How Screens Ignite ‘Love’ Receptors

Our latest 'Families Managing Media' column
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Your daughter opens a shoebox covered in red hearts and pink flowers that is filled with Valentines from her classmates. As she reads each one to you, her excitement grows. Her brother nearby plays a game on his tablet. With each level achieved, his enthusiasm grows. You might say she loves sharing her Valentines with you, and he loves playing his game. 

But what’s love got to do with it? Turns out, a lot. Both children are experiencing a complex cocktail of “love” chemicals firing off in their brains. As parents, when we’re aware of the brain science, we can help our children keep their activities in balance and develop their abilities to love and respond to love. The way children relate to you, their friends and their screens — as well as shoeboxes stuffed with Valentines — builds pathways for how they relate to real people and real love in the future.


A Powerful Concoction of Chemicals

On MRI brain scans, the same area of the brain lights up when the subject is thinking about an actual loved one as when he or she looks at the phone. Just the sound of a smartphone can generate the same response as being in the presence of a loved one. 

These love chemicals — dopamine and oxytocin — create a powerful concoction carefully calculated by neuroscientists to arrive with just the right timing to keep us hooked to screen activity. Dopamine is the “feel good” hormone many people associate with screens, but what about oxytocin? Sometimes referred to as “the cuddle chemical” because it’s released when you kiss or hug, oxytocin stimulates empathy, generosity and trust. Like a social glue that bonds families and communities, oxytocin can also create a strong bond between your children and their screens. According to one study, social media can raise the level of oxytocin as much as 13 percent in just 10 minutes of use. That’s a spike some people experience on their wedding day.

Many games and smartphones have been designed to increase the levels of dopamine and oxytocin until they become high enough to stimulate a craving and desire for more. These brain changes happen slowly over the span of a childhood. Parents must balance the “digital oxytocin” children receive as the consequence may be that your kids start to prefer screentime to face-to-face time with real loved ones. Other drawbacks of “digital oxytocin” include problems with downtime and concentration, and the creation of bad habits during childhood that are harder to break in adulthood.


Better Alternatives

To ensure that children get healthy balanced doses of natural dopamine and oxytocin, schedule ample real-life experiences every day, such as:

* Enjoying face-to-face interactions like a hug or rough-and-tumble play with parents.

* Participating in family-attachment activities like read-alouds, board games, cooking and crafts.

* Spending time outside (exposure to sunlight).

* Getting exercise.

* Listening to and playing music.

There’s a high cost to falling in love with your tablet, smartphone or video game, especially when you’re young. Brain chemistry affects your children’s moods, their happiness and their future relationships. But when they’re young, you have complete control over how much “digital oxytocin” they receive. So know the facts and help them choose more ways to experience real love, including lots of real love from you.


Melanie Hempe is the founder of Families Managing Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families reduce childhood screen overuse. For more information on reclaiming your kids, and reconnecting your family, visit