It’s no secret that children learn by example. As the people they likely spend the most time around, children will pick up many important behaviours and habits from parents. When it comes to behaviours like screen use and physical activity, are you modelling healthy behaviours for your child to follow?
What is “Modelling?”
The concept of “modelling” essentially means that by just seeing a behaviour done by someone influential to you, it is possible that you will imitate that behaviour in your own life. This style of learning is one of the most important ways that children learn in early life, as they experience daily examples (both good and bad), set by the people they look up to the most — including their parents.
Do Children Learn by Example?
The short answer is YES! The idea that children learn by example has been supported by research dating back to the 1960’s, when a very famous psychological experiment called the “Bobo Doll Experiment” showed that children could quickly pick up on—and imitate—social behaviours such as aggression just by watching an adult show aggressive behaviour to a human-like doll.
This crucial study also found that children were more likely to model behaviours that were shown to have positive consequences than when they saw a behaviour with negative consequences. For example, children were more likely to model aggression when they saw the model being rewarded with candy for being aggressive to the doll, but they were less likely to imitate the behaviour when they saw the model being scolded for the aggressive behaviour.
Since this study, the concept of modelling has been reinforced time and again by research both older and more modern. Aside from research, it is likely that you yourself have noticed behaviours and habits that your child may have picked up from daycare, their peers, or from you as parents!
Modelling Healthy Screen Time Habits
Recent research (within the last 10 years) looking at the effects of parent modelling on their children’s screen-use, physical activity, and healthy eating habits has revealed the following:
- A study looking at a large sample (1000+ families) found that time spent viewing screens for parents is strongly associated with child screen viewing both during the week and on weekends, with some unique interactions depending on whether the mother or father is modelling the behaviour to their daughter or son.
- Another study of over 3000 children found that use of TV, DVDs, computer games, and gaming consoles in both mothers and fathers were related to higher use of these platforms by children. It also found that a mother’s modelling of outdoor activities was associated with higher outdoor activity in girls, and a father’s modelling of TV and DVD use was related to higher screen use in boys. Same-gender modelling (a mother modelling to a daughter, or a father modelling to a son) influenced their children’s screen viewing activity significantly.
- A review of 30 studies found that in a child’s early years, parental influences were strongly related to the child’s physical activity and screen time. This study suggested that the parents’ encouragement and support could increase children’s physical activity, and that parents reducing their own screen time could lead to lower use of screens by their children.
- A 2010 study found that parents’ physical activity rates and a child’s age were significant factors associated with children’s rates of physical activity.
- Finally, a study of 1000+ children and parents found that higher consumption of fruits and vegetables by parents significantly increased their children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables, and parents decreasing junk food consumption influenced the same decrease seen in children. Children who did not experience any modelling from parents, on the other hand, had an increase in junk food consumption and sedentary behaviour. These effects were not seen when teachers did the modelling instead of parents, suggesting that a child’s parent is their main source of learning by example.
Clearly, research shows that the examples set by parents have a very important influence in the behaviours and habits that their young children adopt. This relationship is especially seen between parents and children of the same gender. This suggests that when a child sees their parent—especially the parent that they identify with in terms of gender—do a certain activity, they are more likely to follow in their footsteps and do the same.
You Are What You Watch?
If children learn behaviours modelled by people they look up to and respect, couldn’t they also learn from the examples of their favourite TV characters? Yes! Even though the characters are fictitious, the connections that children (and adults for that matter!) feel with those characters can be very real. This is one reason why it is important for parents to ensure that the content their children consume is reflects values they want to instill in their children.
A 2019 study looking at role models in TV shows geared toward preschool children explained a few interesting bits of information:
- Children tend to identify with TV role models who are the same gender and race as themselves.
- Preschoolers learn the most from TV characters that they can trust (i.e. main characters, not villains).
- Children learned more from a scientific show when human-like characters presented the information than when there were no human aspects (just words).
- TV characters as role models can influence more prosocial behaviours and less antisocial behaviours among preschool children.
- Even in older children, TV role models can influence future career choices.
This tells us that beyond the behaviours parents are modelling for their children, it is important that they also take into account what role models their children are learning from via screens, and to ensure that these are healthy and beneficial role models.
With this information in mind, it may be a good idea to take a look at the healthy and unhealthy behaviours you employ in your daily life. Looking back to the cartoon above—if you want your children to adopt healthy screen time habits, the starting point may be to look at your own habits and make sure you are modelling the behaviour you wish to see!