Getting Your Kids Off the iPad Is Worth the Fight

This article first appeared on yahoo.com

Any parent who knows the particular hell of child tantrums in response to a set of screen-time rules may eventually begin to wonder: Is it really worth the fight? But a new study wants to assure you that yes, it really is. So stand your ground, moms and dads. The research, published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, found that parents who set limits can count on some seriously positive results for their kids — including improved sleep, better grades, less aggressive behavior, and lower risk of obesity. 

“Parents often feel out of control when it comes to screen time — like they’re either taking a shot in the dark or should just give up,” lead researcher Douglas Gentile, a developmental psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State, tells Yahoo Shine. “But what this study shows is that even that shot in the dark is really powerful. Parents have a much more of a profound effect on their child’s wellbeing than they realize.”

For the study, researchers analyzed the media habits of more than 1,300 Iowa and Minnesota schoolchildren already participating in an obesity-prevention program. They collected data from students, parents, teachers, and nurses on topics including screen-time limits, exposure to violent media, bedtimes, behavior, grades, and height and weights data — first at the start of the study and then again seven months later. “What we saw was this kind of ripple effect,” Gentile says, explaining that limits on screen time — specifically, watching shows or movies in any form, and playing video games — improved kids’ sleep, academics, pro-social behavior, and even body mass index. That seven months wound up being a sufficient amount of time to see differences between kids who had screen-time limits and those who did not was a happy surprise to researchers, particularly since the effects were small. 

“It was long enough for us to see the effect and also long enough for parents not to notice it,” Gentile explains, which is why moms and dads can be quick to dismiss the importance of monitoring screen time. “As parents, we don’t even see our children get taller and that’s a really noticeable effect. With media, what we’re often looking for is the absence of a problem, such as a child not gaining weight, making it even more difficult to notice,” Gentile says. But even tiny controls can make an impact, considering that children spend an average of 40-plus hours a week in front of a screen — not even counting time spent on their school computers. Also, according to a recent Common Sense Media study, 72 percent of children under 8 have used a mobile device — while 38 percent of children under 2 have used one — signaling a dramatic uptick since the group’s last such study, in 2012. 

Other recent studies have yielded similar findings regarding links between excessive screen time andobesitysleep, and aggression — but not necessarily all in one fell swoop. The new research also jibes with the recently revised guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which suggest less than two hours of passive screen time daily for all kids and teens and no screen time for kids younger than 2 (though, recently a doctor has suggested that active, rather than passive, screen time for kids under 2 might actually be beneficial).

Some tips for parents needing advice on how, exactly, to set limits, include:

Control the content. Let your child watch a DVD that you’re familiar with, for example, rather than something on TV or the computer. “That way, you’re not surprised by the content, and you know exactly how much time they’ll be watching for,” Gentile says.  

Model good behavior. “When kids are around, set an example by using media the way you want them to use it,” suggests Common Sense Media’s vice president of research, Seeta Pai. “If we’re on our phones at dinner, why will our kids listen to us when we tell them to turn theirs off?”

Set up an allowance or token economy system. Allot, say, 10 hours of screen time a week, and let your kids spend it whenever they want. Maybe they’ll use it in small increments, or maybe they’ll save up a binge for the weekend — but either way, they won’t want to waste it. “It helps them learn to manage their screen time, just like with a monetary allowance,” Gentile explains. “Plus it gives them some control and takes the fight away from the parent.”