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  • Kerin Riley, MS, LMFT

Does your family need a Digital Detox?

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

Do you feel like you are constantly arguing about devices with your child? Is your child cranky or irritable during or after use? Are you constantly trying to get their attention? Is asking them to stop using their devices a major fight? It may be time for a digital detox.

Why are devices so captivating?

Social media, video games, and smart phones activate the reward systems in our brains using intermittent reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement is the variable delivery of a reward after a specific behavior is performed (Haynes, 2018). Think of slot machines, when you pull the lever, you may trigger a cascade of coins or get nothing. Social media, email, and video games act on our brains in the same way. This is why we constantly refresh social media feeds and email applications. Our brains have become wired to seek the reward and subsequent release of dopamine, continuing to reinforce the pattern (Haynes, 2018).

The frontal cortex is the part of the brain 

that controls decision making, 

impulse control, and executive functioning.

What is the impact on the brain?

We can see how technology shapes our behaviors through the reward system of our brains, but is there a long term impact on adult brains? On children’s brains? Research has indicated that excessive technology use in early childhood and adolescence has a negative impact on the development of the frontal cortex, and an increased prevalence of attentional symptoms (McCarthy, 2018). Other studies suggest that excessive technology use in children also correlates with structural changes in the brain, and with increased prevalence of depression, anxiety, and risk factors for suicide (Zhou, 2011; Twenge, 2017).

How to respond

If your family is struggling with technology use it may be time to implement a digital detox. Decide if you want to completely eliminate technology for a period of time or do you want to reduce use gradually? In both options, consistency is key. A study found that children were more likely to willingly accept limits around technology and engage in physical activities when they believed their parents would consistently enforce limits around technology use (Carlson, 2010).


A Warning: Sudden limit setting or a complete removal of devices can sometimes result in emotional or behavioral dysregulation in children. Please make these changes in a mindful manner with a solid plan and supports, such as a therapist or pediatrician, in place.


Setting limits to reduce use? Consider using a who, what, when, where, why, how approach. 

  • Who in the family can use certain types of technology/devices?

  • What are you hoping to gain from using the technology?

  • When are appropriate times to engage with technology/use devices?

  • Where in the home is it accessed? 

  • Why are you using technology/a device?

  • How long is appropriate to use?

Limits aren’t enough? Implement a total digital detox.

  • Set a goal: Do you want to go tech-free for one day? A full weekend? Stand in line at the grocery store without refreshing your feeds? 

Make your goal:

Measurable: 24 hours vs. "a while"

Realistic: 2 hours vs. 2 weeks

Specific: Stop using phone before bed

  • Make a plan: Without technology to fill the gaps, you may find yourself and your kids feeling bored. With the prevalence of technology in our lives, we don’t feel “bored” too often and this feeling can sometimes be felt as a negative emotion. Be proactive about this by planning activities, re-engage in hobbies, or find new ones!

  • Move your devices: Make it hard to slip back into use during your detox. This might mean putting phones in a box in a closet, hiding a TV remote, and buying an analog alarm clock.

  • Give a warning & provide options: A tech detox has the possibility to result in dysregulation. Providing notice, and opportunities to participate in the decision making process. Slowly decreasing use prior to doing a longer detox can be helpful in eliminating some negative behaviors (Kardaras, 2017). For example:

“Over the next week we are going to reduce tech usage, would you like me to give you ten minute warnings or five minute warnings when it is time to put devices away?”

“In one week we are going to put away our devices for a few days, would you like to pick a safe place to store them or should I?”

“Today you can pick activities to do together, would you like to play a game or go on a walk together?”

Tech Reintroduction

Technology is here to stay. Following a digital detox consider how to mindfully re-introduce technology back into family life and keep the healthy habits you worked so hard to develop.

  • Moderation: Talk specifically with kids about what healthy, moderate use looks like, and how to know when you need a break from devices. Behavior changes, sleep difficulties, and irritability are all signs of too much use.

  • Safety: Staying safe online is part of healthy tech use. Review with kids what apps and platforms are appropriate and how to detect unsafe users. 

  • Manage incoming stimulation: If you plan on reducing technology use post-detox, make it easier on yourself and delete highly-interactive apps, shut off notifications, turn on a blue-light filter on phones or tablets, and set available screen time limits on devices.

  • Remember it’s not all bad: Don’t be afraid to talk about the positives! There are apps that can be beneficial for our mental health such as Calm, Headspace, Pacifica, and Three Good Things. It also provides an opportunity for connection to friends and family!

Be a Model

If we are asking children to reduce or eliminate technology use, we need to model good habits. One way to demonstrate consistency within a family is by using a Family Media Agreement (Common Sense Media). This is a contract that agrees when to use media, for how long, and also reviews safety protocols for internet use. 

Family Resources: 


Kerin Riley is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has experience working with children, couples, and families. She has a special interest in working with children and families who are coping with the impact of a traumatic experience or struggling with anxiety. Kerin works from an attachment-based and trauma-informed perspective. She has extensive training in Play Therapy and Child Parent Psychotherapy and uses both modalities in her practice to promote healing and growth. Kerin approaches clients from a place of compassion and respect. She enjoys collaborating with clients to identify and utilize their own individual strengths to reach their goals and create change.

 In-network with Anthem BCBS, Cigna (Medicaid pending)

603.912.0484 extension 4



Carlson S., Fulton J., Lee S., Foley J., Heitzler C., Huhman M. Influence of limit-setting and participation in physical activity on youth screen time. Pediatrics. 2010;126(1):e89‐e96.

Haynes, T. (2018) Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for your time. Harvard SITN

McCarthy, C. (2018) Can Cell Phone Use Case ADHD? Harvard Health Publishing.

Twenge, J. (2017) Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? The Atlantic.

Zhou Y., Lin F., Du Y., et al. Gray matter abnormalities in Internet addiction: a voxel-based morphometry study. Eur J Radiol. 2011;79(1):92‐95. 

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