Parents today face struggles our ancestors never could have imagined, from rampant food allergies to bullying on social media. But perhaps no two words are more uniquely associated with modern child-raising than “screen time.” Doctors caution against letting kids have too much of it, which is easy for them to say—they don’t have to be there when a parent pulls the plug. Researchers who have been studying these screen-time tantrums have some advice for families—like doing away with the popular two-minute warning.
Engineers at the University of Washington’s Computing for Healthy Living & Learning (CHiLL) Lab interviewed 27 families with toddlers and preschoolers to learn how these families handled screen time, and how it affected them. The results of those interviews informed a second study, in which 28 additional families, again with children ages 1 to 5, kept diaries of their screen-time experiences. Every day for two weeks, parents recorded what their kids were watching or doing, the type of technology they were using, what they—the parents—did during screen time, the reasons screen time ended, and how kids responded.
The results were surprisingly moderate. (They will be presented on May 9 at the Association for Computing Machinery's 2016 CHI conference in California.) Kids were okay with screen time ending 59 percent of the time, and they actually had positive reactions 19 percent of the time. Only 22 percent of unplugging situations were followed by tantrums or other negative reactions.
Of course, that 22 percent leaves quite an impression on a parent. "Most of the time these transitions actually go pretty smoothly, which can be hard for parents to recognize," senior author and associate professor of human-centered design and engineering Julie Kientz said in a press release. "If one out of five experiences is unpleasant enough that parents are always bracing themselves and worried about it, that colors their perceptions."
The screen-time diaries did yield an unexpected trend: Parents were better off just shutting screens down, rather than warning kids beforehand. Children were “significantly more upset about transitions” when they had advance notice that their screen time was about to end.
"We were really shocked—to the point that we thought, 'Well, maybe parents only give the two-minute warning right before something unpleasant or when they know a child is likely to put up resistance,'" Alexis Hiniker, the paper’s lead author and a doctoral student in human-centered design and engineering, said. "So we did a lot of things to control for that, but every way we sliced it, the two-minute warning made it worse."
The families’ diaries also dispelled another guilt-inducing myth: that parents plunk their kids down in front of the TV or tablet so they can go indulge themselves. "We did not see parents using screens as electronic babysitters so they could work or do something fun,” said Hiniker. "They usually pull out the iPad as a last line of defense or in a moment of desperation because the parent hasn't showered all day."
Kids seemed to respond better when screen time was part of a daily routine rather than a special treat. They also had an easier time moving on when their shows and games had natural end points, like levels or episodes. Autoplay, like that built into Netflix viewing, was a recipe for trouble. This is important data for media developers, the researchers say, since building in end points could help make a company’s digital products more family-friendly.
Parents also said that kids were more accepting of cutoff points when the technology was to blame. The researchers shared an anecdote of a little boy who discovered a new show while on vacation. When the family returned home and he couldn’t watch the show, he got very upset until his parents explained it just wasn’t available in their city. (If you’ve ever pretended your tablet’s battery was dead in order to pry it from your child’s hands, you’ll understand.)
"The kids we looked at for this particular study are right in that power-struggle age," Kientz said. "It's much easier to do that with a person than with technology. Once you take that parental withholding component out of it, kids are a lot more accepting."