Time to Unplug: Helping Parents Manage Children’s Screen Use

Useful tips for parents looking to limit children's screen time.

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Managing children’s screen time can be a challenge for any parent.  After all, children’s access to screen-based devices has soared in recent years.  To be specific, 98% of U.S. children 8 years of age and younger have access to a screen-based device, which is defined as any device with a screen including television, tablets, and smartphones.  Habits formed in early childhood can continue throughout life, so it’s not surprising that many parents are wondering how to manage their children’s screen time – and whether all the effort is worth it!

Although some use of screens has been shown to support education in older children, in younger children exceeding screen time recommendations can lead to negative health and developmental outcomes. Given that parents are often the gatekeepers of their young children’s screen time, it is important to know what strategies work to reduce screen time in kids. Our recent study published in BMC Obesity sought to identify which parenting practices are associated with children’s screen time.  This study used data from the Guelph Family Health Study at the University of Guelph, a research study looking to follow families over many years with the goal of identifying family-level factors that improve young children’s long-term health.  Here’s what we found:

Avoid using screens to control a child’s behaviour

Kids love screens!  This makes it very tempting to take away screen time as a punishment for bad behaviour or promise a little extra tablet or television time as a reward for a job well done.  However, our study showed that using screen time as a means of controlling a child’s behaviour may result in the child spending more time on a screen long term.  Like using food as a reward, which can cause children to desire that sugary treat more often, using screen this way may also result in children placing a high value on screen time, resulting in them wanting more of it!

Set limits around screen use – and then keep track!

It’s challenging to set limits around screen time – especially when implementing these new rules for the first time!  Our study shows that it’s worth the effort.  Setting limits around screen time was associated with children spending less time on screens. Likewise, monitoring or keeping track of children’s screen use was also associated with children spending less time in front of a screen-based device when compared to those parents who did not monitor their child’s screen use.  So, if you’re going to the effort of creating and implementing new screen-time rules, it’s helpful to take that extra step to monitor that they’re keeping to those limits.

Don’t mix media and meals

Meal time is a great opportunity to connect with your family and share stories of the day.  In our study, children whose parents had the television on during meals or allowed screen-based devices at the table had higher screen time than children whose meals were screen-free.  As an added bonus, research shows that unplugging at meal time is a great way to show your family that you’re “plugged in” to the conversation.

Ditch the devices when engaging with your kids

We’ve all heard the phrase “monkey see, monkey do”!  Our study shows that screen time is no exception.  Parents use of screen-based devices while with their children was associated with their children having more screen time. Avoiding screen use while engaging with your children is a great way to model healthy behaviour and prioritize face-to-face interactions.

With children growing up in an environment where screens are ubiquitous, it’s helpful for parents to know that managing children’s screen time is possible.  Like anything with parenting, there will be good days and challenging days, but choosing parenting practices that prioritize screen-free active play and creativity is well worth the effort!

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