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Is it okay to use screen-time as reward?

I’m going to admit that I’m guilty of saying this from time to time, “If you get ready quickly this morning, I’ll let you watch TV.”

Why do I do it? Simple, it works. And it’s quick.

Rewards are often introduced to make family life easier. Kids reluctant to tidy their room? Then offer them screen-time and watch how fast they move! You’ll never see their room so tidy, so quickly.

I’m being asked more frequently by parents is it okay to use screen-time as a ‘digital carrot’? Is it okay to incentivise their behaviour and chores with time on the iPad, or TV time?

And my answer, (even though it seems counter-intuitive)? Avoid doing it.

The research tells that reward systems and bribes don’t work in the long-term. They can create a false reward economy and it sets kids up to ask, “What’s in it for me?”

 

It’s easy to incentivise kids’ behaviour with screens but it creates a false reward system (I totally understand). However, dangling the ‘digital carrot’ is not an effective, or long-term solution.”

 

More and more parents are using screen-time in their parenting tool kit, as either a bribery tool, or as part of a reward system, or even as a punishment tool (as an aside, this isn’t a blog post to discuss the merits and limitations of parents ‘punishing’ children and whether that’s appropriate- that’s a totally separate topic and one I don’t want to address in this post).

But using ‘digital carrots’ or ‘digital stickers’ isn’t something that I recommend that parents do. Let me explain why I don’t think that we should be using technology as a tool to tame children’s behaviour.

There’s little doubt that incentivising kids’ behaviour with screen-time works. Again, I’ll admit that I’ve reverted to doing this when every other parenting trick has failed… However, it’s only effective in the short-term and doesn’t help our kids to develop their intrinsic motivation, nor does it help them to learn how to emotionally regulate.

Have you asked your kids to clean their room and promise them that if they do, you’ll allow them to use the iPad? They never clean so fast and efficiently!

But does incentivising behaviour with screen-time necessarily result in long-term behavioural change? Nope.

Does negotiating with screen-time as the bargaining tool, result in kids developing emotional regulation skills? Nope.

We shouldn’t be using technology to tame children’s behaviour.”

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Why using screens as a reward or bribery tool isn’t effective

 

// If we use screens as a reward or as a bribery tool we’re rewarding or encouraging something that we don’t actually want our kids to want more of (i.e.more screen-time). As screen-time is usually a fairly inherently rewarding activity for most kids we don’t need to further elevate its status by using it as a tool to drive and shape their behaviour. When kids are using technology their brains are secreting the neurotransmitter dopamine because it’s usually a pleasurable experience for them, so there’s no need to use rewards and/or bribes to make it even more appealing.

// Using screens as a reward or punishment tool develops a transactional relationship between kids and parents. Kids start to ask, “If I do X, can I have an hour of screen-time?” and will negotiate accordingly.  A family recently told me that they were bamboozled that their 8 year old son offered to unpack the dishwasher but before starting he turned and asked, “How much extra time can I have on the iPad if I do this?” Once you start offering screens as a reward or bribe it’s often really hard to stop this transactional discussion. When market forces enter the family dynamic it’s often hard to tame. The reward and bribes need to be constantly increased to elicit co-operation. The standards are constantly raised (and this is tiring and often expensive for us parents!).

// We want our kids to see technology as a tool and not a toy. We want our kids to see that screens help us to do things- i.e. send messages, consume information, used for leisure. If screens are used in a functional way, and not as a reward or punishment tool, then kids are more likely to develop healthy relationships with technology and see them as tools that enable them to perform specific tasks. Otherwise they can quickly develop a ‘digital dependence’ and look to screens to ameliorate their feelings, or to simply entertain or pacify them.

// Bribes, or rewarding specific behaviours with screen-time usually only works in the short-term. If we want long-term behavioural change we need our kids to develop intrinsic motivation and an internal locus of control when it comes to managing their feelings and behaviours. Bribes and reward systems have limited long-term effectiveness. You’ll soon be forced into negotiating with them, because they’ll be the ones insisting that they’re ‘entitled to’ or have ‘earnt’ screen-time if they perform certain tasks (i.e. “If I eat my dinner, can I play on the iPad?”, “If I unpack the dishwasher, can I have another half an hour on the iPad). We want our kids to develop healthy habits, so we want them to see technology as a tool and as a privilege (and not a right that they can demand if they perform certain tasks).

// Bribes and rewards don’t teach our kids respect and responsibility. In fact they can cultivate a sense of entitlement. It can also teach our kids compliance, which can, over time, undermine their self-esteem, well-being and sense of capability. Kids can start to feel discouraged when they have to adhere to threats or co-operate to gain rewards, as the power dynamic shifts in favour of their parents. This often results in resentment and conflicts between kids and parents. If kids feel powerless they won’t co-operate. Instead, we need to make them feel capable and supported and this will help them to learn respect and responsibility.

// Bribes and rewards don’t allow our kids to learn how to effectively emotionally-regulate. If kids are regulating their emotional response, or completing household tasks or chores to simply get a dose of digital, then they’re often missing out on opportunities to cultivate and refine their emotional-regulation skills and develop in intrinsic motivation. Kids need to sit in cafes and restaurants and be given an opportunity to learn patience and social skills. Yes, it’s okay for your child to be bored- in fact they need it! Always wielding digital devices at kids in these situations, means that our kids don’t get to rehearse and refine these critical skills. (And no, this isn’t an attempt to make you feel guilty if you’ve ever handed over a digital device to your child in a cafe or restaurant- we never know anyone’s full story so there’s no need to judge.) We know that over time, kids that are always placated with screens learn to become dependent on these devices whenever they encounter these feelings and/or situations. This can lead to unhealthy associations.

// Compensating kids for completing mundane tasks (e.g. brushing teeth, making beds etc) or prosocial tasks (e.g. be nice to your brother and you can play Minecraft) sets kids up to expect a tangible reward for their efforts or actions. It sets up false expectations. The real world isn’t always rewarding. Kids can quickly become accustomed to being rewarded or praised for their efforts and/or behaviour. If we do this, we often then have to raise the bar each time. This can result in significant negative and unintended long-term consequences for both kids and their families (I don’t want to be entering a plea-bargain negotiation every time their teeth need to be brushed).

// Using screens as a reward or punishment undermines kids’ intrinsic motivation. One of our ultimate goals as parents is to raise thriving, independent, thoughtful kids. We want our kids to be intrinsically motivated and want to assist us with mundane family tasks, or co-operate with siblings because they want to and not just because there’s a digital carrot dangling in front of them.

In summary we need to avoid using screens as a behavioural incentive. Yes, they certainly work, but they can soon backfire and become a rod for your own back.

 

Screen-free tips for managing kids’ behaviour

 

So how do we get kids to complete mundane tasks and/or engage in prosocial behaviour without wielding screens in front of them?

 

// Make them feel capable and supported– e.g. “Would you like to read a book while we wait at the doctors?”

// Use positive language that invites cooperation and participation. E.g. “I’m unpacking the dishwasher. Is anyone else able to help me out?”

// Build and maintain relationships with your kids. This is one of the best ways to elicit cooperation and positive behaviour and it will have a long-term effect.

// Ensure what you’re asking your child to do or how to behave is actually  age- and stage-appropriate. Expecting your toddler not to throw tantrums is completely unrealistic.

// Use rewards and praise sparingly (now this is a whole new blog post on its own). Kids quickly become accustomed to always being rewarded for positive behaviour or completing everyday tasks. (I think back to my early Kindergarten teaching days when I offered some children a sticker for quickly packing their bags. After this, every child wanted a sticker for replicating this behaviour, every day. This was a costly lesson to learn as a new teacher handing out expensive scratch-and-sniff stickers like they were going out of fashion. Lesson learned).

// Relax your standards and ‘keep your hair on’. As time-poor parents, we’re often expecting our kids to do a multitude of things and often at a very high standard. As my wise Mum tells me,”Pick your battles.” What’s really important when it comes to your kids behaviour?

 

I’d love to know in the comments below, have you used or tried to avoid using screens as a reward or bribery tool? Has it worked?

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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Comments

  1. Hi Kristy, thanks for this article! I have three children aged 4, 7 and 10 and I’m also doing a PhD on kids’ use of digital games. The ‘screen time’ issue really interests me, and in fact is what led me to pursue the PhD. My perspective, at this point, is that not only is using screen time as a reward (or removal of it as punishment) not a good idea, but also that talking about it as a carrot on a stick might make getting the balance right trickier than perhaps necessary. I wonder whether pulling back on constructing screens as inherently more alluring than other forms of media consumption (including books) and non-digital forms of play, might go some way toward helping form those healthy long-term relationships with devices. But, I understand that many parents do indeed feel that screens have a special kind of attraction and that changing the way we talk about things like this is really difficult. Especially when, as parents, we have to filter out all the hyperbole and baggage from previous waves of moral panic (I remember constantly being told to do something, anything, other than watch TV for hours on end after school).
    I also think that screens-as-escapism is not always negative, and not mutually exclusive to the teaching or practice of other emotion regulation strategies. If a child has ‘watching some funny YouTube videos’ as part of their repertoire of things they can do to de-escalate (perhaps before talking to a parent and working on problem solving strategies etc) then maybe that’s fine? Obviously not in isolation and not as a means to an end in itself.
    I am interested in the research about kids who are always given screens as a pacifier being more likely to become dependent on devices. If you have a reference handy for this, I would love to have a read. Working out what works best will certainly get a lot easier once we start to get this kind of longitudinal information!
    Apologies for such a long comment! This is all just so relevant to me, both in terms of work and family life!
    Cheers

    • Hi Jane,

      I appreciate your response and I’m so delighted to hear that you’re pursing a PhD in this area- we certainly need more research in this area to help inform parents and professionals supporting families.

      I agree that using screens as a reward elevates the status of screens and in turn makes our job as parents often so much harder than it needs to be. Like you said I also understand why so many parents revert to using screens as a reward because of their allure and appeal.

      I will see if I can find a reference for research on kids and emotional regulation. I’m not sure that there’s much peer-reviewed literature in this field at this point in time but I know that many psychologists are expressing concerns about kids’ self-regulation skills in this screen-saturated world. I know Jenny Radesky is doing a lot of work in this field- this may be a starting point for you- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4006432/

      Many thanks again for your comment. I wish you well with your studies Jane.

      Kristy

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