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July 01, 2024

Parents who want to reduce their kids' screen time should start by reducing theirs, study finds

Families are advised to put away their phones and other electronic devices during meal times, before bedtime and immediately after waking up. There are other strategies, too.

Parenting Screen Time
parents kids screen time August de Richelieu/Pexels

New research suggests adolescents who see their parents use screens frequently tend to get higher amounts of screen time. They also are more likely to exhibit addictive behaviors with social media, video games and mobile phones.

Parents trying to help their kids cut down on screen time may want to take a hard look at their own habits.

Adolescents who see their parents use screens frequently tend to spend more time on their own screens, according to a study published last month in the Pediatric Research journal. These children also are more likely to exhibit "problematic" social media, video game and mobile phone use.

"One of the biggest predictors of adolescents' screen use is their parents' screen use," Jason Nagata, a pediatrician at the University of California at San Francisco and the lead author of the study, told the Washington Post. "It's especially important that parents follow their own rules and practice what they preach, because even if they think their kids aren't watching them, they really are."

The study's findings suggest that children are modeling their parents' behaviors, researchers said. Also, parents who use digital media more frequently may be more open to children using screens and impose less restrictions. 

The study found that adolescents that were permitted to use their phones during mealtimes and at bedtime generally had higher amounts of screen time and more problematic screen uses. Problematic screen use includes addiction-like traits — like withdrawal, building tolerance, obsessive thoughts and relapse — that may disrupt daily functioning. 

The vast majority of parents surveyed for the study – 85.3% – said they try to limit their screen use around their children, but 72.9% reported using screens around their kids. 

The study, which included data from 10,048 children, ages 12-13, also explored the use of screens to control kids' behavior. More than 75% of the parents in the study said they had removed screen time as a punishment for bad behavior, and nearly 40% said they offered screen time as a reward for good behavior. Greater control of adolescent screen use, either as a reward or punishment, was associated with increased total screen time and problematic video game use. 

"When parents are overly controlling, it backfires," Ken Ginsburg, a professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study, told CNN. "Kids watch what we do and don't like to be controlled. When kids perceive we set rules to control them, they always go around those rules."

Yet, parental monitoring and screen time limits were linked with lower screen times and problematic screen use in early adolescents. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends creating a family media plan, which encourages setting boundaries on screen time while minimizing the use of screen time as a reward or punishment to control behavior.

"The implementation of a family media use plan may be more successful when clear, consistent rules are mutually agreed upon by parents and children," the study authors wrote. "This is particularly important for early adolescents who may spend longer portions of the day away from home and are developing more autonomy." 

Here are some other ways that parents can cut back on their own screen use around their kids:

How to limit screen time

Pediatricians recommend children ages 5-17 receive no more than two hours per day of screen time outside of homework. Adults also are encouraged to have no more than two hours a day of screen time outside work.

Families should avoid screen time at meals, one hour before bed and during the first hour after waking up. During screen-free times, family members should put their devices away or place them at a charging station in a common area so they don't post distractions at the dinner table or bedroom. 

After school or work, parents should give children their full attention and spend time talking face-to-face, the Mayo Clinic suggests. Spending time outdoors – like going for  a walk or bike ride – is another way to spend time away from screens. 

Turning off the TV when no one is watching it is another way to limit screen time for the entire family. If the TV is always on as background noise, kids are more likely to think it's always time to watch, the Cleveland Clinic said. If adults have a TV show they don't want to miss, they can record it. When they watch it, they can fast-forward through commercials, thereby spending less time staring at a screen.

Parents also can set screen limits on their smart phones, schedule video calls only when necessary, set reminders to take breaks from screens and ban snacks from screen-filled entertainment areas.

"I think first and foremost, it's lead by example," Dr. Noah Schwartz, a doctor with Cleveland Clinic Children's, said in 2022. "If your kids see you on your phone, then they're going to be on their phone. If you're at the dinner table and you're scrolling through and you're looking at stuff, they're watching you. Kids are sponges, and they're absorbing their environment. They follow what they see."

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