Screen Time Begets Screen Time, Researchers Say
Screen time begets more screen time when it’s used as a reward — and even when it’s prohibited as punishment, say researchers at the University of Guelph, Canada.
“It’s similar to how we shouldn’t use sugary treats as rewards because by doing so, we can heighten the attraction to them,” said Jess Haines, PhD, a professor of applied human nutrition at the university, and the associate director of the ongoing Guelph Family Health Study, which aims at identifying early-life risk factors of obesity and chronic disease. “When you give food as a reward it makes children like the carrot less and the cake more. Same thing with screen time.”
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The study, which was published in the journal BMC Obesity, involved 62 children whose ages ranged from 18 months to 5 years, and 68 parents, who were surveyed about their practices in allowing children time with a mobile, tablet, computer or TV. Most parents reported using screen time as a means of managing children’s behaviorsthrough reward and discipline, especially on the weekends. As a result, most children spent, on average, 20 minutes more in front of a screen each day of the weekend than they did during weekdays.
“We think the amount of screen time is higher on weekends because children are at home and typically have more interaction with their parents,” Haines said.
While this is a tempting — and in the short term, often effective — way to manage children’s behavior, in the long term, using screen time for reward and discipline keeps children from learning “how to identify and handle strong emotions, come up with activities to manage boredom, or calm down through breathing; talking about ways to solve the problem; and finding other strategies for channeling emotions,” per the American Academy of Pediatrics in its latest screen time guidelines.
Haines and fellow researcher Lisa Tang also found children, whose parents personally use screens in front of them, experience more screen time in a week, than children whose parents do not; and children who are allowed screen time during meals also experience more screen time than children who are not.
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This hits at the heart of the great screen time debate, which has evolved in recent years away from concern over sheer amount, to considering the effects of engagement and modeling. While the AAP still recommends no more than one hour of screen time a day for children 2 to 5 (and screen time as minimal as possible for younger ages), now, experts say that one of the most important pieces of the puzzle is that the hour of screen time not be spent alone, as a passive viewer.
“Co-view, co-play and co-engage with your children when they are using screens — it encourages social interactions, bonding, and learning. Play a video game with your kids. It’s a good way to demonstrate good sportsmanship and gaming etiquette. Watch a show with them; you will have the opportunity to introduce and share your own life experiences and perspectives, and guidance. Don’t just monitor children online, interact with them,” recommends AAP.
The AAP recommendations also stress the importance of parents practicing what they preach, “Because children are great mimics, limit your own media use.”