It’s a familiar story. Your beautiful, gentle child gets their eyes (and/or hands) on a screen and, when it’s time to stop, you find they’ve been replaced by a whining, foot-stomping, NO-screaming, sibling-teasing stranger. Many parents report some screen-time aftereffects, whether it’s a 3-year-old getting cranky after Paw Patrol, or a 10-year-old bickering with his sibling after video games.

Why do some kids become irritable, moody, or emotional after screen time?

A common explanation is that screens cause overstimulation.

But what does this mean, exactly? Are there other potential explanations for post-screen time moodiness? What do we do about it?

It’s our third and final installment of Myth-Busting March, and admittedly, I’m starting to regret this naming convention. Though catchy and (importantly) alliterative, you’ve likely seen in our prior myth-busting posts that they do not suggest that everything you’ve heard about kids and screens is a “myth.” Rather, we’re breaking down what we know and what we don’t, and clarifying exactly what we mean when we use buzzwords like dopamineexecutive functioning, and (today) overstimulation.

With that said, let’s dive in and [she whispers slowly, cautiously, under her breathbust those myths, bust those myths.

What is “overstimulation”?

Generally, when people talk about screens and overstimulation, they’re talking about what’s happening in a child’s sensory system. Sensory processing refers to the ways that we capture, filter, and make sense of sensory input (e.g., sounds, sights, movement and touch) from our environments. Sensory regulation happens when we do this (i.e., integrate some sensory input and block other input) effectively.1 Overstimulation (or “sensory overload”) occurs when the sensory demands of an environment are too great to regulate effectively—typically causing stress, irritability, or overwhelm.

Sensitivity to sensory input, and ability to regulate it, occurs on a continuum. Many kids have some sensitivity to some sensory input (e.g., many kids don’t like the feel of tags on their t-shirts, or loud sounds).

For the average kid, certain media experiences certainly can cause overstimulation—an extremely loud, fast, brightly-colored video game experience, for example, might be a lot of sensory input for anyone to manage. This could be one factor in causing irritability after screen time. But this is going to vary considerably for different kids and different types of media.

What about kids with sensory processing difficulties?

Some kids have significant challenges with sensory processing. There is debate about whether these difficulties should be classified as their own disorder (i.e., Sensory Processing Disorder) or as symptoms of another disorder.2 Either way, studies estimate that roughly 17% of kids (one in six) struggle with sensory processing. These numbers are considerably higher in youth with certain conditions, like ADHD (roughly 69% or more of kids) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (as many as 93% of kids). This can take many forms, but often, these kids are either over or under responsive to sensory input.

For kids who are over responsive to sensory input, screens may be overwhelming, with their loud sounds, fast dialogue, repeated swiping, and bright colors. For kids who are under responsive to stimuli in the outside world, screens may provide the sensory input they crave to feel more comfortable in their environments. Some kids may be sensitive in one area (e.g., sounds) but not another (visual). Both of these situations might lead to outsized difficulties managing emotions (irritability, frustration) when screen time is over.

Takeaway: Screens engage our sensory systems, and for some kids, this can be a factor in post screen-time outbursts, tantrums, and upset feelings. This is a particular challenge for kids who have difficulty managing “sensory input,” which is common in those with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and (in some cases) anxiety. But is this the only factor in post-screen time moodiness for most kids? No.

What else could be causing it?

Some other potential causes for post-screen time moodiness or challenging behavior include:

They are (momentarily) lacking some skills

Recall that certain types of screen use, for some kids, can cause short-term deficits in executive functioning skills (like memory, attention, and self-regulation). Managing our moods and behavior requires those skills. So, regulating emotions might not be our kids’ strong suit in the moments after screen time ends.

It’s hard to stop fun things

Have you ever gotten a really good massage? Did you *love* the moment the lights went on and you had to shimmy your clothes back over your damp, oil-covered skin? No. It’s a bummer when fun things end! As discussed last week, screens likely activate the reward system of the brain—but I’m not sure we need a brain-based explanation to tell us that, a lot of the time, screens are fun. And stopping fun things can put us in a bad mood.

They’re copycats

Kids copy the things they see. This is true for both positive and negative behaviors. There is evidence that playing violent video games, for example, can result in children modeling aggressive behavior, and, alternatively, that watching shows with prosocial messages can encourage positive behavior. Imitation may be especially likely with younger kids. So, if you’re noticing your child’s behavior worsen after they watch particularly mischievous, mean, or whiny characters, this could be part of it.3

It’s hard to stop in the middle of things

Let’s imagine you’ve spent the last hour writing a long, in-depth email to your boss requiring lots of background research and careful wording. You’re about 75% of the way done, and then your spouse comes over and, without warning, deletes the whole thing because “it’s time for dinner.” This would be..not cool.4 Your child might feel the same way when forced to quit a video game halfway through—maybe they were working with a team, making progress toward a goal, feeling they were this close to reaching the next level or finding out what happens next. Definitely a bummer.

They’re not doing other stuff

We have a lot of evidence that physical activity has a positive impact on mood, as does time spent outside. By definition, our children are not doing those things if they’re inside, sedentary, and staring at a device. Their mood may, thus, be worse after screen time in comparison to how they feel after those other activities.

They’re having a lot of feelings

Screens can bring up a lot of feelings—both positive (e.g., joy over a funny episode)5 and negative (e.g., frustration at losing a game, fear of the moment Macaulay Culkin screams in Home Alone6). We know that screens can arouse strong emotions, but does this qualify as “hyperarousal,” as we often hear about on the Internet? The “arousal” in this term generally refers to our bodies’ physiological arousal—the nervous system’s response to stress. In extreme situations, this can include “fight-or-flight” symptoms like spiking heart rate, sweating, and rapid breathing.

This is certainly possible during, for example, a highly-engrossing video game or horror movie, and for some kids, can occur as a result of “sensory overload” (discussed above). But for the average kid, watching an average TV show, entering “fight-or-flight” mode is unlikely. More likely, they’re just having some feelings, which can continue even after the screen time is over, and make it difficult to transition to other activities.

What can we do about it?

Emotions, and related behaviors, have many causes. Often, we can’t easily identify all those causes. If we’re noticing our kids are cranky after screen time, or that their behavior is worse, it’s tempting to want to pin it all on a single biological or physiological explanation, but as with all behaviors, it is likely the result of a complex interaction of both internal and external factors.7

Screens can have a negative impact on kids’ mood and behavior, and “overstimulation” can certainly play a role. But not all kids, not all screens, and not every time.

So what can we do? Here are some ideas:

  1. Reduce screen time. I know this is an obvious one, but if your child is repeatedly struggling with their mood or behavior after using screens, you might consider taking a break. Different screen time “plans” work for different families, and a less-is-more approach might work for you. Also—if kids are using screens at the expense of other mood-boosting activities (sleep, time outside, physical activity), it may be time to cut down.
  2. Experiment with different types of media use and content. Sensory experiences are highly individualized—everything from the colors on the screen, to their familiarity with an episode, to the soundtrack, to the device type can all make a difference. So, find what works (and doesn’t work) for your child.
  3. Experiment with different stopping points. If their screen time is regularly ending right at the moment when they’re about to advance to the next level of their video game, a later stopping point may be the answer. If screen time is dragging on to a point where they’re restless and irritated, stopping earlier is likely worth a try.
  4. Talk to them about it. Pick a time when everyone is calm and discuss post-screen time transitions. Depending on their age, you might open with something like “I’ve noticed it can feel hard to turn off the iPad when screen time is over. Why do you think that is? What can we do to make it easier?” From there, you can brainstorm solutions. This might include suggesting coping skills to try next time they’re frustrated screen time is over.
  5. Make a plan. Try working together with your child to come up with a screen time transition plan. Maybe it’s easier for them to stop after a certain number of minutes, or, alternatively, after a certain number of episodes or video game levels. Maybe they’d do well with a five-minute warning. Maybe certain times of day, or certain shows or screen activities should be on- or off-limits. Make a plan, and make it clear that you can always come back and revise it later.
  6. Consider post-screen activities. As discussed previously, immediately after screen time might not be the ideal time for cognitively-taxing activities (e.g., homework, organizing toys). Depending on your child’s sensory preferences, it might also be a good time for a low-energy activity (e.g., doing a puzzle) or a high-energy one (e.g., jumping jacks).
  7. Be consistent. As with anything, when we tell our kids screen time is over, we really have to mean it (easier said than done, I know). If we tell them to put down the iPad, and then they whine and cry and tantrum, and then we change our minds, what happens? They learn that all they need to do is whine and cry and tantrum, and then they’ll get more screen time. You can still be nice, of course “I know this is really hard. You really want to keep watching!” but do your best to remain firm: “It’s time to turn off the iPad.”
  8. Turn off autoplay. Simple, but effective. Sometimes a “stopping cue” (i.e., a video or episode ending) can signal to kids that screen time is over, and make it a bit easier to transition away. Here’s how to do this on YouTube and Netflix.

Note: if your child is struggling with sensory processing difficulties, talk to your pediatrician. They can refer you to an Occupational Therapist, mental health provider, or another professional with expertise in this area.

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About the Author: Jacqueline Nesi
Jacqueline Nesi, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and the author of the popular newsletter Techno Sapiens.

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