Screen time as a reward may lead to more of it

Melissa Erikson

Parents who reward children’s good behavior with extra screen time are fighting a losing battle.

Children whose parents dispense screen time as a reward or revoke it as punishment end up spending more time in front of screens whether on a smartphone, tablet, computer or television, according to a study from Canada’s University of Guelph.

“Parents, as the gatekeepers to their young children’s screen time, have a strong influence over how much time preschoolers are spending in front of a screen-based device,” said Jess Haines, family relations and applied nutrition professor at the university. “Aiming for device-free family meals, avoiding using screens as a reward or punishment for behavior, setting limits and monitoring children’s screen use can all help to manage children’s screen time.”

Published in the journal BMC Obesity, the study investigated the impact of parenting practices on the amount of time young children spend in front of screens. The study involved 62 children between 18 months and 5 years old and 68 parents.

“Our study found that using screen time as a reward for good behavior or taking it away as a punishment for bad behavior was associated with children spending more time on a screen,” Haines said. “Like using food as a reward, which can cause children to desire that sugary treat more often, using screens this way may also result in children placing a high value on screen time, resulting in them wanting more of it.”

The Guelph Family Health Study focused on families of preschool-aged children, not just the children, because parents are part of the solution or problem.

“When parents use screens in front of their children, it was linked to children spending more time in front of a screen,” Haines said. To model positive technology use and prioritize face-to-face time with the kids, have screen-free zones in the home or establish screen-free family times, Haines said.

What kids are learning now stays with them.

“In general, the research has shown that health behaviors established in childhood carry on into adulthood. ... We believe that by establishing healthy behaviors such as media use that follows screen time recommendations at a young age, they will continue those health behaviors into adulthood,” Haines said.

It’s important to understand the factors influencing increases in children’s screen time because this sedentary activity is associated with a greater risk of obesity as well as poorer academic and social skills later in life, said Lisa Tang, a Ph.D. student who worked on the study and lead health educator at the University of Guelph.

Managing a young child’s screen time can be a challenge.

“As a parent of three young children myself, this is something that I continue to work to establish,” Haines said. “As with anything in parenting, there are good days and challenging ones, but it’s helpful to know that the effort it takes to establish healthy screen routines makes a difference in a young child’s media use.”