Let’s face it; in this digital world, it’s nigh impossible to ban screen time for kids. No matter how much you may try, devices are an essential part of everyday life. But sometimes it all becomes too much.

Many parents find themselves dealing with young children who end up spending too much time on devices. This is especially so for primary school-aged kids who have a new sense of autonomy and independence. They may resort to throwing tantrums when a phone or tablet is taken away from them.

To find out how parents can curb excessive screen time, we talk to Dr Vivien Yang, a registered educational and child psychologist from Bloom Child Psychology, and Ms Vyda S. Chai, a clinical psychologist from Think Kids Pte Ltd.

Firstly, a quick overview

According to Ms Chai, dopamine is released in the brain when we use a screen. This entails a weakened impulse control that results in almost an addiction to screen time. Social media (such as YouTube and Instagram) also build a reliance on apps to connect with friends. On top of that, Dr Yang says online games are specifically designed to be hard to put down. Older kids may also use them as a way to fulfil their emotional needs should they be doing badly in school; they can get the sense of achievement they crave out of winning games.

However, screen time isn’t inherently bad, says Dr Yang. In fact, it can help children learn and socialise when utilised properly. But when they are not, there can be many implications for your little one’s health. Some examples include weight gain and obesity, emotional problems (especially in girls), and psychosocial health issues such as depression and anxiety, says Ms Chai.

So if you need to talk to your child about their screen time usage, but want to ensure it’s an open, honest and productive conversation, here’s what you can do:

Have an open discussion

Your children may not have the capacity to target their extensive screen time usage by themselves, and that’s where you come in. The first step comes with choosing the right time and place to address your concerns with them. According to Ms Chai, it’s best to choose a time when everyone is calm and comfortable. “This can make a difference in how your child receives and accepts the discussion and can help avoid a full-blown temper tantrum.”

It’s also helpful to start with empathy, as Dr Yang recommends. If you have had your own struggles with screen time, you can share your experience with your kid and acknowledge that it’s not easy to cut back.

And lastly, have an open discussion. What are the pros and cons of screen time? Go through them with your little ones and let them come up with some points too – don’t make the moment into a lecture. Instead, allow them to be heard and understood.

As with all topics, ensure that you use age-appropriate language

Next, set realistic boundaries

One big hurdle you might face is that you feel you don’t have enough time to supervise your kids. But it’s not necessary to be too hard on yourself. “How many parents have the luxury of time to supervise their children after school?” says Dr. Yang. “With the limited time most working parents have with their children, it can be hard to set and enforce boundaries.” In such cases, Dr Yang normally sees parents resorting to drastic actions like confiscating devices.

However, Ms Chai firmly advises parents not to do so, as it will leave children socially and academically isolated. On top of that, she cautions against using screen time as a tool to reward or punish. “Whilst this could help children learn to work for and appreciate the use of technology, it may also lead to them prioritising playing on their smartphones over more meaningful social activities, such as spending time with family or friends,” she says.

As with any other difficult discussion with kids, there are a few things that you as a parent have to remember. Dr Yang stresses that the long-term goal is to teach your kids how to manage their own screen time, not for you to have full control over them. She recommends setting discussion questions that will allow them to think critically about the situation.

Parents should also set realistic boundaries that can actually be enforced. This could include no phones until after dinner, for example. Ms Chai also encourages parents to have frequent check-ins with their young ones to see how their progress is going. In the process, validate their efforts and brainstorm ways to continue improving together.

Dealing with tantrums

But what happens if you try to enforce rules and your kids inevitably fight back? Dr. Yang acknowledges that tantrums are actually perfectly normal. This is because of the relationship between dopamine and screen time mentioned earlier. This means that when they no longer engage in screen time, they experience what many addicts face when their vices are taken from them and they break down.

When this happens, Ms. Chai’s advice is not to argue with an angry child.

“They are too emotional to think rationally and would be less open to negotiation. Instead, stay calm and acknowledge the emotion (e.g. “I can see you are upset. It must be really hard to stop playing that game).” Give your child time and space to work through what they are feeling and only resume discussions when they are calmer.

Remember: The end goal isn’t for them to stop using devices

At the end of everything, remember that this “battle” with screen time is more than just stopping them from using devices. Dr. Yang stresses that this is a teaching moment to educate your kids on how to self-manage.

Says the educational and child psychologist, “This goes beyond just setting rules and consequences. It requires having conversations and asking questions that guide children to learn to think for themselves.”

At the end of the day, there are no hard rules on how much screen time your kids are allowed. Every parent has different expectations of their kids and all mums are on different motherhood journeys. Set a goal you think is achievable and that you’d like to work towards. Don’t be influenced by other parents. If you need to switch on the television to keep your kids occupied while you do the dishes, don’t feel pressured to change it if it’s a routine that works for you. Remember: it’s up to you to set the rules for your kids.