This study examined the associations between media parenting practices and young children’s screen time among a sample of Canadian families with children aged 1.5–5 years. Overall, this sample had a lower rate of overweight and obesity , and a higher median income compared to the Canadian Population . The results show that the media parenting practices of both mothers and fathers influence the amount of time children spend in front of screens. Regression coefficient estimates for each significant association range from 0.15 to 0.58, translating to between 9 and 35 min of children’s screen time per day, per unit increase in the respective parenting practice, which suggests these parenting practices have a meaningful impact on children’s screen time. For weekday mealtime screen use, monitoring screen time and limit setting, and weekend using screens to control behaviour and monitoring screen time the regression coefficient estimates remain relatively consistent, suggesting that both mothers and fathers may have a similar influence on children’s screen time.
The parenting practice of mealtime screen use for both mothers and fathers resulted in children spending more time during the weekdays in front of a screen-based device. These results support previous research from the Canadian TARGet Kids! study, which found that one of the factors significantly associated with increased total daily screen time was television viewing during meals . Taken together, these findings suggest that interventions focused on reducing mealtime screen use has the potential to reduce children’s overall screen time.
Both mother’s and fathers’ use of screens to control behaviour was positively associated with children’s screen time. These results mirror what has been found in research examining parental influences on children’s physical activity and dietary intake. Research has shown that when parents use food to control behaviour, children have a greater dietary intake of those same foods . This is also true for physical activity. A study by Vaughn et al.  found that the use of physical activity as a reward for good behaviour was positively associated with physical activity. Taken together, these results suggest that using physical activity, food, or screen time to control children’s behaviours may lead to higher levels of those same behaviours. Alternatively, it may be that when parents are trying to control their children’s behaviour, they choose a reward or punishment that they know their child values, i.e., they only select screen time as a reward when their child really values screen time. Children who really value screen time may watch more screen time, in general. Thus, this association between parental control and screen time may be partly due to reverse causation. Longitudinal research is needed to help determine temporal order of parenting practices and children’s screen time.
The association between father’s use of screens to control child behaviour and child screen time was significant only for children’s weekend screen time. This may be due to the greater availability and involvement of fathers with their children on weekends as compared to weekdays. This increase in weekend involvement is described in a study by Yeung et al. , who found that fathers of intact families have 6.5 h of involvement time with their children on a weekend day, compared to 2.5 h on a weekday. This study also determined that the amount of time fathers are engaged or accessible to children between 3 and 5 years of age is 58% that of mothers on weekdays, and 86% that of mothers on weekends , potentially further explaining why fathers’ use of screens to control behaviour is significant on weekends and not weekdays. However, more studies that include fathers are needed to validate this result as there is only one other study that has examined this parenting practice. Among their sample of parents (93% mothers) Vaughn and colleagues found that removing television time as a punishment and using television to control a child’s behaviour was positively associated with children’s overall TV time .
This study was the first to investigate the association between the media parenting practice of monitoring screen time and children’s total screen time. For both mothers and fathers, monitoring the amount of screen time was inversely associated with children’s weekday and weekend total screen time. These results demonstrate that parental monitoring of screen time could potentially change screen time viewing behaviour among young children and may be an important target for interventions.
Our findings support previous research, which has shown that the media parenting practice of limit setting is successful in reducing children’s total screen time [26,27,28]. The majority of existing studies examined mother’s parenting practices only. One study that examined the parenting practices of mothers and fathers among 70 Australian families of school aged children found that the media parenting practice of limit setting for fathers, but not mothers, was inversely associated with children’s screen time . This study builds on previous research that examined fathers’ influence and found that limit setting by both mothers and fathers is inversely associated with screen time. Thus, intervention approaches aiming to reduce children’s screen time should address limit setting practices among both mothers and fathers.
No association was found between the overall weekday and weekend day screen time of mothers or fathers with children’s weekday and weekend day screen time. This finding may be due to the young age of children in this study. A study by Carson and Janssen  found that parental screen time was associated with the screen time of children between 4 and 5 years of age, but not among children from birth to 3 years. It is possible that parents of young children have more opportunity to engage in screen time away from their children, i.e., during nap time or an early bed time. As children age and they nap less and go to bed later, this additional awake time may result in increased screen time for both parents and children. Modelling of screen time, i.e., using screens in front of their children, was positively associated with children’s weekday and weekend screen time among mothers, but not among fathers. These results supported those of Matarma et al.  who found that television time of mothers, but not fathers, was positively associated with their children’s television time. This could potentially be because although there has been a shift in the diversity of family structures, mothers remain the primary caregiver in the majority of families , and are therefore spending more time with their children. Thus, it is reasonable to believe that mothers would exert more influence on their children through modeling behaviours when compared to fathers. As mentioned previously, additional research that explores fathers’ influence on children’s screen time is needed to confirm our findings.
Only one out of 64 parents endorsed screen use in the bedroom, and therefore we were unable to move forward with analysis of this variable. A potential explanation for the low practice of using screens in the bedroom could be due to the relatively high socioeconomic status (SES) of participants in this study, as this parenting practice may not be as common among families with higher SES . It also may not be as common for Canadian children to have a screen based device in their bedroom, when compared to in the United States (U.S.), where over half of American children have a television in their bedroom . This may point to a potential cultural difference related to the parenting practice of using screens in the bedroom between the U.S. and Canada.
Strengths of our study included the inclusion of mobile media devices such as tablets and smartphones in our assessment of children’s screen time. This allowed us to investigate how media parenting practices influence children’s screen based sedentary behaviours in a way that represents the current media environment. Second, this study included the practice of monitoring screen time and use of screens to control behaviour, parenting practices that are limited in the current research. This allowed for better understanding of the role a range of parenting practices have on total screen time in young children. Lastly, the exploration of the impact of fathers’ parenting practices helps address a key gap in our understanding of influences on children’s screen time behaviours.
This study had some limitations that should be considered when interpreting our results. First, both parenting practices and children’s screen time were based on parent report. This may result in social-desirability bias or errors in estimating children’s daily average screen time. Further, self-reported measures of screen time have variable levels of validity for both children and adults when compared to objective measures. A second limitation is the relatively high socioeconomic status and that most of the participants identify as Caucasian. Therefore, results may not be generalizable to ethnically diverse families or families with lower SES. Lastly, there was no data collected on current work status of parents. This information would help to determine time spent with children, which is important when considering parenting practices such as modeling and using screens to control behaviour. Future research should examine these associations using objective measures of screen time within more ethnically and racially diverse populations.
The results of this study provide a more complete understanding of the influence media parenting practices have on young children’s screen time. It is important that children’s screen time recommendations are met, as exceeding screen time recommendations can negatively affect young children’s cognitive and emotional development, attention span, and future academic performance [33, 34] and increase the risk of childhood obesity [6, 7]. Results from this study can be used to guide parents in meeting screen time recommendations that promote positive health and development among their young children.