Why screens turn kids into demons

There are straightforward reasons — and some might be easy to fix.

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

When my kids play video games together or online with their friends, they're funny and charming and cooperative. But afterwards, they get angry and mean. Why do video games turn my delightful preteens into demons?

Sincerely,

Screens Are Great Until They’re Not

Dear Screens Are Great Until They’re Not,

I feel you on this one. Santa gave in and got the kids a Nintendo Switch this year. For the most part, it’s been fun. Just Dance 2021 is now my go-to weekend exercise regimen (although I do wish they had disco). And video games sure are a convenient form of pandemic childcare. But I’ve noticed that game-playing sometimes turns my kids into jerks. After they play, they’ll stomp upstairs, yell at everything in their path, and slam their bedroom doors. I’m often left thinking: Why did we — er, Santa — think this was a good idea? Could video games be poisoning my kids’ minds?

To find out, I reached out to doctors, psychologists and media researchers who advise parents on issues related to screens, and the answer I got was a reassuring no. I’m not going to delve into the controversy over the long-term effects of screens (if you want my take, pre-order my new book, which includes a chapter that dissects the science). But I do think that many of the seemingly scary short-term effects of screens on kids get less scary when you take a minute to put them into context. (By the way, if that recent New York Times article on the explosion of kids’ screen time during the pandemic freaked you out, here’s a Twitter thread that might make you feel better.)

Let’s start by analyzing a common scenario. Say your kid gets an hour of screen time after finishing her schoolwork. But when you tell her to stop so she can set the table for dinner, she loses her mind. To you — the parent who’s just spent an hour roasting a chicken while your kid plays Minecraft — your daughter’s outburst seems spoiled and obnoxious.

But let’s try to see the situation from her perspective. First, consider what you’re asking of your daughter in the most basic sense. You’re “demanding a shift of attention away from something easy or fun,” explains Michael Rich, a pediatrician who directs the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. Your kid has to pull herself out of her game to focus on you and process what you’re saying — which is probably something along the lines of “Time to turn the iPad off and set the dinner table!” Then, you’re also expecting your daughter not to be grumpy about having to turn off her awesome game to do something else — something she doesn’t want to do at all.

These would be pretty high expectations to have of an adult, let alone a kid with an underdeveloped frontal lobe who has trouble managing emotions. No wonder she goes bonkers! As Christopher Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at Stetson University, put it to me, “It's a question that answers itself: ‘I make my kids stop doing a thing that is fun to make them do a thing that is not fun — why are they grumpy?’” He suggests that parents ask themselves: Do you like it when someone tells you to stop doing something fun and take out the trash instead?

Screen-induced frustration could also fuel grumpiness. Maybe your kid is upset because she just lost eight races in a row or watched a show that made her sad or upset or annoyed. Or maybe, right when you tell your son “it’s time to turn the console off,” he’s three rounds into a five-round Mario Kart battle and on track to get his highest score ever. Turning the game off right then would be extremely frustrating — yet he might not have the skills to communicate that to you in the moment. Instead, he ignores you, hoping you’ll let him finish; you get mad and grab the controller from his hand; a ten-minute-long meltdown ensues.

“Video games aren't like checkers — you can't just like stop on a dime,” Ferguson explains. “You may be in the middle of a mission, or you may be playing with others online, and to stop would be to leave them hanging.”

The point is, there are all sorts of reasons why your kid might be surly after screen time, and those reasons do not need to include that screens are poisoning your kid’s brain. Parents often assume that games and screens do “some sort of mysterious magical voodoo” on their children, Ferguson says — but far more plausible is that something totally normal, understandable and human is at play.

Screens can mess with kids’ moods indirectly, too. They can take the place of physical activity, outdoor time, and sleep, all of which kids need for their mental and emotional health. If screens squeeze too many of these things out, they will indirectly fuel cantankerousness. Some kids may also experience screen-induced sensory overload: Their brains may over-respond to visual or auditory stimuli, overwhelming them and making them feel out of sorts or grouchy.

So what can parents do to make screen-time — and the hours afterward — easier? Here are a few tips.

  1. Give your kids time to transition.

    Dr. Rich suggests giving kids a five minute warning before the end of screen time — and to communicate the warning in a business-like way (not as a threat). If your kids play games built on longer-than-five-minute increments, you might want to give them even more time. (When my son plays Mario Kart, we give him a warning about ten minutes before we want him to stop, and say, “OK, this is your last round.”) It might even be worth having a conversation with your kids about the timing that would work best (if they’re old enough to figure that out).

    It may also help, before screen time, to tell your kids what they will be doing afterwards. Maybe you say, “OK, after Mario Kart, we're going to walk around the block with the dog,” suggests digital media educator Devorah Heitner, the author of Screenwise, one of my favorite books on managing screens with kids. (In general, as I’ve explained before, kids do best when their days are somewhat structured — when they have an idea of what’s going to happen when.)

  2. Don’t make your kids do unpleasant things after screen time.

    How many times did your parents bark at you, “Turn off the TV and do your homework!” Yet this is a surefire way to make kids frustrated and angry — you’re asking them to stop doing the most fun thing in order to do the least fun thing. It’s far better to schedule something fun, or at least neutral, after screen time so that the transition isn’t so hard. Maybe after video games they eat dinner or go on a bike ride. You want it to be that “you’re moving into something good,” Dr. Rich says.

  3. Problem-solve with your kids.

    A few weeks ago, I read the book The Explosive Child by Dr. Ross Greene. The book is aimed at helping parents with behaviorally difficult kids, but I think the book could help all parents, because what kid isn’t difficult at least some of the time? One of the book’s main arguments is that challenging kids are challenging because they lack certain skills — often flexibility, adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving (which, again, all kids lack to some degree). As Dr. Ross explains, parents can help their kids learn these skills by engaging with them empathetically and problem-solving with them collaboratively.

    When your child has trouble navigating a particular situation — say, the transition out of screen time — the first step in Dr. Ross’s approach is to gather information from your child (when everyone’s calm) about the challenging behavior and why it’s happening. If your kid often has a meltdown after screen time, you might say as neutrally as possible, “I’ve noticed that things are often difficult for you after screen time. What’s up?”

    Your kid may not immediately open up, and if so, you’ll want to gently drill for details. Eventually, you might get an explanation like, “You always make me go straight from playing video games to sitting down for dinner, but I’m all riled up and can’t sit still after playing, and it makes me crazy!” The goal is to understand what’s causing the problem from your child’s perspective. Importantly, in this step you don’t want to guess at the problem, get mad at your kid or try to solve the problem. You just want to understand it.

    Once you feel like you understand your child’s “unsolved problem,” as Dr. Ross calls it, you want to define it aloud for you and your child. This is when you add your own concern or perspective into the mix. You might say, “OK, so you find it hard to go straight from game time to sitting down with us at dinner. The thing is, time is tight on weekday evenings and I want to make sure you have enough time to eat before you have to do your homework.”

    The next step is to brainstorm — collaboratively, with your child — potential solutions to the problem that will address both of your concerns. It might start with you saying “Let’s think about how we can solve this problem,” or “I wonder if there’s a way for us to make sure you are able to play your game but also feel calm enough to sit down and eat dinner with us.”

    It’s a good idea to give your child the first crack at a solution because it lets him know you’re interested in his ideas. Then, if he (or you) can come up with an idea that addresses both of your concerns, try it out — and tweak it over time if necessary. Maybe, in this particular situation, the solution is to start screen time earlier and allow a 15-minute “cool down” period before dinner in which your son plays basketball outside. That way, he can play his video games and also get out his excess energy before dinner, and everyone’s happy. (An approach like this might also help the kids who feel overstimulated after screen time.)

  4. Set screen-time ground rules.

    One thing I talk about in my book is that it can help to create a digital roadmap for your family. The idea is to sit down together and arrive at a set of guidelines that will help your family enjoy the benefits of screens (bringing the family joy, connecting with others) while minimizing the downsides (fighting and interferences with sleep and family time). You can and should have these conversations regularly, because the guidelines will likely need to evolve over time and in different contexts (like, say, during a pandemic).

    For instance, if you’re worried that your kids are over-tired because they play video games too close to bedtime (the blue light that screens emit could make it harder for them to fall asleep), you might set a house rule that all iPads have to charge in the kitchen starting at 9pm, at least for a while. But don’t just set rules — brainstorm fun ways to use screens together, too. Maybe you decide to watch a movie together on Sunday afternoons and play Just Dance together every Saturday morning, both of which have become routines in our house.

    The idea that screens are “all bad” and dangerous is, in my opinion, a fallacy (and certainly not supported by the science). Sure, screens can be detrimental, but they can also be a source of joy, connection and creativity, not to mention an essential form of pandemic entertainment. But it can help to identify ways to draw out their benefits and minimize their downsides, and to collect the information you need to better understand why your kids are struggling and what you can do to help them.

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    Got a question you want answered? Email me at melindawmoyer at gmail dot com with the subject line “Is my kid the asshole?” I’ll keep you anonymous, promise.

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