Screen Time: The Reward or Consequence

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Screen time and social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook can be great tools for learning, networking, and entertainment. Like anything else we interact with, these things can be used for our good or to our detriment. It is incredibly important to notice how we as parents have allowed it to either reinforce or discourage certain behaviors in our teens.

Is screen time the reward or consequence in your home?

Recognizing the behaviors and messages we are giving to our children is important. We need to pause and reflect on how we answer these questions: What rules are enforced in your home around screen time? How is screen time regulated or not regulated in your home? Each child is different in how they respond to boundaries or consequences, and acknowledgement or praise. The important thing is to understand what your child values and how they respond.

Let’s say your child gets upset when screen time is taken away for bad behavior. This is a normal response for children to react when something is taken away. But depending on how it is communicated, it can create a stronger desire to pursue its use regardless of any negative consequences that may ensue. Regardless of age, we all want what we cannot have, and this goes for our kids as well. If it’s not the phone, it’s the TV, video games or computer.

So, how do we as parents help our kids?

In order for screen time to be an effective consequence or motivating reward, it needs to be offered and restricted with intentionality. Here are a few helpful techniques.

Education is KEY.

We can’t get rid of phone use, but we can inform our teens of healthy ways to interact with it. Education and communication are the keys to healthy use. Excessive time spent on social media is never a good thing.

Did you know that the response in our brain to this constant obsession of checking our phones or our “likes” on social media actually activates the same circuits in the brain that are activated by eating chocolate or using drugs? That’s powerful. A new study shows that, “the brain responds to social media the same way it responds to real-life rewards, with a release of dopamine—a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure and works in the reward center of the brain.” The positive reinforcement follows when the posts on social channels receive likes, shares, and positive comments from peers. In turn our brains are conditioned to crave this release and over time and hundreds of hours of media consumption, the motivation is strong.

For some, this can feed into the need for more phone use and desire to recreate that feeling with more social posts and more screen time.

The impact of screen time on teens can influence identity development, self-esteem, and can cause depression, anxiety, and ADHD. The goal is to educate and talk to our teens about the effects of screen time, and find healthier ways to spend their time or limit screen use rather then just taking it away for bad behavior or rewarding them for good behavior. It becomes a reframing technique used to redirect their thinking about their screen time use. In counseling, it’s called Cognitive Restructuring. The main idea is to reframe or restructure a person’s point of view in order to see the value or meaningful purpose in changing a behavior or thought process. When the point of view is changed, the thinking and behavior often change along with it.

Intentionality over frequency.

How many times do you check your post to see how many “likes” you have? Well, our teens are doing the same thing. The frequency of social media use has a clear correlation to how we feel. A CNN study of 13-year-olds and their relationship with social media, found that participants who looked at Facebook or other networking sites between 50 and 100 times a day were 37 percent more distressed than those who checked just a few times a day. Those who checked more than 100 times a day were 47 percent more distressed on average. These numbers are significant and tell us that letting our kids use these platforms without boundaries and context can lead to serious issues and risk.

If we minimize use for intentional purposes and for a limited amount of time, our kids will benefit tremendously from this. Use this as an opportunity, rather than as a reward or consequence to their good or bad behavior. It is also important to monitor our own screen time use as parents so that we are modeling the same behavior we are trying to instill in our kids.

Set Healthy Boundaries.

Boundaries are an important piece of living a healthy life and developing healthy relationships. Setting a boundary is a skill, and it means understanding what your limits are as an individual. For teens, it can be hard to know how to set boundaries or what exactly those limits are. Help your teen build positive self-esteem by talking with them about the importance of setting healthy boundaries. Here are a few ideas:

  • Structure or limit the amount of screen time and set a goal for what that time will involve. Sometimes having a phone-free window of time is easier and more clear, such as during mealtime or for the first hour after arriving home.

  • Encourage your teen to get involved in something that they’re interested in. They can use their structured screen time to learn more about what they are passionate about. It could be writing, sports or music, anything that generates creativity can help build confidence. When teens learn to feel good about what they can do instead of comparing who they are and how they look to others, they’re happier and have a better sense of self.

  • Make a weekly schedule for screen time use and talk about the purpose of the screen time.

  • Allow your teen to earn access to screen time in general, rather than restricting specific devices.

  • If setting boundaries becomes a challenge, an alternative to limiting screen time may include setting up passwords on all devices, so you are the one unlocking their phone for the allotted amount of screen use.

Growing up in my family, my parents had a locked control switch that would turn on the cable and TV during times we were allowed to watch it. At the time, I didn’t always love this rule, and I often grumbled and got upset about it, but in reality, it allowed for me to make different choices that I probably wouldn’t have made on my own. I was outside more, playing with friends, and being more present with people around me. Looking back now, I have really appreciated this boundary my parents set for me.

You’re doing your best.

The reality is, being a parent is hard work. There is a lot to manage and we all want the best for our kids. If you can take anything away from this post, it would be to remind yourself of just that: You are doing your best. Take a few minutes and write a list of the things you are doing well. One of the biggest challenges in today’s world for parents is not only to monitor what their kids are looking at, but the behavior they are modeling in their own media use. Mindfulness of our own behavior and modeling healthy habits will only benefit your children. Talk to them about this subject, educate your teens on the positive and negative aspects of screen time, set boundaries, and offer healthy alternative ways for them to spend their free time.

Also remember, if you need more help navigating through this topic, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions or contact a counselor near you to walk through this. You are not alone in this journey.


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Leanne Konzelman, MA, LMHCA

Novo Life Counseling // @novolifecounseling

Leanne is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate and Founder of Novo Life Counseling. She is committed to developing a positive and helpful partnership with each client during the therapy process. Working with couples, teens, and adults she is passionate about helping clients find balance and live their life to the fullest. Leanne is an avid adventurer, and enjoys exploring with her husband Drew and baby girl!