When my son was younger, he was mostly even-keeled until someone pushed a button. Once deployed, it would unleash a torrent of big feelings I could only helplessly witness while he spun on the floor like a top. How could turning off the television after one episode of Octonauts fill his body with so much rage?
It was a tiring time. During the day, I followed him around the park and played car-smashing games. By the evening, I wanted to make dinner by myself. The alone time provided by Kwazii and the other Octonauts characters was much needed but not worth the meltdowns that came when it was time to stop watching. Eventually, I stopped turning on the TV.
Before there was a name, I was practicing anti-dopamine parenting — the deliberate practice of limiting stimuli like screen time because the withdrawal symptoms felt like a real-life reenactment of The Exorcist.
Neuroscience can help explain the behavior and describe what growing brains think when a pleasing stimulus is taken away. Engaging in an activity like watching a beloved television show can create peaks in dopamine, a natural chemical in the brain that transmits signals. Once dopamine is released, experts say it tells the brain that this activity must continue.
There is plenty of research on the potential harm of too much screen time, but anti-dopamine parenting is not just about reducing exposure to screens. It’s about understanding the neuroscience behind it to draw the best digital boundaries for your children. Here’s what parents need to know.
What is dopamine?
Dopamine influences the communication of many neurons and is integral to survival.
“If we don’t have dopamine, we die,” says Marwa Azab, an adjunct professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, who received her doctorate in neuroscience. “People often equate dopamine with being the happiness molecule. That’s actually not true,” she adds. “It’s more of a ‘want’ molecule.”
We all have a baseline level of dopamine, but when an activity or stimulus releases more dopamine, it can trick the brain into thinking, “This is so important for my survival,” Azab says.
In children, the withdrawal of desirable stimuli — watching a cartoon, playing with a new toy — can translate to tantrums or big feelings because dopamine makes the brain want to continue the activity.
What anti-dopamine parenting looks like
Let’s be clear: Parenting in a digital age is hard, especially without support and standardized screen guidelines. If your kids turn to screens, this doesn’t mean you are a bad parent. It means you are a human parent who, like all of us, is learning and making the best choices for your family. Understanding the science behind how your children’s growing brains interpret another SpongeBob SquarePants episode as a life-or-death situation can help inform these decisions.
For children — and adults — experts say the best indication to reassess digital boundaries is at the end of an activity. Suppose your child feels worse after the screen’s glow illuminates their face. In that case, it’s probably time for a developmentally appropriate conversation.
“You can say, ‘I gave you half an hour, but you still seem unhappy,’” suggests Azab. “‘What does that mean to you?’”
We’re doing something to our children without realizing it, adds Azab. The more they engage in activities that release a lot of dopamine, like playing video games or watching short videos, their baseline dopamine level goes up. This means they could crave more and more stimulus.
Some parents have seen improvement after cutting out that stimulus. Yvonne Golembeski of San Jose, Calif., used to let her 5-year-old son watch a few episodes of Bluey before bed. Once he turned into what she described as a “demon” afterward, she switched up screen time for story time.
Melinda Amato also noticed this behavior around screen time in her 4-year-old son, Jacinto.
“He has a very difficult time being OK moving on to another activity after one episode,” says Amato, who lives in Burbank, Calif. “It is easier to just avoid it all together.”
Although she does not identify as an anti-dopamine parent, Amato allows for situational screen time access — like on plane rides — and creates more space for daily outdoor and creative play. “We create enough screen-free play opportunities” that he doesn’t miss screens, she says.
Anti-dopamine parenting isn’t about enduring a long-term screen fast; that’s too much to ask for already overtaxed parents. And despite its flawed name — why would anyone be “anti” something they depend on for survival? — it’s really about finding a dopamine balance as kids navigate both digital and IRL (in real life) play. That balance is personal for every family, so it will take a lot of redrawing of digital boundaries through the kids’ ages and stages. Golembeski, for instance, hopes that over time her kids learn how and when “they can handle more screen time and show that they’re capable of handling their emotions when the TV needs to be turned off,” she tells Yahoo Life.
Here are some expert and parent-sourced advice on navigating your family’s path to dopamine balance.
First, expect withdrawals.
If you decide to regulate screen-time-related dopamine levels, know that the withdrawal could feel painful, said Azab. Parents should be supportive, especially if screen time is a routine. “Say, ‘I understand this is very painful. I know this doesn’t feel good, and you have icky feelings in your stomach. I understand that, and I’m here to help you cope with this,'” she suggests.
Keep electronic devices out of sight.
According to author James Clear, one of the central tenets of creating good habits and better decision-making is to create friction in the way of undesirable habits. As such, children may forget about screens when they’re out of sight and find other ways to play.
Be consistent with digital boundaries.
Don’t promise 30 minutes and allow for two hours. Children flushed with dopamine cannot regulate themselves.
Swap out easy, digestible content with more cognitively challenging alternatives.
If kids are clamoring for screens (or you need to make dinner in peace), offer access to online learning games or crossword puzzles in lieu of cartoons and YouTube videos. Accord to Azab, kids are either going to lose interest or engage in a more purposeful activity. It’s worth noting that even this access needs to be moderated.
Provide nonscreen alternatives.
Board games, the great outdoors or other forms of free play can bring relief. “I sometimes catch a break when we’re out in our backyard,” says Golembeski. “The kids can play by themselves for a bit, and I can just sit outside and look at the sky and blank out for a few moments.” It’s a win-win.
Model digital behavior.
Some days, I harp over my family screen habits in one moment, and then I zone out on my phone the next. When I catch myself in a zombie scroll, I narrate my pattern and course correction to my kids: “Oh, I got stuck, and I feel like I want to keep doing this, but I’m going to help my brain out and take a break.”