We may dangle time on devices as a reward - or limit access as a punishment. But does it work as a long-term strategy?
Whether it’s gaming, social media or streaming video, kids’ attachment to their screens is fierce. So it’s not hard to understand why so many of us resort to using screen-time as a way to manage behaviour.
Recent research found around 65 percent of parents of teens admitted confiscating phones or revoking internet privileges as a disciplinary tactic - and the true number is probably a lot higher.
Younger kids are routinely rewarded with tablet-time for good behaviour, from eating all their vegetables to using the potty before bedtime. (One family we know even uses screen-time to bribe - excuse me, “encourage” - their 3-year-old to brush her teeth.)
“I’m a really good boy, that’s why I have two iPads.”
Research participant, age 8
Older kids get to play their games or watch videos after homework is done or chores completed. And there’s nothing wrong with that … or is there?
It "works" - right?
Experts advise caution with this approach. Not because it doesn’t “work” in the short term, because it often does. But because of the messages it’s sending.
“While it’s important to recognise a child’s achievements, kids can begin to associate technology with being ‘good’ and making their parents proud,” warns learning and technology expert Dr. Joanne Orlando of Western Sydney University.
“I’m a really good boy, that’s why I have two iPads,” one eight-year-old explained to her.
What’s more, Dr. Orlando notes, parents should be careful about encouraging kids to think about screen-time as a kind of digital dessert - the gratification that comes after eating all of one’s metaphorical broccoli, aka the rest of life.
That diminishes what screens do for us - developing one’s identity, acquiring new skills, exercising creativity, creating positive social connections - while at the same time suggesting that offline life is simply not as valuable.
Parents should be careful about encouraging kids to think about screen-time as a kind of digital dessert - the gratification that comes after eating all of one’s metaphorical broccoli, aka the rest of life.
As for confiscating technology as a punishment, Orlando’s research found that it was particularly harmful for teens. Instead of encouraging more positive behaviour - more respect, greater compliance with family rules - kids simply grew resentful, distrustful and sneaky.
Taking away phone privileges is an understandable impulse - but it may lead to even bigger problems.
“If their phone was taken away, they often withdrew from their parents,” Orlando explains. “Instead of focusing on what they’d done wrong, they fixated on not having a phone and finding someone else’s to use in the meantime.”
But the worst and most common outcome? Teens will no longer feel safe about confiding in parents about safety issues they may encounter online: cyberbullying, exposure to unwanted sexual content, or contact with a potential predator.
As one 15-year-old confided to Orlando, “I don’t tell my parents much now about what happens to me because I don’t want my phone taken off me.”
So what’s a parent to do?
Make sure the punishment fits the crime
If the misbehaviour has nothing to do with technology, avoid using technology to manage it. Instead, formulate a strategy that will help them understand and improve on their actions, whether that means communicating more respectfully or completing chores or schoolwork in a responsible manner.
Be a positive role model
If you are glued to your phone 24/7, looking up only to bark at your kids to “get off that game!” … well, you get the idea. Be the change you want to see in your family.
Use a range of strategies
And make sure most of them are not screen-related. Why? Because “there’s a point when using technology to manage behaviour simply doesn’t work anymore.”
More importantly, Orlando notes, “We need to shift the focus away from parenting that relies on threats and rewards, to one that nurtures meaningful parent-child and child-technology relationships.”
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