Why Two-Minute Warnings Don't Work for Screen Time

A new study says giving a kids a warning before you turn off the TV or tablet actually makes it harder to end their screen time.

boy watching tablet
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Last night, my 10-year-old and I were lying in bed watching an episode of "Friends."

"Two more minutes, Dyl," I warned him, one eye on my phone.

Fast-forward to what was really more like 12 minutes later, when I finally reached over to pick up the remote: "But Mooooom," he started in. "It's the one where Ross and Rachel get married in Vegas!"

And so after five more minutes of whining and cojoling, I gave in and let him finish watching the episode. I know. I'm a total sucker.

But apparently the problem isn't that I didn't turn the TV off after the first two minutes were up. It's that I gave my kid a warning in the first place. Because according to a new study from the University of Washington, giving kids a two-minute warning that screen time is about to end makes the transition off of whatever it is their eyes are glued to—tablets, phones, TV—way more difficult.

Researchers interviewed 27 families about how they manage media and screen time for their toddlers and preschoolers. Then they conducted a study of 28 different families, who documented what their children were watching, what the parents did during that time, what prompted the screen time to end, and how upset the children were over the course of two weeks.

The results? Parents reported that their kids were way more upset, more often, when they had been given a warning that their screen time was about to end, than when their screen time was just stopped without a warning.

"We were really shocked—to the point that we thought 'well, maybe parents only give the two-minute warning right before something unpleasant or when they know a child is likely to put up resistance,'" said lead author Alexis Hiniker, "So we did a lot of things to control for that but every way we sliced it, the two-minute warning made it worse."

According to the study's senior author Julie Kientz, this may be because instead of helping to ease a child's transition away from screens, a two-minute warning actually prepares them to fight it.

"This is definitely the age where parents are trying to avoid power struggles and kids are very welcoming to them," she explained. "We think possibly that the two-minute warning kind of primed them for knowing that there was going to be this battle."

Of course, shows that automatically repeated or had previews right after made it more difficult for a child to turn away. Parents were successful in easing transitions, however, when they put the blame on the technology itself, saying the battery was dead, or the Wi-Fi broken.

"What the technology itself did made a huge difference," said Hiniker. "If the technology was backing the parent up, and kind of saying 'screen time is done now,' then things went better than if the parent just told the child 'you're done.'"

Meanwhile, the warning-free transitions away from screens actually went pretty well. "About 80 percent of the transitions were totally fine," said Hiniker. "In fact a lot of the time kids were happy about it—they were excited to do whatever was coming next."

Sorry, Ross and Rachel. But for my kid at least, that means it's time to brush his teeth.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and a mom. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and then follow her on twitter at @holleewoodworld.

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