Should I Use Screen Time to Motivate My Child?

Melanie Hempe
Screens may help motivate, but sends the wrong message to kids

Do you use screen currency to negotiate deals with your child around chores, reading, or piano practice? On the surface, it seems like an excellent idea: “You can get your phone back when you clean your room.” She tidies that mess up more quickly than you thought possible. Or “Do your homework for 30 minutes, Sweetie. Then you can game for 30 minutes.” He rushes off to complete his math. Your strategy seems like a win-win.  

When you find a reward that really works, you want to stick with it. Plus it makes you feel more successful as a parent. So what’s the problem?  Frankly, the “screen-time reward” comes with some costs that can be easily overlooked.

  1. Sloppy work. Because children are so enamored with gaming and social media, chances are they will figure out how to rush through their homework, practice, and chores in world-record time so they can get to their screens. Your clever reward system may motivate him to cut corners and subtly encourage her to do sloppy work.  Since a game or a trail of unanswered texts waits for–and calls to–your son or daughter, your children will take shortcuts they would not take, had other motivations been driving them instead. If your son already has a problem with gaming, giving him more chances to play as a reward will only keep the habit front and center in his mind and life. If your daughter already can’t turn her face away from her phone, giving more texting time as a reward for chores will not remedy that. Try encouraging excellence in their school work and responsibilities with healthier rewards, and remove phones and video games from the equation for most of their after-school time.

  2. The wrong message.  The screen-time reward system sends a strong message to your child that gaming or phone use is a valuable prize. Is that the message you want to send?  Actually you are reinforcing the very thing that you are trying to bring into balance by making it the prize to be "won."  Perhaps a better reward would be one that involves spending time with the family or special one-on-one time with a parent. The cumulative reward for getting homework, chores, or practice done this week could be a date with Dad to get frozen yogurt this weekend for her or a trip to the camping equipment store for him. After all, time with parents is what children really want and need, but involvement with screens only draws them away from the family.

  3. Missed opportunities. Science tells us that fast-paced screens are extremely enticing and attractive for young brains, yet these same young brains have not developed sufficiently for children to be able to self-regulate their immersion. If your daughter is truly more excited about texting and surfing social media than her other activities, then she may want to quit other beneficial activities too soon. If your son puts his primary creative efforts into gaming, he may not leave any room in his life to develop other skills or interests. That only leads to more lost potential.  Eventually he may drop out of sports and clubs to make more room in his schedule for the ultimate prize: the video game. She may not pursue extra credit or go for the "A," run for a school office, or try out for a part in the school play. Childhood is a time to discover many different interests. If you are not careful, your children may start living for the screen-prize as it becomes their all-time favorite activity.

  4. Unhealthy habits and hobbies. Keeping screen time as the number one reward will get things out of kilter quickly.  For a healthy balance, your children should maintain at least three other hobbies or activities that they enjoy equally with gaming and other screen-related activities. That equates to an average of 25 percent of total hobby time for each activity.  You should be able to say, “Get your homework done and you can go shoot hoops in the driveway, or go outside, or go play your guitar.”  If your children don’t respond to any other activities as rewards, then they may be developing an overuse problem.

Ultimately, you want your children to be driven by healthy motivations to complete tasks or accomplish goals.  If you use screen time to purchase compliance in this area, you may unintentionally help a gaming or phone habit to grow to an addictive level. A healthier motivation should be the wonderful feeling that comes from a job well done or the security and sense of belonging that comes from true family attachment. Whatever you offer as a prize will naturally rise above other activities, so be careful the next time you use any type of screen as a reward.  There is a higher cost to this reward system than you think.

Want to learn more about gaming or phone overuse in your child’s life? Go here to learn about upcoming workshops for parents. Visit our site for more information and tips.