Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Family Life

Screen Time & Temper Tantrums: Helpful Tips for Parents

By: Jenny Radesky, MD, FAAP

Are you concerned about the time your child spends on digital devices? If so, you're hardly alone. Many parents and caregivers worry that screen time is taking over their child's day (and night), crowding out other activities they need for good health.

It helps to create a family media plan to set healthy digital habits. You may decide you want to cut back on the amount of time kids spend gaming, surfing the net or watching videos. But that doesn't fully address the temper tantrums that often result when it's time to stop.

When it's time to set down the device

Children may scream, cry or even fight back physically when they're asked to turn off their devices. (We've all witnessed the battles that happen when parents try to take a tablet away from a preschooler or engage older children in conversation when they're still immersed in an online game.)

These meltdowns can disrupt everyone's day, eventually turning into power struggles that move you farther from your goal of balanced, healthy tech use. Before you can address what's happening with your child, you need to understand how tech may influence their mental and emotional state.

Our brains on digital media: what's happening?

Regardless of age, most people find it hard to limit screen time. If you've ever watched videos on your phone for hours or gotten lost in a question-and-answer website, you've felt the struggle yourself.

The dopamine loop

When we are doing anything fun like playing video games or exploring social media, our brain releases dopamine, a brain chemical linked with positive feelings. When we stop doing that pleasurable thing, dopamine drops. This drop can leave us feeling grouchy and resentful. In fact, a former social media executive recently expressed personal guilt about the way digital channels exploit what he called the "dopamine loop."

Emotional avoidance

Sometimes media use isn't about pleasure-seeking, but avoidance of feelings of distress or boredom. Then, when the media goes away, the distress returns. (That's because we didn't deal with it, we just distracted ourselves or our kids from it!)

Escaping the loop is hard for all of us. But adults have the mental skills needed to recognize and manage their feelings so they can return to other activities. Toddlers and younger school-aged children are still learning to deal with anger, frustration and disappointment.

Temper tantrums reveal that your child is finding it impossible in the moment to cope with these emotions. Even teens can become angry, sullen and defiant when they're asked to step away from digital media.

Preventing media meltdowns

If you've ever lost your own temper when your child melted down over tech limits, forgive yourself. We're all learning how to cope with these new and evolving challenges.

Here are suggestions for preventing conflict by working out agreements that all family members can follow.

Lay the groundwork.

Toddlers and preschoolers already know they can't eat ice cream at every meal or spend all their time playing with a single toy. A healthy life requires balance and variety. You can build on this concept when you talk about screen time.

Talk about the fact that people and families need time for work, school, conversation, meals, exercise and rest. Digital technology is part of our lives, but it can't steal time from other healthy activities.

Adapt this conversation for your child's age and level of understanding. Give older kids and teens the chance to share their perspectives, too. Listen without judgment. You'll want to make room for what each family member has to say while being clear that life balance is the ultimate goal.

Turn the conversation into a shared plan.

Children and teens find it easier to accept tech limits when there are common-sense rules in place, especially if they have a voice in creating them.

Here are some tips to help engage family members in shaping a media plan for everyone to follow.

Your plan will reflect your needs and lifestyle, defining which kinds of content are okay for kids and which are off-limits. You can specify times when digital devices must be put away—for example, during meals, family outings or conversations.

Emphasize that the rules are for everyone.

Kids of all ages will resent limits that adults don't follow themselves. If you find yourself glancing at your phone or tablet constantly when you're with your kids, reconsider your habits. When you make a mistake, simply acknowledge it and reconnect with your child. "Please forgive me for texting just now. Let me put my phone away so we can talk."

What to do when screen time tantrums happen

Despite your best-laid plans, tech meltdowns WILL happen. They're especially likely when kids are tired, hungry, restless or stressed out after a long day. In fact, craving screen time might be a sign they're trying to cope with these feelings. Here are suggestions for helping children manage when it's time to stop surfing.

Keep your cool.

When kids have tantrums, parents need to avoid having one too. Though dealing with a screaming, sullen child is never easy, remind yourself to take a few deep breaths. Pausing before speaking or acting can help you maintain the calm you need to help your child.

Don't lecture.

This isn't the time to go over the rules, since a child in meltdown mode can't think logically. Simply hold your ground, using as few words as possible: "I know it's tough, but it's time to put your tablet away."

Let device settings be your helper.

Most video game consoles, tablets and devices have built in time settings that you can use. Before they play, remind your child of the time limit and what their plan is for using that time. The device can ping them a reminder when it's time to stop.

All that said, no two children are alike. If you've found warnings are useful for your child, consider using a timer they set themselves. This models the idea of self-regulation and helps kids feel more in control.

Give them space.

Kids can benefit from having a spot where they can go to calm down. This might be a quiet corner in the family room, a bedroom nook or any other place where they feel safe.

If your child starts to rage when screen time ends, ask them to go to their quiet spot until they feel better. If necessary, gently pick up a younger child or lead them by the hand. Tell them you'll be glad to see them again when they're ready to reconnect.

Redirect physical aggression.

If your child is acting out physically, don't keep the tantrum going by suggesting they punch a pillow (or anything else). Studies show it's more effective to guide your child toward something that burns physical energy, but has a simple focus. For example, researchers found that tossing a pillow in the air and challenging kids to bat it in a new direction helped work off momentary tension.

Work mindfully with tweens and teens.

At times, older kids may resist tech limits even more fiercely than younger ones. This might call for different strategies that track closely with your child's personality and interests. You could offer to join them for a quick run, a few minutes shooting baskets or a frisbee session in the park. If they love music, let your teen take over the smart speaker with a 5-minute blast of their favorite track (dancing optional).

These are all examples of a technique called "trading up," which moves people from one favorite activity to another they like even more. (Try it with younger kids, too: offer a beloved book, cuddle time with the family pet or a small chore that makes them feel part of the group.)

Help them reconnect.

When kids (and adults) are immersed in virtual activities, they're literally in a different world. You can help build a bridge back to reality by entering the room or sitting down near your child, quietly observing what they're doing. When you see signs that they're willing to engage, offer a warm smile of encouragement. This helps them move from the virtual space they're in to the here-and-now of being with you.

Can kids get addicted to digital technology?

Difficulty switching gears does not automatically mean your child is hopelessly hooked on tech. Still, it's important to maintain a steady sense of your child's screen time and how it affects their behavior. Consult your child's pediatrician if you're concerned about:

Meltdowns that happen nearly every time your child is asked to stop scrolling, watching or playing—no matter how thoughtfully you manage the situation.

Changes in a child's sleep, hygiene, eating habits or social activities that seem related to excessive screen time.

Difficulty handling frustration or boredom without screens. (For example, they can't tolerate a short car trip or a few minutes waiting for a restaurant meal without demanding a tablet or phone.)

Withdrawing further and further into the virtual world, isolating themselves from friends and family to spend more time online.


Pediatricians are mindful of tech challenges in family settings. They can help you sort out what's typical from signs that kids may need extra support.

Kids of all ages will have trouble putting digital devices down from time to time. Brain chemistry makes it hard for all humans to stop doing something they enjoy. Digital tech is designed to hold our attention, which can lead to resistance when it's time to stop.

Advance planning can prevent struggles, but it won't eliminate every meltdown. Responding calmly, showing understanding and holding your ground are all essential ways to support your child in the moment. Your support will help kids build healthy tech habits they'll need throughout life.

More information

About Dr. Radesky

Jenny Radesky, MD, FAAP, is the David G. Dickinson Collegiate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. She is Director of the Division of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics and focuses clinically on autism, neurodiversity, and advocacy. Her NIH-funded research examines the use of mobile and interactive technology by parents and young children, parent-child relationships and child social-emotional development. She authored the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statements "Media and Young Minds" and "Digital Advertising to Children" and is a co-Medical Director of the SAMHSA-funded AAP Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health.

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright @ 2024)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
Follow Us