The worst thing about letting my daughter watch a few shows is having to turn off those shows.
It isn’t so bad now that she’s six, but at around three, it was intense. I’d brace myself every time I’d enter the zone — that space between her eyeballs and the television.
Standing in a place where she’d see me, I’d give her the warning: “Five more minutes, OK?” She’d nod her head and then motion for me to step out of the way. When the time was up, I’d grab the remote. “Alright, that’s it!” I’d say, and turn the TV off.
And then, like clockwork, her body would melt off the sofa as she’d cry, “WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY,” even if the show had ended.
The post-screen-time meltdown is no joke. For many parents, it’s a daily occurrence — the moment the TV, iPad or Nintendo Switch shuts down is the moment the screams, whines and tears begin.
(You can see how it all goes down in this video where Jimmy Kimmel challenges parents to sneak up on their kids and turn off the television while they’re playing Fortnite. As you might imagine, things do not end well.)
I’ve learned that there is a biological reason for this dramatic, seemingly uncontrollable response. While watching a show or playing a game, our brains produce dopamine, a “happy” hormone. When screen time ends, the dopamine levels fall. Adults have the reasoning skills to override the drop and move on to other tasks, but children do not.
Screens also put kids in a sort-of hypnotic state. When you turn off a show or game, you’re ripping them out of the world they were absorbed in.
Imagine you’re eating a plate of cheese and someone yanks it away from you as you’re about to grab your next bite. Or you’re about to complete a 1000-piece puzzle and someone pushes the whole thing off the table. Or you’re belting out your favourite Broadway tune and right as you’re about to reach the chorus, someone changes the song to “Baby Shark”.
You get the idea. You’d be disoriented, and pissed.
But there is a trick to end screen time without a struggle, and it’s one that I endorse. Anita Lehmann explains it on Motherly:
Whenever you decide that screen-time should come to an end, take a moment to sit down next to your child and enter his world. Watch TV with him, or sit with him while he plays his game massacring aliens on the screen. This doesn’t have to be long, half a minute is enough. Just share his experience. Then, ask him a question about it.
The strategy comes from French clinical psychologist Isabelle Filliozat. Basically, you’re incepting yourself in your kid’s screen-time world so that you can gently bring him back to real life. The transition no longer feels so abrupt.
I’ve done this before with my daughter, and it works.
“Why is Mum Tiger so mad?” I once asked her while she was sitting on the sofa, watching Daniel Tiger.
“Daniel brought the beach indoors!” she told me, excited to talk about the plot of her favourite show.
“Oh, that’s so messy,” I replied. “I would be upset, too.”
A minute later, I told her it was time to turn off the TV, and she did so without drama. And then we went off to do something else with no tears in between.
Try this trick the next time your kid is entranced in their favourite show or game. They might still be a little bummed when it’s time to turn it off, but you’ll likely avoid a full-fledged meltdown. And you might even catch that crazy action scene in PJ Masks.