Parents Who Use Screen Time As Reward Are Actually Turning Their Kids Into Digital Junkies

GUELPH, Ontario — Parents who reward their children with more screen time for good behavior and punish them for bad behavior by taking away their iPad or computer privileges are likely making the youngsters even more screen-obsessed.

A study by researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada finds that what may seem like good parenting to many moms and dads may actually be an unintended conditioning of children to desire technology even more.

“It’s similar to how we shouldn’t use sugary treats as rewards because by doing so we can heighten the attraction to them,” explains Jess Haines, a professor of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition, in a university release. “When you give food as a reward, it makes children like the carrot less and the cake more. Same thing with screen time.”

The study involved 62 children aged between 18 months and five years, and 68 parents. The parents were surveyed on the ways they oversee their children’s screen time, what the rules are when it comes to using devices, and how frequently the parents themselves use any devices around the kids.

“We wanted to investigate the impact of parenting practices on toddler and preschooler’s screen time because this is the age when habits and routines become established and they tend to continue throughout life,” says co-author Lisa Tang.

The study showed that children spend about an hour in front of a screen on a given weekday and just over two hours a day on weekends. Parents themselves were found to spend about two hours a day during the week and two-and-a-half hours on weekend days in front of a screen. Factors affecting child screen time included parents using it as a reward, and whether they’re allowed screen time during meals.

While most parents in the study used screen time as a reward — especially on the weekends — the authors found that as a result their children spent 20 more minutes on weekend days using the otherwise forbidden devices.

“We think the amount of screen time is higher on weekends because children are at home and typically have more interaction with their parents,” says Haines.

Similarly, when parents — particularly mothers — themselves were looking at devices around their kids more frequently, those children also were found to log greater amounts of screen time. The authors note it’s possible that the children are simply also getting to look at the same screen while his or her parent does.

Only 15% of Canadian preschoolers meet the Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines, which stipulate that children should only be allowed less than one hour of screen time per day. For children at or under the age of two, they should be not allowed any screen time.

“Watching screens takes away from other interactions that help children develop social and academic skills,” says Tang. “Our hope is that these findings can help us arm parents who are entering a world where screens are ubiquitous.”

The study was published in the journal BMC Obesity.

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