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Battling the Back-to-School Blues

By Annette Ermshar
Special to The Review

The end of summer marks a bittersweet transition for our children. Summertime often means less structured schedules, no homework and more free time for leisure activities. This also means that increased screen time usage and other pleasurable activities are inevitable.
However, now that summer is over, the carefree, fun-packed days of sunshine, relaxation and endless summer activities ends and we quickly shift back to routines and increased expectations for productivity and academic success.
While reuniting with school friends and new learning adventures can be exciting, parents may notice an increase in the back-to-school blues. This emotional shift is especially difficult for those who spent their summer days immersed in a dopamine-rich lifestyle full of entertainment, socializing, digital engagement and leisure.
Several factors contribute to this difficult transition:

  • Routine Shift: Going from a flexible summer schedule to a structured academic routine can feel sudden, leading to feelings of restriction and loss of freedom.
  • Digital Detachment: The excessive use of screen time during summer months can result in withdrawal-like symptoms when academic demands necessitate reduced screen time.
  • Reduced Novelty: The novelty of summer activities and experiences can make the academic year feel dull in comparison, contributing to feelings of boredom. Sometimes youth will feel the need to act out in order to infuse some excitement into their day. Understanding this may help navigate increased acting out behavior.
    Summer is full of activities that trigger dopamine release – the “feel-good” neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and the reward centers of the brain. This neurotransmitter is responsible for stimulating receptors so we feel good when we experience something happy, uplifting and pleasurable.
    Activities like pool parties, family vacations and binge-watching TV contribute to a dopamine gold mine. Social media, video games and the lack of a strict schedule further contribute to this neurochemical frenzy, causing a heightened sense of glee and euphoria. This then causes the brain to crave more of that positive feeling.
    As noted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, it is as though we are “drowning in dopamine,” or experiencing an excess of dopamine, which can lead to feelings of euphoria and addiction, including digital addiction.
    In considering the large influx in dopamine among children who engage in excessive screen time and other pleasure-seeking activities, there can be difficulty refocusing as they are forced to change and reprioritize their screentime habits upon going back to school.
    Unlike tasks such as homework assignments or personal projects, there is no specific beginning, middle or end to looking at social media or playing video games. Screen time activities are often used to fill or pass the time during any spare moment rather than to achieve or complete some healthy task or milestone.
    For instance, a person viewing social media sites does not tend to feel a sense of contentment or satiation after viewing a certain number of posts or spending a set period of time on a digital device.
    This tendency to overconsume with device usage also leads to a surge of dopamine in the brain. In turn, the shift to going back to school can be difficult to navigate and adjust to because they have been in dopamine overdrive, and now children may feel bored, unmotivated or disengaged.
    In addition, the sudden drop in the availability of dopamine-triggering activities can leave kids feeling a sense of emptiness and sadness. This emotional shift, the back-to-school blues, causes something similar to withdrawal symptoms as the brain adjusts to a less dopamine-rich environment.
    Managing the back-to-school blues after a summer soaked in dopamine requires a conscious effort. Here are some strategies to assist in this transition:
  • Gradual Adjustment: Ease into your academic routine by gradually reintroducing structure. Integrate a schedule to manage school duties, and allot time for more fluid free time as well for healthy, pleasurable activities.
  • Healthy Dopamine Alternatives: Find other activities that facilitate healthy dopamine release, such as increased exercise, creative and engaging hobbies, or spending more time in nature.
  • Mindful Screen Use: If screen time was particularly heavy during the summer, create a balanced approach to digital engagement. Set limits on screen time to avoid withdrawal symptoms by establishing scheduled screen time and providing positive feedback for mindful screen use.
  • Goal Setting: Together with your child, set specific, measurable and achievable academic and personal goals for the upcoming school year. Working toward these goals can bring a rewarding sense of purpose and achievement.

Annette Ermshar, CEO of Dr. Ermshar & Associates, is a clinical neuropsychologist and holds a Ph.D. Her Pasadena-based private practice focuses on psychological assessment and treatment, neuropsychology and forensic psychology. She has served as an expert consultant for television and media.

First published in the September 8 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

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