Positive and Negative Reinforcement for Children in the Screen-time Age: An OT’s Perspective

At times, parents get desperate and the reasons behind it are totally relatable to others in a similar situation. Your child has a major melt-down in the grocery store, usually in the check-out line and a typically swift procedure turns into a grueling crisis that holds up the rest of the line. Maybe your child decides the best time to freak out is in the middle of church where even a minor disruption among the reverence earns your family everyone’s eyes and ears. Or, your child is at home and you are at your wits end because he/she has been screaming for the last 6 hours. So, as a parent, what do you do? You give your child something that usually shuts them up immediately: your phone, your tablet, or whatever small device with a screen will grab their attention and silence the evil noises penetrating the house.

Today, many kids and adults in the U.S. have unlimited access to these devices that harbor endless forms of entertainment. As a result, phones, I-pads, and tablets have become the new candy for children. Parents just merely have to hand over a device to a young child and there is an immediate change in their behavior. Those changes appear good to parents because it provides a period of quiet time absent of difficult behavior… for now.

Before we dive into the repercussions of handing over the phone to a young child, let’s get a couple of definitions clarified:

Operant conditioning: B.F. Skinner, a behaviorist who is well-known in the psychology field, defined operant conditioning as a method of learning that occurs through punishment and reward of human behavior. Such a punishment and reward system occurs through positive and negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement strengthens a person’s behavior by providing a consequence that the person finds appealing or rewarding. In the case of a phone, a child may figure out that they need to behave a certain way in order to earn time on the phone.

Negative reinforcement: Negative reinforcement occurs when an unappealing or unpleasant consequence is removed from the situation causing a strengthening in a human’s behavior. https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html. A child may attempt to behave in a good way in order to avoid getting the phone taken away from them or having their time on the phone reduced.

If used correctly by parents, positive and negative reinforcement strategies could be very effective for shaping their child’s behavior over the lifespan. However, here are some ways in which parents take the wrong turn:

  • Giving the child the phone in order to stifle a temper tantrum: It has become common practice amongst parents to hand over the phone to a screaming child in order to silence them. This isn’t much different from other examples such as handing them a piece of candy or a favorite toy in order to produce immediate results. This practice will often worsen behaviors in the future, making it more difficult for parents in the years to come because the child automatically believes that they just have to drive their parents insane in order to get what they want.
  • Giving the child the phone to reduce boredom: If a child is bored, this often leads to some exploratory behavior that drives the parents up the wall: getting into things that don’t belong to the child, breaking stuff, harassing siblings, etc. So, once again the parent hands over the phone which gets the child to sit in one place for longer than 5 minutes. Similarly to handling temper tantrums, this teaches the child that it is alright to destroy things out of boredom in order to earn time on the phone.
  • Giving the child the phone as a substitute for all forms of entertainment: Putting your child on a phone or a tablet for entertainment purposes will eliminate their awareness or desire to occupy their time with other engaging things (i.e., playing with friends and family, going outside, completing schoolwork, playing sports, etc.).

In short, giving your child the phone doesn’t have to be a bad thing in the end if you know the tricks of the trade behind operant conditioning. Develop a system with your child, including positive ways they can earn the phone and specific minutes earned for certain behaviors. Don’t let the phone become the all-encompassing reward either. Take charge and keep time on the phone very limited so that the child knows that there is more to the world than a screen.