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The science behind Carrots&Cake


When parents have questions, they want answers. They seek definitive explanations. If the topic is screen time and devices, parents want clear-cut recommendations and the exact amount of screen time that is best for their child’s stage of development. Unfortunately, the answers are not simple. Carrots&Cake aims to solve that.

Are my kids spending too much time online? How do I monitor screen activity? What are the ‘must try’ apps? Why does my child throw a fit when screen time ends?

In the grand scheme of things, tablets, and mobile phones are relatively new technologies. We are still learning how their use impacts the developing brain. It is an active and robust area of scholarship. While there are still many questions, a growing body of research is beginning to provide answers about why screens feel so hard to put down. The good news is there are ways to support kids to make healthier choices in this new communication environment.

Supervision, behavioral modeling, and rule setting are sound strategies, but they place unrealistic expectations on a parents’ ability to monitor kids’ online activity 24 hours a day. One surefire way to ensure your kids’ screen time is both healthy and balanced is to use a specialized app. Carrots&Cake is the #1 Parental Control Learning App. It allows parents to program their kids’ devices so children complete learning tasks before their device unlocks to allow games and streaming. It balances learning and fun while delivering parents peace of mind.

The Carrots&Cake methodology is science based, relying on key learning concepts supported by cognitive and behavioral science. The functionality of the app takes into account the neuroscience of reward pathways and was specifically designed to support childhood brain development. Carrots&Cake relies on a foundation of interlocking, research-based principles regarding habit formation, the science of behavior change, positive reinforcement, and the neuroscience of focused attention that is essential for learning. 

Delayed gratification:

One key objective of Carrots&Cake is to assist children in developing their capacity to delay gratification. Numerous studies, including the famous ‘marshmallow test’ demonstrate the importance of the ability to postpone rewards. It is linked to higher levels of self-control, self-confidence, and diligence. The ability to work on a challenging or less rewarding task, while waiting for an end prize helps develop grit and resilience, two key psychological principles that are essential for academic success.  

As adults we are accustomed to the idea that we must persevere through the tedious aspects of our work before we can kick back and watch our favorite TV show at the end of the day. This is a habit that requires self-discipline, self-control, and the ability to focus on the means in order to reach an end. By requiring children to first engage in educational ‘carrot’ apps before they are allowed free time on ‘cake’ apps of their choice, Carrots&Cake strengthens the delayed gratification skill, and reinforces the habit of focusing on challenging tasks before getting to have relaxed fun. 

Dopamine and rewards:

Understanding issues of excessive screen time requires a basic lesson in neuroscience. The best place to begin is learning the key role played by dopamine, a neurotransmitter – a kind of chemical messenger – that is essential for survival. It is one of the brain chemicals associated with pleasure, along with serotonin and oxytocin. Generated when we engage in reward-seeking behavior, dopamine powered our ancestors to hunt for shelter, food, and mates. 

Like adrenaline, dopamine is highly energizing and is essential for motivation. Nature gifted us with a ‘feel good’ chemical to help incentivize us to do things that keep us alive and insure we will continue the species. When it’s flowing freely we feel engaged. This explains why young people playing a fast-paced video game often report a heightened state of alertness. It’s a feeling of aroused involvement and concentration. You can see it in the eyes of people playing slot machines in Las Vegas and on the faces of sports fans deeply engaged in watching a game. There is a sense of focus and concentration mixed with pleasure and intensity.  

Unfortunately, our brains rapidly become desensitized by an ongoing level of heightened stimulus, resulting in a dopamine feedback loop. We seek increasing levels of stimulation as we chase the original rush. This contributes to a variety of addictive behaviors, from gambling to substance abuse. When someone becomes ‘acclimated’ to a high dopamine cognitive environment, stepping away from the screen will feel increasingly difficult. Life off-the-screen does not constantly provide us with ‘extra lives’, bonus rewards, and power-ups. It can be uncomfortable to find ourselves without that kind of highly stimulating cognitive input. This is one reason people often reach for their phones while waiting in line, riding on elevators, and even while sitting on the toilet. When we get used to intense stimuli, even a few minutes of quiet can begin to feel uncomfortable. 

The problem isn’t dopamine in and of itself, but rather too much dopamine. Children, in particular, have not developed the cognitive and behavioral skills to adapt to the dopamine inducing stimulus that screens supply. 

By placing a clear and fixed time limit on kids’ free ‘cake’ time, Carrots&Cake helps children learn to step away from high dopamine stimuli. After several reminders that screen time is ending, the child’s screen shuts down until the next day. There is no negotiating and no begging. This consistency can help kids strengthen a skill that has become essential for thriving in the digital age: the ability to put down the device when their allotted time has expired and transition into off-line activities. 

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Cognitive Development:

It is tempting to believe the difficulties with excessive screen time can be overcome through motivation and self control. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple for kids – or even adults. The dopamine spikes associated with games and scrolling are highly compelling and increasingly difficult to disengage from. For children and teens this is even more pronounced. 

Brain development in human beings takes a long time. It’s not complete until we reach our mid-twenties. The prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for self control, executive function, and risk taking – develops last. This is one of the reasons children and teens have trouble with impulse control and engage in risky behavior. It is why it’s so hard for them to disengage from their devices when prompted. It is also why it’s important not to blame or shame them when they struggle in this area. Kids’ developing brains are literally not yet ‘wired’ for self control. 

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Cognitive load and micro learning sessions.

Just as many people prefer dessert over health food, this is also true for cognitive stimulus. Tasks that require intense concentration for extended periods of time – like abstract mental processing, complex reasoning, calculation, and analysis – are taxing. Our minds easily wander in search of ‘relief.’ This explains why you find yourself reaching for your phone to scroll through Twitter or Instagram in the middle of preparing your taxes. 

Fortunately, the ability to stay focused and engaged on highly cognitive tasks for extended periods is something that can be strengthened over time. Like strength training, focus is a kind of cognitive ‘muscle.’ With practice we can learn to tame our minds and concentrate for longer periods of time. This skill is especially important for learning.

Carrots&Cake provides children with small sessions of exposure to abstract concepts (e.g. math, languages). Much like high intensity bursts of aerobic activity or strength training, these ‘micro-learning’ sessions allow kids to practice staying focused on challenges for a fixed time. It gives them quick doses of learning, which, when repeated often enough, accumulate to real results in the area of study. You may want your child to start off with just a few minutes of ‘carrots’ as they grow accustomed to focusing in this way. Eventually, you should extend the length of the learning session. This will help your child strengthen their attentional resources. It will serve them academically as well as socially, and developmentally.

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When it comes to education it is probably not at all surprising – nor is it necessarily problematic – that gamification has become one of the most popular tools in contemporary teaching. Games are fun. They help people stay engaged. Educational and exercise apps alike include ‘streaks’ for a reason. Those design elements keep people motivated. When we have fun we pay more attention, this helps us learn. Encouraging feedback – such as points and rewards – built into learning apps appeals to our natural desire for positive reinforcement and helps us persist. Eventually, the pleasure of learning becomes its own reward. 

Parents can set up Carrots&Cake using any of the learning apps their family already owns. Alternatively, Carrots&Cake will create a list of appropriate apps tailored to your child’s age and developmental stage. When searching for education and learning apps, parents should try to find ones that deliver lower levels of dopamine and have a high cognitive load. Carrots&Cake is independent from the apps they recommend, and their reviews are impartial.

The Science of Behavior Change

Over the past two decades, there have been great advances in our understanding of the cognitive and behavioral dimensions of habit change. It was once assumed that simply providing people with information about the harms of a particular behavior (e.g. smoking) would be sufficient to cause change. It was not. Even scary labels on cigarette packs that warn “smoking kills” is not enough to motivate people to quit. It follows that simply telling kids that too much screen time is bad for them won’t be enough. 

One approach proven helpful in affecting behavioral change is ‘nudges’ that encourage people to make better choices. Nudging is grounded in the idea that small cues can influence people's behavior in a positive way. For example, placing fruit at eye level in a grocery store or posting the number of calories on a menu are simple nudges that encourage people to make healthier choices.  Behavioral nudges are often delivered digitally, like reminders to get the next Covid vaccination. Nudges can remind us that we’re running out of time to do something essential like pay a bill, file our taxes or schedule a dentist appointment. Carrots&Cake utilizes nudges to alert kids to how many more minutes of ‘cake’ time they have left. This reminds kids that time is almost up, and they should finish their games. Kids are less surprised when time runs out, and they are more emotionally prepared for the transition to offscreen activities. 

The earlier we help kids understand that digital devices, like most pleasures in life, are best enjoyed in moderation, the more likely they are to develop healthy and balanced technology habits. Carrots&Cake is here to help support kids, parents, and families.

Also Read: What Sets Carrots&Cake Apart on Screen Time?

If you’d like to dig deeper into the science behind Carrots&Cake, we recommend that you take a look at some of these reading recommendations.

Behavioral Nudges:  

Sunstein, C. and Thaler,R. (2009), Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness,  New York: Penguin Books.

Delayed Gratification: 

Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow Test: Mastering self-control. Little, Brown and Co.

 Mischel, W. ; Ebbesen, Ebbe B. (1970). "Attention in delay of gratification". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 16 (2): 329–337. 


Marcia Izabel Fugisawa Souza, Sérgio Ferreira do Amaral (2014),   Educational Microcontent for Mobile Learning Virtual Environments, Creative Education, Vol.5 No.9.


Lembke, A.,(2021). Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. New York: Dutton


Kapp, K., (2012). The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. San Francisco: Pfeiffer

Cognitive Development:

Tarullo, A., Obradovic, J., Gunnar, M., (2009). Self Control and the Developing Brain, Zero to Three, January issue.

Dr. Gwenyth Jackaway, Ph.D.
Latest posts by Dr. Gwenyth Jackaway, Ph.D. (see all)

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