A new study finds that children of parents who try to control their kids’ behavior with screen time, spend more time on screens than their peers.

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When parents use screen time as a reward or a punishment it can have unintended consequences on their kids’ behavior. Getty Images

Find your child’s currency — the one thing you can give or take away that will actually make an impact.

This little nugget of parenting advice is something countless new moms and dads have heard as their children enter the toddler stage.

The advice seems sound enough. All kids have different things they care about and different ways they might be extrinsically motivated.

One child’s currency might be their collection of Legos, while another’s might be treats after dinner.

But you see, that’s where things get complicated.

Because it turns out, using food as a reward or punishment has the unintended consequence of creating an unhealthy relationship with food as children age into adulthood.

For several years now, experts have been advising parents to keep food on the table and out of the motivational cycle.

Solid research backs up that advice, too. And thanks to a new study published in the journal BMC Obesity, there may be another piece of currency you’re using that could be causing harm.

Researchers found that using screen time to reward good behavior (or taking it away to punish bad behavior) has a similar effect on children’s relationships with their screens as using food does.

Kids whose parents treat screen time as currency, end up spending more time with those screens than kids whose parents have found other means of motivation.

Now, it may seem obvious why an unhealthy relationship with food could be a bad thing. But there has been plenty of research to back up the detrimental effects of too much screen time on developing brains as well.

Monica Jackman, an occupational therapist at Little Lotus Therapy and Consulting in Port St. Lucie, Florida, told Healthline that a growing body of research “indicates that increased use of mobile screens by children results in risk for delays in cognitive and social development.”

She explained that these impacts can be both direct (as a result of the task demands of mobile screen activities) and indirect.

For instance, the frequent attention shifts involved in screen-based games and shows impact kids directly, resulting in decreased impulse control and executive function difficulties.

And, she continued, “Indirectly, increased use of screens can impact self-regulation skills because children spend less time playing games that organically require practice and development of inhibitory control skills and working memory, such as board games or sports.”

So what can parents do to punish or reward their kids if screen time or food just so happens to be their child’s currency?

According to pediatrician Dr. David Hill, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, it may actually be time to develop a new parenting strategy altogether.

“The first thing to know,” he told Healthline, “is that these external rewards and punishments only go so far, and internal rewards and punishments really work. I think our approval or disapproval, as parents, is still more powerful than most of us recognize.”

Hill explained that kids really do want to make their parents happy. And that’s where positive parenting can come in — spending more time praising the behaviors you want to see your child repeating, and less time criticizing those you’d like to see them stop.

“We really strive to see a 10 to 1 ratio of praise to correction,” Hill explained. “The correction just has a much greater impact when it occurs against a backdrop of praise.”

Instead of rewards or punishments, he suggests parents spend more time actively engaging with their kids, pointing out those moments, again and again, when their behavior reflects what you want to see.

“Nobody is 100 percent,” he said. “Sometimes as parents, we all just lose it. But it’s certainly a worthwhile goal.”

Nancy S. Molitor, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Evanston, Illinois, agrees with focusing on the positive.

She even suggests taking it a step further by finding a positive spin to any punishments you do impart.

“You want to make sure that what you’re doing lines up with the values you want them to embrace. So, maybe the punishment is walking the dog every night for a week. It gets them outside and moving and that’s a positive.”

Meanwhile, she said, sending them to their room only leaves them isolated and alone — probably with screens at their disposal.

Molitor also wanted to warn parents against doing exactly what they are trying to get their child to do less of. In other words, don’t nag them about screen time while simultaneously staring at your own screens every chance you get.

The most recent research backs that up as well, finding a direct correlation between parent and child screen time.

“The first step as a parent is really asking yourself what you value,” Molitor concluded. “What kind of behavior do you want to be promoting? Even babies, they notice. Kids register these things at a very early age. So… what example do you want to set?”

It’s advice that could apply to screens and food, as well as a million other things.

So, maybe it’s time to scrap the currency philosophy, and instead spend more time tuning in to the values we, as parents, want our kids to embrace.