As vaccines become more available and life begins returning to so-called normal, caregivers and educators may have to contend with dramatically increased screen habits that kids developed during the pandemic.
My research offers a positive – dare I say joyful – way to wean a child off of a screen habit. Instead of focusing on the excessive screen time, my approach focuses on the healthy activities that kids could be doing instead.
Two theories explain the risks of excessive recreational screen time: the content theory and the displacement theory.
The content theory – that what the children are watching or doing online is problematic – has received disproportionate attention. Most solutions that caregivers are familiar with, including co-viewing and being a media mentor, are designed to address the content.
The displacement theory, on the other hand, explains that time spent online means not doing other things, and that it’s the loss of those other activities – such as outdoor play or reading – that may result in problems paying attention or gaining too much weight.
This also gives caregivers – and those who work with caregivers – the opportunity to focus on a positive goal: increasing time spent in those activities, which may lead to less time online and better childhood health.
Avoidance versus approach goals
Focusing on a positive goal may work better than avoidance goals, such as staying away from sugary foods or cutting down on screen time. That’s because avoidance goals are typically associated with poor mood and reduced goal persistence. They rely on self-control, which can weaken over time.
As a result, parents and caregivers typically struggle with screen avoidance goals and report a great deal of arguments about screen limits.
In contrast, approach goals encourage a desired activity or outcome and they are associated with good mood, greater effectiveness and more goal persistence.
Research on dieting and obesity demonstrates the effectiveness of approach over avoidance goals. For instance, in one study, families with one obese parent were assigned to either an avoidance diet plan that encouraged them to cut high-fat and high-sugar foods or an approach diet plan that encouraged them to eat more fruits and vegetables. After a year, families on the approach plan had lost more weight. In the process, they also reduced their intake of high-fat, high-sugar foods – which were edged out naturally by the fruits and vegetables.
Similarly, parents and caregivers can edge out screen time by encouraging meaningful activities that have long been shown to promote child development.
SPOIL is an acronym I developed to easily explain this information to parents and caregivers. It stands for Social activities, Play, Outdoor time, Independent work and Literacy.
Some elements of the SPOIL framework – such as social and literacy-based activities – encourage caregivers to spend time with children. Others – like play and independent work, which includes chores – encourage children to entertain or occupy themselves and regulate their emotions without the aid of a screen or a parent, as pediatricians recommend.
Here is a more in-depth look at what SPOIL involves.
Social activities include time spent with parents, friends or siblings. In addition to obvious relationship-building benefits, social activities allow children to practice cooperation, competition and empathy. Since social interactions are inversely related to recreational screen time, emphasizing them can decrease screen time naturally.
Free play, especially pretend play, has been linked to planning, problem-solving and impulse-control skills as well as math achievement and physical, social and language development in children. Free play takes time to evolve and may occur when caregivers step back or are otherwise unavailable, allowing a child to direct their own attention. It also has an inverse relationship with screen time.
Outdoor time is associated with improved sleep, attention, creative problem-solving and decreased stress. Multiple studies have found an inverse relationship between time spent outdoors and recreational screen time in children.
Independent work includes goal-directed activities, such as homework and chores, that require a child to put aside an immediate interest. Participation in household chores has declined dramatically in recent decades, despite chores having positive links with self-esteem, responsibility, academic achievement and self-sufficiency.
Literacy involves all forms of reading and writing, including a child being read to, reading independently and listening to audiobooks. Reading is associated with understanding the perspectives of others, larger vocabulary and academic achievement. As with many of the SPOIL categories, the frequency of reading in the home is inversely related to recreational screen time.
Replacing excessive screen time with SPOIL activities may support children’s development during and after the pandemic. Because positive approach goals rely less on self-control, they may be more sustainable and successful than avoidance goals. Additionally, these activities likely counteract some negative effects of excessive recreational screen time, which makes the emphasis on screen limits less necessary in the first place.
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