advertisements… There is just so much to process, and the reality is that our human brains haven’t yet fully evolved to be able to cope with a world of always on, connected and demanding coming at us at a diabolical pace. So, feeling fatigued after a period of time on-screen is to be expected. You might be astounded that a child who has not moved from their screen in 8 hours except to pee and eat is so exhausted, but don’t be. That young and developing brain is coping with a rapid flow of information that, in a day, would equate to the same exposure you had at the same age in a week!

3 top tips for managing a digital hangover

  1. Start the digital extraction now. Yep, brace yourself, the time is now to start to reduce time on-screen. Just take it slow. Make a plan with your child about what their screen time can be each day and reduce it every day but a little until you get to school-acceptable screen time. You should be at that time at least 5 days before the school term starts.
    If you don’t do this, what will happen is that your child will start the year tired and still with their head in their digital world. They will then gravitate to other children also wanting to play out e-games or talking about all the in’s and out’s of online dramas is high. And that, in turn means, that your child, one way or another, will always be connected to their digital life, always on, always planning, thinking and waiting.
  2. Inserting regular breaks increasing in regularity and time. You may well have to engineer these little breaks during online time with a cleverly placed snack, chore needing doing, or visit to granny’s. Long stretches online are particularly tricky for children to pull up out of and back into the real world around them. You’re going to need to give plenty of notice and some reminders to finish up as end time approaches. Increase the length of the break – even stretching it out just a little while it’s happening the closer you get to starting school. This hugely increases a child’s tolerance for being off their screen without too much nagging about getting back on.
  3. Teach mood awareness and management. Yes, easier said than done and always best avoided in the middle of a meltdown. Helping a child to recognise the fluctuations in their mood, especially in relation to their on-screen time provides them with an interesting insight into how screen time interacts with their ability to manage their emotions. It can be as simple as asking your child to rate themselves on mood each night before bed on a 1 to 10 scale. 1 – managed really well with little change in mood coming off screen and 10 being a full on meltdown. When you’re nudging up towards 5’s, 6’s and above, you also want to ask what might help to make that one number less the next time they’re asked to come off screen.

There’s an old saying about a stitch in time saving nine. The earlier we get on to managing screen time that slowly creeps up in our homes, and onto teaching the skills to manage this challenging space, the better. It’s so much harder when you’re up against time deadlines – like starting school, and frequent behaviours outbursts. Make a plan, tell your child and then get it done! It will make the start of the school year so much easier.

DiGii Social helps children and their families to learn to skills of being safe, civil and savvy online in their formative pre-teen years. It uses exceptional technology to provide children with a safe sandbox environment to do their messy learning in, gently guided by our virtual teacher. If you’d like to find out more about getting DiGii Social into your school, contact us HERE.