One Good Reason You Shouldn’t Use Screen Time as a Punishment

updated May 3, 2019
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Parenting is hard. It’s also a lot of other things, but a truer three-word sentence has never been uttered. We’re all learning as we go—reading parenting books as we encounter the challenges that make us realize why we need parenting books, and spending every evening after the kids are (mercifully) in bed wondering if we’re doing it all wrong.

Here’s the thing: The children themselves—and the milieu in which we’re raising them—change so fast that we shouldn’t ever expect to feel like we have everything all figured out. Research can help, though, especially as we struggle to navigate the parenting questions that our parents never had to address.

Screen time, which wasn’t even a colloquial until the early ’90s, has become a huge societal question, and parents in particular grapple with how to restrict it, when to allow it, and whether that other parent is judging them for letting their kid play on their phone at the restaurant.

Some recently published data offers specific insight about screen time and children, the kind that can help serve as a guidepost of how not to use it, at least.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Screen Time as a Punishment

A recent study from the University of Guelph found that rewarding or punishing with screen time enhances the appeal of screen time to our young and impressionable children.

The study’s researchers reported that children whose parents give or revoke screen time as a consequence spend more time overall in front of screens. Professor Jess Haines, who studies family relations and applied nutrition, also pointed out that using screen time conditionally increases its appeal: “It’s similar to how we shouldn’t use sugary treats as rewards because by doing so we can heighten the attraction to them.”

In other words, by granting and withdrawing the iPad or the television, we make screen time a bigger deal than it needs to be.

(Image credit: Andrea Sparacio)

If you’re unsure of how much screen time is the right amount, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommendations, which include guidelines on what, how, and how much children should be watching at each age group.

The AAP recommends no screen media for infants up to 18 months, then slowly allowing more high-quality media with parental supervision as your child gets older. Children from 2 to 5 years old should get no more than one hour of media, co-watching it with a parent who can explain what they’re seeing, according to the AAP. And for children ages 6 and older, the AAP just says they should have consistent limits, and that parents should make sure media doesn’t take the place of healthy behaviors like adequate sleep and physical activity.