Modelling desired behaviour around screen time for children

As a parent you are probably at least somewhat concerned about the amount of time your children are spending on screens.

As a parent you are probably at least somewhat concerned about the amount of time your children are spending on screens. After all, that’s why you’re here, reading this. But have you considered how much time you are spending on your devices? The Common Sense Census: Plugged-In Parents of Tweens and Teens report (2016) shows that parents of American teens and tweens use screens for over 9 hours a day, with only 18% of that time dedicated to work activities.

American author Robert Fulghum once said: ‘Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you’. Children copy what they see their role models doing. Regardless of their age, your behaviour can influence theirs. It’s a well-known social learning theory known as behaviour modelling, popularised by Albert Bandura in the 1960s and 1970s. Based on earlier behaviourist learning theories, this one looks at how people learn through observation, and how the cognitive functions are involved in the learning process. In Bandura’s words, ‘[m]ost human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.’

Setting the right example

Why is the way kids learn important? Because it gives parents an insight into some of the factors contributing to the behaviour and habits children adopt. Spending time on screens is appealing to kids because of the engaging stimulus of colour and sound (for younger children) and the social aspects and escapism offered by social media and gaming/television, respectively (for older children). But, as parents, we have the responsibility of determining what a healthy amount of screen time looks like. Not only that, we need to set the example we want to see.

Think back to behaviour modelling: if you are spending a lot of time on your screens, what you are saying to your children is that it is okay to do the same. You are showing them it is okay. Regardless of whether you’re using your device for work or entertainment, showing your children that there are times when screens are used and times when they are switched off to allow for other activities is a key factor in shifting their perspective on the usage of devices. Luckily, 78% of American parents believe they are embodying good habits around screen time for their children (Common Sense Media 2016).

Balancing role modelling with other responsibilities

You need to get your work done – we understand. Sometimes, it’s not possible to reduce the amount of screen time we expose ourselves to when we have responsibilities to fulfill. In these cases, look at how this can be managed in a way that still sends a positive and educational message to your children about how we use devices.

Ask yourself:

  1. What is the device being used for?
  2. How long does it need to be used for? (Does it really need to be an hour or is 30 minutes enough time to complete the task?)
  3. How can I explain that fulfilling my work responsibilities is not granting myself an exception to family rules around screen time?
  4. How can I explain to my child the difference between using their devices for homework versus entertainment?

There is no cut-and-paste, one-size-fits all approach to this. It will be different for every family, and it is up to you as a parent to read up on the recommendations, the pros and cons of screen time, and decide what is right for your family. But if there’s anything we absolutely stand behind is that modelling the behaviour you’d like to see from your children – actually creating a space where there is a clear distinction between screen time and non-screen time – is a good place to start.



Stephanie Kakris

Stephanie Kakris

Stephanie Kakris has a Masters in Psychology and is a published parenting author. She is the co-founder of ScreenCoach, a combined hardware and software platform where kids are allocated a set amount of screen time, and after their time is up, they need to go and complete activities such as exercise, chores or non-screen play to earn more time before they can resume.
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