Screen-Time Should NOT be a Reward


screen-time should not a reward for kidsParents, educators, psychologists and the like are all trying to figure out how to manage screen-time and children. We are raising a generation with access to screens like never before. The amount of press each screen-time research study gets demonstrates that everyone is looking for answers about how to manage screen-time. Huffington Post Parents even has a special section devoted to screen-time! So, trust me, I understand the excitement when a new solution is thrown around.

I take issue with one “solution” to screen-time that I have seen tossed around and promoted all too much lately: using screen-time as a reward for good behavior. A top performing pin on Pinterest lists all the things children must do to “earn” their screen time.  A recent travel article in the Washington Post suggested giving kids “entertainment” screen-time when they are well-behaved and educational screen-time or the opportunity to look out the window when they are poorly behaved. There are tons of systems and articles about “technology tickets” that kids can earn in various ways.

A Primer on Behaviorism

I understand that intentions are good here, but these are terrible ideas.

I am telling you this as a psychologist. If you chose to make screen-time a reward, your kids are going to want it more.

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For example, in the above Washington Post article, it is suggested that during a road trip, well-behaved kids get entertainment time on a screen. The real reward for the child (of any age) is the parent acknowledging and praising their behavior. Pair that with entertainment via a screen and you have just increased the screen’s reward status. This is called classical conditioning by behavioral psychologists. You take a neutral stimulus and pair it with an inherently rewarding stimulus (unconditioned stimulus). After enough pairings, you don’t even have to praise them anymore. Just hand them the screen and they feel good.

pavlov's dogs classic conditioning
If you recall from Psych 101, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian psychologist circa 1890, studied how dogs who heard a bell and then were fed, became conditioned to salivate at the sound of the bell.

Arguably, screen time could be an unconditioned stimulus already – meaning it is inherently rewarding. If that is the case, don’t make it more rewarding by elevating its status in your family.

Another common suggestion that is also conditioning kids in a bad way is to indicate they cannot have screen-time until they complete some other form of more traditional play. The “no screen time until” example suggests kids play together, go outside, read and do something creative to earn their screen time. Those things are positive things! But, the family has just unwittingly placed them in a hierarchy with screen-time at the top. That makes no sense. That leads to, “If I play with my brother, can I get x?” If you would have left well enough alone, the kids would play together because it’s inherently fun. There is definitely such as a thing as too much praise, sticker charts, and reward systems, especially when they mess with the child’s internal reward system. Don’t send the message to your kids that screen-time is better than playing outside or playing together. You are increasingly the likelihood that they will want screen time and feel good when they get it.

What should be a Reward

From a psychological perspective, you can choose a reward from one of two types: those that are inherently rewarding (unconditioned stimulus) and those that become rewarding because they are paired with an inherently rewarding thing (conditioned stimulus).

Another good rule is that a reward should be something you value as a family. Do you value them sitting in front of the screen? No? Then, don’t make it a reward. Do you value purchasing things? No? Then, don’t make a new toy a reward. For young children, the best unconditioned stimulus is you, the caregiver. A smile, cuddle and showering of attention from you is a great reward. Want to up the ante even more? Offer to do something they want. Drop what you are doing and do something they request.

It goes like this: “Wow, you were so nice to give that toy to your brother! I am so impressed with your kindness! I want to show you how proud I am of you by playing anything you want for the next ten minutes!” Then you go play tea party, tag, or whatever their repetitive game of the moment is.  If you need to get back to dinner prep/work/dishes, just put a timer on for the designated period of time. If not, just have fun with them.

I would also like to say that you don’t have to do the child directed play if you don’t have the time in the moment. In the car? Just shower them with positive words. Busy prepping dinner? Pause to give them a nice hug and some positive words. A note about balance here: sometimes activities are inherently rewarding and the last thing a kid needs is an adult interrupting that with their labels. If your kids are playing together, laughing and having a great time. Leave them alone. That’s a reward in and of itself.

What if you want to make something new incredibly rewarding? My daughter loves to read. She usually needs no incentive to read. She is 4 so her form of independent reading is looking at the pictures and making up the stories and when we are together her intently listening to me reading.  Since she loves reading so much, I don’t want to make it a chore, so I never require reading or offer rewards for it.

I have, however, been known to pair it with something inherently rewarding. For example, she can now sit and listen intently to chapter books. If we did this in the middle of the day, I am confident her interest would wane. So, I have paired it with two unconditioned stimuli: cuddle time and a later bed time. Instead of reading a typical Curious George book that might take five minutes, we read a chapter from a chapter book together (right now we are reading Charlotte’s Web and we just finished The One and Only Ivan, which is a fantastic book for young kids). It takes us about 10-20 minutes to read a chapter depending on the book, the number of questions she asks and concepts I need to explain that are over her head. That means she gets 2-4x the amount of cuddle time she would normally get and 2-4x more time before lights out. You better believe she chooses to read a chapter book each night!

How to Balance Screen-Time

Back to screens: screen-time should not be a reward unless we want our kids to want it more and we really value it.

So, how do we balance screens? Firstly, you should talk to your kids about your values and beliefs around screens. We do this already with our four-year-old. We have explained to her that she can use screens as she gets older, but that we don’t really like doing too much via screens because we value being outside in the real world more.

We also discuss that when we want to relax, we value reading more. We have spoken to her about some of the consequences of too much screen time. But, we don’t have a ton of conversations about it because it’s just not something we do. She doesn’t ask to do it. She asks to play with us, go to the park and read.

The conversations should get more complex and nuanced as your children get older. As parents, you should become increasingly open to their opinions and beliefs.  Older children can begin to use screens for truly creative purposes, which we do not intend to inhibit as our kids age. We developed a guide for healthy screen-time by age group in our article Screen-Time Recommendations For Kids By Age: Screen-Free Parenting’s Personal Screen Use Guidelines.  If you want to develop a strategy for your older child, I highly recommend you check it out.

It is your job to make sure your child’s day is balanced. However, this is something that you do in your head, not by having a list of things your child is required to do. If you need help in this arena, we created a psychologically-based system for prioritizing child’s play we call “S.P.O.I.L.”. Spoil is an acronym for the 5 essential play activities all kids should experience daily to optimize development. Read all about the “S.P.O.I.L. System” here.

Make sure you S. P.O.I.L. your child every day. It’s fine to keep a measure on these things. But, don’t tell your child they have to do something good for themselves (play outside) to earn something bad for themselves (screen-time). That is totally sending the wrong message.

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