Q: I was able to attend a community presentation you gave about children and screen time. During your talk, you discouraged parents from setting screen time limits because doing so makes media into “forbidden fruit”, or increasingly tempting for kids. In my house, we often take away TV or iPad time from our kids (ages 3 and 5) as punishment. Do you think this approach creates the same “forbidden fruit” effect?
~ Fruit Looped, Wellesley, MA
A: Dear Looped,
Your question very astutely extends the “forbidden fruit” concept beyond simply limiting screen time, to using media as reward or punishment. Setting up screen time as either a reward for good behavior or its removal as a punishment for bad behavior not only makes media time more desirable, but makes media something very special as opposed to a part of our daily life.
Rather than framing media use as a treat, we need to teach our children that media are tools to be used for tasks they serve well, whether they are education, communication or entertainment. As adults, we must guide and model our own media use in positive, focused ways. While we should avoid using media as a carrot or a stick to discipline children in general, there is one area of behavior in which controlling a child’s media use is appropriate and effective. Teaching children self-discipline in all aspects of life is an essential part of parenting, as we transfer responsibility for their behavior from us to them.
Self-regulation of behavior, including use of interactive devices or even TV, can be a struggle for many children, since much of the content created for them is designed to grab and hold their attention. As with other areas of self-discipline, if the child cannot regulate herself/himself, the parent must scaffold or support their learning by setting external limitations. If children are not managing their media use well, using media compulsively or in ways that harm their health, such as limiting their sleep, or in ways that negatively affect others, such as cyberbullying, limiting their media use simultaneously scaffolds healthier behavior and “lets the punishment fit the crime”. When you do this, make sure your children know why their media use is being limited, explain that they can regain media use when they can self-regulate, and help support them in learning how to manage their powerful media tools in healthy ways.
Modeling healthy media use and helping your children better manage their use now will set them up for future success as they continue to grow and develop. Be sure to set guidelines and expectations with your children, explaining why they are made, and review them regularly as they grow up, since their lives and needs, not to mention technologies and applications, will evolve. Doing this makes media part of a balanced healthy diet of experience and less of a “forbidden fruit”.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
~ The Mediatrician®