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How Screen Time Affects the Parent-Child Relationship

By Richard Turner, MD – MMH Pediatrics Turner

In Part One of our Screen Time series, we explored the effects of screen time on infant and toddler development. We will now move on to Part Two and look at the effects of screen time on school-aged children and adolescents and the impact on the parent-child relationship.

The negative impact of parent use of mobile devices has been demonstrated in a study from the University of North Texas entitled, “The Impact of Parent’s Mobile Device Use on Parent-Child Interaction,” by doctoral candidate Cory A. Kildare and her faculty advisor, Dr. Wendy Middlemiss. This study confirmed several important points. First, children mirror their parents’/caregivers’ media use. Second, developmental and behavioral issues may arise in children when parental/caregiver use of media interferes with or decreases parent-child interactions. Finally, they found parents/caregivers who use mobile media devices during their parent-child interactions are less aware of and less responsive, both verbally and non-verbally, to their children’s bids for attention.

We are simply not giving them the attention they need when blissfully off in our media-driven frenzy. This can and likely will lead to negative attention -seeking behavior, negative parent-child interactions, and a negative parent-child relationship. Bottom line – children need attention and they will get it. If they’re not getting positive attention from caregivers, they will get attention in negative ways, by misbehaving.

Family and daily stress was also explored in the Radesky study, revealing parents felt mobile devices help ‘keep kids quiet,’ decrease conflict and lead to more peace and quiet in the home. One parent put it this way, “It’s so easy, just put your feet up … plug it in and it’s over with … and he’s watching a DVD and I’m on my phone … it’s quiet and peaceful. It’s like no conflict.” At church or other long events, give them a phone and keep them entertained.

Now, there are certainly times when parents need some time to cook, clean, eat, relax … breathe! Sometimes you just need the kids entertained quietly so you can get some peace. This is understandable. But allowing kids to be screen-occupied for hours on end, daily or nearly every day is where the problem develops.

Kids need positive interaction and attention from their caregivers. They need to bond. They need their parents/caregivers to SHOW them that not only are they loved, but you enjoy playing with them, have an interest in their interests and encourage their imaginations, dreams and activities. They need to know you just simply like them and like spending quality time with them doing things they enjoy.

Kids need your attention. Let’s say that again, “Kids NEED your attention!” And believe me, they WILL get it, one way or another. The Still Face Experiment demonstrates this perfectly. It profoundly illustrates, even in infancy, how critical it is for parents to be actively involved and engaged with their children.

Another just as important point to note – When kids are spending hours upon hours watching TV, playing video games, or playing on their smart phones, they are not playing. They are not getting exercise. They are not using their imaginations. They are not active. Not only that, but what do we do when we are sitting around vegetating over a screen? We are eating, grazing and snacking. Kids do the same. So not only are the calories dramatically decreased, but the calories IN are dramatically increased, leading to obesity. This puts kids at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes, bone and joint pain, metabolic syndrome, depression and many other obesity-related health-problems.

For these and many more reasons, I recommend no more than 1 hour daily of non-academic (school work) screen time for school-aged children, ages 5 to 12. The one exception would be something like a family movie night, where the whole family is watching the same show or movie on the same screen with parents/caregivers actively involved in watching age-appropriate programming with their children.

You CAN limit their screen time. You are the parent, you are in charge. You are the boss. It is non-negotiable. Start setting limits and boundaries early. Consistently enforce the rules with appropriate consequences.

Engage your children. And remember, the more positive attention you give them, the less negative attention they will seek.