Dinner is nearly prepared and you want to make sure your kids are ready to eat. “Two more minutes, then we’re turning the iPad off,” you say loudly from the kitchen, mentally patting yourself on the back for thinking ahead and being fair.
Researchers at the University of Washington examined how families manage screen time for preschoolers. They based their data on interviews with 27 parents as well as diaries kept by 28 additional families. Nearly all of the parents who participated, some 93 percent, said that their kids at least occasionally throw tantrums when screens are taken away. More than a third reported the transition almost always ends with conflict. No surprises there. Where the study really gets interesting is in its examination of how parents try to mitigate or avoid skirmishes when screens are taken away.
The data suggests our instinctual urge to use a warning—such as telling kids they have two more minutes, or that they can watch just one more video—may not actually have the desired effect of mentally preparing them to peaceably switch off their devices. In fact, only five participants reported they felt confident this practice improved transitions from screens to other activities. Most of the parents were unsure how effective this tactic really is, even though they continue to use it.
This defied the researchers’ expectations. They had hypothesized that parents who used warnings would experience smoother transitions with less fighting. Instead, the information they collected indicated that children were significantly more upset about screen time coming to an end when parents provided advance notice. They admit this could be because parents might be more likely to use warnings in instances when they expect their kids are going to put up a fight. Or it could be that warnings remind kids their parents are in charge and remove their sense of independence.
Regardless, the message is clear: Warnings aren’t a reliable way to ensure your kids won’t throw a tantrum when you take away their screens.
So, what does work? The study suggests that establishing regular screen time routines can make for noticeably easier transitions. Kids are less likely to push back if they know when, where, and for how long they have access to their favourite devices, day after day, week after week. Perhaps surprisingly, technology itself can also offer a solution. Apps with built-in parental controls—like Yahoo! Kids—that set limits on screen time may keep kids from getting angry at their parents because they perceive it’s the app or device, not their parents, enforcing the restriction.
Of course, some apps aren’t as considerate of parents’ needs as others. If your kids prefer apps without time limiting controls you may want to check out a third party parental control app, like OurPact or Kids Place. Not only do these apps block Internet and app access according to preferences you set, they also let you schedule usage and set up time limits—perfect for helping you create the kind of screen routine described in the study.
You may need to pay a few dollars, but it sure beats avoiding screen time tantrums by letting your kids watch until they fall asleep – which, according to the study, happens about 2 per cent of the time.