ADHD News & Research

Two-Minute Warning May Actually Complicate Transitions

Turning off the TV or game console is a near-constant battle for many families. A new study suggests that cutting the power without preamble could actually reduce resistance and fighting.

May 10, 2016

A small study by researchers at the University of Washington Computing for Healthy Living & Learning Lab found that young children were significantly more upset, more often when told screen time was going to end soon, than they were when the video game, TV program, or internet access was cut off without warning.

The scientists interviewed 27 parents of children ages one to five, none of whom explicitly had ADHD. Then, in a separate data set, the researchers asked 28 additional families to complete a parenting diary over a two-week period that described how their child used screens, what parents did while kids used screens, how screen time ended, if screen time was part of a daily routine, and if the child was upset at the end of screen time.

Of particular interest to the scientists was the ease (or lack thereof) with which kids transitioned away from screen time, and what factors might contribute to a smoother, calmer Game Over. The study found that engaging with screens as part of a routine with a set beginning and end point created smoother transitions, and decreased the number of battles between parent and child. It also helped when technology enforced the transition – for example, when wi-fi became unavailable, the battery died, or the show ended. Using countdowns and warnings to signal the upcoming transition, however, caused a rockier transition. The researchers hypothesize that while the warning prepares kids for an upcoming change, it also reminds them of parental authority, which could trigger the child’s resistance and give them time to work up an argument. (The study did not explicitly study the impact of using timers or other electronic countdowns.)

These findings, described in a paper presented May 9 at the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2016 CHI conference in San Jose, Calif., surprised even the scientists. “We had thought that giving kids a little bit of a warning to set expectations would help things go better, and it actually made them much worse,” said the lead author, Alexis Hiniker, a University of Washington doctoral candidate.

The data also showed that the parents used screen time to keep children occupied when they needed to attend to some need of their own, and as a treat that children enjoy. Parents felt conflicted about letting kids interact with screens, though. The parents involved in the study worried that they used screen time for their own benefit — to do chores, self-care, or take a short break from parenting. They believed too much screen time was bad for kids, like too much sugar or dessert, and that children would not self-limit. Frequently parents ended screen time because they were ready to give their kids some undivided attention again.

There were 6 main reasons screen time ended: context (the situation changed, e.g., It was time to leave), the child decided (e.g., She wanted a snack or to play a different game), the parent decided screen time was over, technology reached a natural stopping point (e.g., The game was over), screen time ended in accordance with a rule, or the child fell asleep.