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Don't Use Screen Time as a Reward or Punishment - Do This Instead

 “If you clean your room, you can play an extra half hour of your game”

“You hit your sister.  I’m taking away your iPad for the night.”

“You can get a phone when you get an A in math..”

As parents, we all are tempted to use screen time as a reward or punishment. Why? Because it works! But a recent study found that using screen time this way can actually make children want more screen time, and can make tech use harder to manage in the long term.  

Let's take a look at the 3 common effects of using screen time to reward and punish non-screen related behaviors:

You make your child want their screen more. A reward by nature is something to want. So when you offer screen time in this way, you communicate that screen time is something to covet. Because most apps and device-use cause dopamine to be released in the brain, they are highly addictive and we don’t need to further elevate their status in the minds of our children. 

You ‘muddy the waters’ on a high-risk topic. What does screen time have to do with getting along with siblings or finishing math? Nothing. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t teach anything. At the end of rewarding and punishing in this way, your child still knows very little about how to use technology in healthy ways or what role screen time plays in a healthy lifestyle. Given the risks inherent in internet use and screen time addiction, we can’t afford to be so confusing.

You create more screen time struggles over time. You may get your child to behave short term, but soon your child will constantly bargain for screen time. “But I cleaned my room! Why can’t I play my game now?” “If I help my sister with her homework, can I watch an extra Netflix show?” This will drive you nuts. You will pull out your hair trying to think of some system that makes sense and some message about screen time that is consistent. 

Instead, let’s talk about an approach that works. Screen time should be given and taken away according to one factor, and one factor only: how skillfully your child uses their devices. Give more screen time, or more independence when your child uses devices responsibly and in balance with other life activities. Take away screen time when your child uses their device unsafely, dishonestly, or without balance.  Period.  End of story.  

When we leverage screen time in this way, we...

Keep our children safe. Tech use limits are in place to keep our children safe - safe from addictive patterns of usage, and age-inappropriate content. - while they learn to use devices wisely. When we increase access (only) when kids demonstrate wise usage, we avoid letting them get in over their heads.  Their behavior communicates what they are ready for, and we dole out tech use accordingly.

Communicate the seriousness of tech use.  With this approach, our tech limits are meaningful. They are in place to keep our kids safe, and so they are removed (slowly) as our kids learn to keep themselves safe. Think Driver’s Ed.  We wouldn’t give the keys to the car because our child got an A in math.  We give keys to the car based on competency. Let’s treat screen time with the same level of caution. 

Rely on natural consequences that make sense to kids.  Your child will understand the logic behind losing screen time for unbalanced or unsafe tech behavior and getting more screen time privileges when they use it wisely.  The system is coherent and clear.  Your child may not always like it, but they are more likely to comply with this kind of system than an arbitrary one.  

Motivate our children to learn healthy tech skills. When your child truly understands that their screen time depends on their ability to use it appropriately, they become open to learning how.  This allows you to mentor them in healthy tech use. They will begin to try to log off when their time is up, to put their phones away at dinner time, to get their homework done without the distraction of games or messages.  Your screen time plan keeps them moving in the right direction.

Reduce conflict with a clear path to independent tech use. Because their brains are still developing, children cannot limit their own screen time or pick age-appropriate content.  However, we want them to be able to do both by late adolescence when they leave our homes. With this approach, we incrementally allow them to make their own choices as they demonstrate the ability to make wise ones. This process takes years, but parents and children unite (rather than fight) because the path is clear.

So stop using tech as a reward or punishment for other behavior and start to set your screen time plan up for success. If you’re wondering what this approach looks like in action, stay tuned for the blog next week when I get into the topic of how to handle it when your child sneaks in screen time.

Sign up for our newsletter (click the 'sign up' button on this page) to get healthy screen time insights and tips from clinical psychologist, Dr. Demi.  

About Beyond Limits Academy

Beyond Limits is a simple step-by-step online program that teaches parents how to prepare their children for a lifetime of safe and healthy technology use. Going beyond just screen time limits, our skills-based approach provides a clear roadmap that reduces conflict and sets children up to manage their own tech use independently and responsibly. In an increasingly digital world, preparing our children to use technology wisely is no longer an option . . . it's a necessity.


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