Healthy Media Habits in Kids Start With a Good Relationship

5 min read

This post was written with assistance from Monica R. Phillips, OTR/L, a MS student at Arizona State University.

The challenges faced by our generation of parents regarding media monitoring are a bit more intricate than those of generations past. While our parents often warned us that sitting too close to the TV would make us go blind, we are inclined to think that there wasn’t much thought given to it beyond that. As parents, we look for reasonable solutions in managing this new and ever-evolving era. Should we set screen time limits? Should we teach our children about digital health and wellness? Should we monitor every swipe on their device? These are questions that parents are hindered by every day. Luckily, there might be something simpler than constant monitoring.

A recent study (Swit, et al., 2023) set out to investigate parental factors that could influence problematic media use in children during early childhood. Researchers wanted to know specifically how the parent-child relationship and parent well-being could influence the probability of a child developing a problem with media. This took place in the form of a two-part study in New Zealand and the U.S. where 22% to 25% of young children are considered to have problematic media use. Parent behaviors that were examined were parental burnout, parent-child closeness/ warmth, and parent-child conflict/harsh criticism. The parent behaviors that had the most influence on problematic media use were parent-child closeness and high parental harsh criticism. Lower levels of parent-child closeness significantly increased the likelihood of unhealthy media habits. Additionally, children of parents who often resorted to using harsh criticism were also associated with higher PMU.

Based on this research, we can now assume that part of the solution can be as simple as increasing the closeness we have with our children and improving our relationships. There are many parenting programs that teach parents strategies to manage their child’s use of screen time. This study provides implications suggesting that infusing strategies to support parent-child closeness within these programs may be more effective than focusing just on technology management itself.

The way we interact with our children impacts the level of closeness between us. What is the best parenting style to foster parent-child closeness? Which of the following statements resonates with you most?

  1. You set the rules, it’s your way or the highway, and it’s always “because you said so.”
  2. You have clear expectations and consequences, but you are warm in your delivery and responsive to your child’s needs as you problem-solve through challenges together.
  3. You allow your child as much freedom as they desire, you have a difficult time enforcing the rules, and it’s important to you that your child sees you as their friend.
  4. You do not spend much time with your child, are uninvolved in most of their activities, and are disinterested in your parenting role.

If you chose B, then you are on the right track with an authoritative parenting style. The warm two-way interactions of authoritative parenting are associated with the most positive outcomes, including increased child self-esteem, better social skills, improved academic performance, and better parent-child relationships (Darling & Steinberg, 2018).

Ways to connect with children through meaningful interactions (CDC, 2019)

  • Allow at least 15 to 30 minutes every day to play or talk with your child. This time should be uninterrupted. As hard as it may seem, this means dropping our own devices too.
  • Use reflective listening skills when your child tells you about their day. This may sound something like, “It sounds like you were really frustrated when Bradley took that toy from you. What did you do when that happened?”
  • When your child is upset, often their lack of emotional regulation limits their ability to verbalize what they are feeling. Be their narrator so that they feel heard. “It looks like you are really sad that you weren’t able to have that snack right now” or “I’m hearing that you really want a snack, but we have to wait.”
  • During free play with your child, follow their lead, meet them where they are, and don’t impose your ideas on them. If they want to spin around senselessly until they fall down and that is what is meaningful to them, join them in doing so instead of encouraging a puzzle.
  • Include your child in activities you are involved in. This may mean she/he helps you chop vegetables for dinner, or you walk the dog together.

Parenting through the age of technology is not for the weary. It forces us to be vigilant, informed, and always on top of our game. As parents, we try to do the best we can, and arm ourselves with the most information possible. Instead of being so fixated on limiting media, this research reminds us to focus on the relationship. This will give us the opportunity to not only focus on ways to curb media use, but also on ways to connect with our children.

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