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Mental Health

Parents Need to Combat Food, Screen Dopamine Surges

— July 6, 2023

Dopamine surges can drive children to continue impulsively engaging in activities.

Researchers are examining the link between dopamine, a neurotransmitter, and problematic behaviors in children such as junk food consumption and excessive screen time. While dopamine is often associated with pleasure, science suggests that it is more closely connected to desire rather than pleasure. This distinction is crucial when addressing addictive behaviors. Dopamine surges can drive individuals to continue impulsively engaging in activities even when they are no longer enjoyable, manifesting in these problem behaviors as children and issues like gambling and drug addiction in adults.

To combat dopamine addiction in children, there are four strategies for parents to consider. One helpful approach is to practice delayed gratification. Parents are advised to delay the introduction of new screens, junk foods, or other potential sources of dopamine surges for as long as possible. By delaying exposure to these stimuli, parents can minimize the initial impact and reduce the likelihood of addiction. This includes being mindful of the age at which children are introduced to electronics and monitoring the types of foods they consume.

Parents should also closely observe their child’s behavior during and after engaging in certain activities. If a child exhibits positive emotions during an activity but experiences negative emotions afterward, it is likely that the activity is triggering a dopamine surge which could be leading to depression after the fact and the need to continue the behavior.

Parents Need to Combat Food, Screen Dopamine Surges
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

The third strategy for parents is to create controlled environments. Instead of completely prohibiting problematic activities such as screen time, parents should establish clear boundaries for when and where these activities are permitted. For example, tablets may be allowed after school in the living room but prohibited in the car or during meals or bedtimes. By setting up specific microenvironments, parents can help regulate the occurrence and duration of these behaviors and reduce the chances of excessive indulgence.

Lastly, habit makeovers can be implemented to redirect dopamine-driven behaviors. For instance, if a child primarily uses a tablet for watching cartoons, a habit makeover could involve replacing some cartoon time with a more productive activity, such as using a language learning app, engaging in creative play, or participating in physical exercise. This approach helps shift the focus away from the problematic behavior and redirects it toward more beneficial and fulfilling pursuits.

It’s important for parents to catch the negative effects of dopamine surges in their children early on in order to limit the potential for kids to develop long-lasting mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety. While these behaviors may seem harmless in the short-term, this is usually not the case as time passes. As the brain develops, it loses plasticity, and it becomes much more difficult to combat the effects of addiction.

Thus, it is essential for parents to understand the role of dopamine in addictive behaviors and the impact it can have on their children’s well-being. By implementing these strategies, parents can proactively address dopamine addiction, promote healthier life choices, and support their children in developing a balanced relationship with screens and a healthier approach to eating.


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