As a psychologist I am often asked about technology use/screen time and child development... recently even William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge admitted that they struggle with this dilemma too! In his speech to mark Anti Bullying week (link https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/prince-william-kate-middleton-visit-13594700) Prince William revealed that striking a balance between quality family time and time spent online is a challenge, and one they still haven’t got quite right. How refreshingly honest! He continued and spoke about the impact of being constantly connected and how the next generation will be the first to be totally immersed in a technological world (Internet, smart phones, social media etc) and will need to learn how to traverse this world.
So what does research say? How much screen time is too much? And what is the impact of being constantly connected to technology?
New research conducted by Twenge, a psychologist from San Diego State University and Campbell,  a psychology professor from the University of Georgia outlined that after even one hour of screen time both children and teenagers show less curiosity, diminished ability to regulate their emotions, lower self control and a deceased ability to complete tasks. Whilst the research is still out on exactly why exactly screen time has this outcome these behaviours are often underpinned by a person’s ability to delay gratification.
We exist in an “on demand culture” that is reliant on technology where our children don’t have to learn to wait. Anything they could want is so easy to access... want to watch a YouTube video on funny dogs? No problem... here’s five million videos to choose from! What’s the answer to a homework question? Sure thing... here’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject. When nearly every whim or need is instantly accessible children don’t learn the skills to delay gratification.
So what is delaying gratification all about and why is it so important?
Essentially delayed gratification is all about learning to wait and developing self control. When we wait we need to employ lots of great skills like changing or reframing our thoughts, maintaining motivation, employing strategic behaviours and tolerating distress while we wait for a particular desired outcome. Those who have a high level of self control are more likely to experience positive outcomes in later life as they are better able to save money (or not spend it as a future goal is better than a small “gain” now), more prestigious education and employment opportunities (delaying instant reward of working/money and studying instead and learning that hard work pays off) as well as better overall health and mental wellbeing (improved resilience to negative life events, increased emotional regulation and coping strategies).
The benefits are huge... but how can you help your child learn to delay gratification?
Teach them about positive distractions. But don’t let them replace one temptation with another (I.e - “No tv but you can play on your iPad instead”). For younger children you can simply walk over to something else and make it look so interesting that they want to join you (it could be a colouring book, a book, a board game, toy etc). For older kids you can involve them in this process and introduce the idea of doing something else while they wait. You might say “Waiting is really tough! What’s something fun we could do while we wait?” You could also set a timer so they don’t need to keep the temptation in their mind... they can get on and really get immersed in the activity if they know a timer will go off to let them know the waiting is over.
Teach them about avoidance. Often being able to delay gratification is about being able to recognise and remove temptations. For little kids you might use words like “No tablet/iPads until after dinner. I’m going to put them away so you can’t see them”. Older kids can be encouraged to move away from temptations themselves and explaining why moving away can help “I know you really want that piece of cake, but it’s dinner time now. If you put the cake in the fridge you won’t be able to see it so it won’t be so tempting.
Set boundaries and be consistent. If they know they can keep asking or engage in some challenging behaviours and you will eventually give in they aren’t learning to delay gratification. If they can’t go out to play until their room is clean then there is no negotiation.
Teach patience. Here are some simple ideas that teach children that patience is rewarded. Do some baking as it promotes cooperation and you get to spend some quality time together; you follow a recipe, bake or cook it, cool it and then serve it. Depending on your child’s age and developmental level will depend on how complex the recipe is, or how long they have to wait for the reward (eating the yummy thing you make together). You could also plant some seedlings (try to pick something edible or with flowers for the best “reward”). Spend time each day watering and chart your plants progress. Once it flowers or produces fruit/vegetables let your child enjoy their hard earned reward and either pick a bunch of flowers or eat their food! But essentially you can do any kind of activity where there is some kind of delay between action and the reward, so things like puzzles, board games, make some play dough and playing sport or games, like hide and seek.
All of these activities are going to promote your child’s ability to delay gratification. Although there is still no research that can pinpoint why technology use and screen time yields poor outcomes for our children it is important to think about prevention rather than a cure. I’m not judging the use of screens (I have a toddler I need to keep occupied while I’m cooking and cleaning too)... but this is about creating a balance. Limit screens to an hour (cumulative) per day and use your leisure time together to strengthen your bond and also support your child to develop some skills that will benefit them throughout their life.
Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell. Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventive Medicine Reports, 2018; 12: 271 DOI: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2018.10.003