“Anti-dopamine parenting” can curb a child’s craving for screens or sweets



Parents are constantly being told that they need to limit how much junk food their kids can eat or how long they allow their kids to watch cartoons. And I will say for many moms and dads, including yours here, that may seem impossible. Neuroscientists say they know why it’s such a struggle. For our series called Living Better, NPR’s Michaeleen Doucleff discovered what’s going on in a child’s brain that drives this binge drinking.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Whether it’s spending hours scrolling through social media or eating copious amounts of sugary junk food, these activities tap into ancient neural circuits and cause a surge of a molecule inside a child’s brain called dopamine . Anne-Noel Samaha is a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal. She says these circuits and dopamine are critical to keeping your child alive.


ANNE-NOEL SAMAHA: These mechanisms have evolved in our brains to draw us towards things that are essential for our survival: you know, water, safety, sex, food.

DOUCLEFF: In other words, there’s something about sugary foods and flickering screens that releases dopamine and tricks the brain into thinking they’re essential. This molecule, he says, has gotten a lot of attention recently, but there’s a big misconception about it.

SAMAHA: In the popular media, there’s this idea that dopamine equals pleasure.

DOUCLEFF: That these bursts of dopamine make you love whatever you’re doing. Journalists have even called dopamine the happiness molecule. But Samaha says…

SAMAHA: There’s actually little convincing data in science that this is what dopamine does. And there is, in fact, a lot of data to refute the idea that dopamine is the mediator of pleasure.

DOUCLEFF: Instead, research now shows that dopamine generates another emotion: desire.

SAMAHA: Dopamine makes you crave things.


DOUCLEFF: Whatever is triggering a big dopamine spike draws your attention to it.

SAMAHA: Your brain tells you that something important is happening. So you should stay here, stay close to this thing because it’s important to you. This is what dopamine does.

DOUCLEFF: And here’s the surprising part. Whatever dopamine makes you crave, you may not really like it, especially over time. In fact, studies show that people can end up disliking, even hating, the activity they’re in.

SAMAHA: If you talk to people who spend a lot of time shopping online or on social media, they don’t necessarily feel great after doing so. There is plenty of evidence that it is quite the opposite.

DOUCLEFF: Let’s look at what this means for children. My daughter is 7 and she was getting into the habit of watching cartoons every night. And as her eyes fixate on the Technicolor images, the dopamine explodes in her brain not once, but repeatedly, and it makes her want to look. Then I go in and say, time’s up; time to go to bed and abruptly take the screen off her. But dopamine doesn’t go away immediately.

SAMAHA: Dopamine levels are still high. And what does dopamine do? Dopamine tells you that something important is happening and there is a need somewhere that you need to address.

DOUCLEFF: In other words, I’m stripping my daughter of this important thing that she may deem critical to her survival. Samaha says this can be incredibly frustrating for a child, even an enraged one. And so he fights me.


EMILY CHERKIN: It’s not you against your son. It’s you versus a hijacked neural pathway. It’s dopamine you’re fighting, and it’s not a fair fight.

DOUCLEFF: That’s Emily Cherkin. She has been a middle school teacher for over a decade and is now a film consultant. She says this can be difficult even for adults to handle. So she tells parents, she waits as long as possible before bringing new devices, new apps, new ways to watch videos, even new types of junk food into your home.

CHERKIN: I talk to hundreds of parents, and they — no one has ever told me, I wish I’d given my child a phone sooner, or I wish I’d given them access to social media at a young age. Never.

DOUCLEFF: And for activities where kids are already involved in — Dr. Anna Lembke is a psychiatrist at Stanford University — she says parents can figure out if the activity or snack is healthy and it’s unlikely to become a problem. It’s true when…

ANNA LEMBKE: Activities where we feel good about doing them and then feel even better about that, that’s really the key. This means we are getting a healthy source of dopamine.

DOUCLEFF: But the things that make you feel worse afterwards are troubling. Lembke says parents should be extra careful with those activities and foods.

LEMBKE: We have to limit the amount and frequency of use.


DOUCLEFF: So how the hell do parents do that? Lembke says it’s tough at first. Children become irritable. But there are some things you can do to make it easier. For starters…

LEMBKE: creating micro-environments.

DOUCLEFF: Places in the house and times of day where the child cannot see or access the device or food. For example, my family has stopped wearing screens in the car. We removed them from all but one room in the house and started camping once a month, screen-free.

LEMBKE: When we know we can’t go on, the desire goes away.

DOUCLEFF: And for sugary foods, we enjoy them at parties or in ice cream parlors. And if my daughter wants a treat at home, she prepares it. Finally, she tries to change the habit. Instead of cutting out one activity, she looks for a more focused version.

YEVGENIA KOZOROVITSKIY: We are creatures of habit in a very fundamental way, so we cannot get rid of all our habits. We can only try to build habits that are a little, you know, healthier than other habits.

DOUCLEFF: That’s Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy. She is a neurobiologist at Northwestern University. She has two teenage children and encourages them to play this adventure video game that requires a lot of cognitive skills.


KOZOROVITSKIY: Advanced social and language skills – somehow, you know, I don’t feel the same way about them playing that game.

DOUCLEFF: I tried this strategy with my daughter. We traded cartoons for a language learning game and guess what happened? After two weeks, she completely lost interest in that show and the screen.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.


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