Decreasing TV Time (May 2012)

The Behavior Corner
Presented by Deborah Whitman BCBA

Column 3 – April 2012
Simple Intervention to Decrease TV Watching

I often hear from parents that they have a difficult time getting their children to break away from the television. While this can be difficult for any parent dealing with any child it can be especially difficult for a child with special needs who may have limited leisure skills or social skills, few friends and/or be particularly obsessive about television. Over the years I have worked with parents on many interventions to curb TV watching. Many are somewhat successful but are also labor intensive or lead to arguments and inappropriate behavior.

Recently, I learned about a new approach at the annual conference of the Connecticut Association for Applied Behavior Analysis. The presenter was the mother of an autistic child who introduced a new twist on an old intervention.

The mom used a DRL procedure to decrease the television watching time of her son. DRL means Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates and the way it works is like this: the child is reinforced for keeping their behavior under an acceptable level, in this case, number of hours of TV watched. That’s different from other interventions which try to eliminate behavior entirely. I think most of you would agree that although excessive TV watching may be problematic most parents aren’t looking for their children to stop watching TV completely. That would probably only create a whole host of new problems!

In the study that this mom did she took data on how many hours of television her child watched in an average week. She then decided on an appropriate target number that would be achievable for her son. She found that her son watched an average of 50 hours a week and she wanted to lower this to under 30. To reach this goal, she gave her son 60 tokens a week, each token was worth 30 minutes of television. He could cash in the tokens whenever he chose without judgment or reprimand. If he had any tokens left at the end of the week she would take him to the book store which was a highly reinforcing activity for him. It didn’t matter if he had one token left or ten the reinforcement was the same. It was a very simple and very effective intervention and her child reached the goal every week for the period of the study.

I liked the intervention because it was easy and “low-tech” and didn’t require much data collection or number crunching, no star charts or checks or other things that make all of us as parents crazy. I also liked that it gave the child some control over the procedure. He could still decide how much TV he wanted to watch and how important it was to him. There was no punishment, lost privileges or bargaining. Reinforcement was completely dependent on the child’s behavior and his choices.

I also liked that the intervention was designed by a parent who knows how difficult it can be to be consistent at home when you are also trying to manage a ghost of other responsibilities such as; helping other children with homework, cooking meals, and getting to appointments. The token exchange could be done with either parent or a caregiver.

I do have a few recommendations for how you might make this intervention work better with your child:

Pick an appropriate goal
You want your child to be successful and one of the strengths of the DRL procedure is that subtle changes in behavior can help you achieve your goals. I recommend an initial decrease in hours of just 5-10% even if your long term goal is 50%. You can start off higher and gradually decrease the tokens over time as you child is successful. So in the example above I may have set the tokens at between 80 and 90 initially and then gradually decreased it week by week until I got it down to her final goal of 60. DRL procedures typically work better when the levels are gradually dropped.

Managing the actual usage
The mother in this study did not explain whether she had other children who might turn on the TV or how she handled it if someone else wanted to watch something. Did the child get this time as “free” or did they need to pay as well? You would need to address these issues in your own home. Typically if a child is watching something with other members of the family I would not charge for this as it is typically not their choice show and it is also a social activity. Socializing is something that most parents are looking to increase with their children with special needs.

Controlling the remote
I recommend taking the remote control so that the child needs to exchange the token to get the remote control. This can help eliminate cheating which can easily occur if you do not monitor your child carefully.

Use a timer
Set a timer or teach your child to set a timer so that when the time period is over, you and your child know they need to either exchange another token or turn off the TV.

Remember the TV schedule
If your child wants to exchange a token make sure that the show they are watching will be over when the token is finished and not just have a few minutes to go. For some, it may be easier if the token represents a program and not simply 30 minutes (i.e. 1 token for a 30 minute program. 2 tokens for an hour long program).

Make sure the reinforcer is powerful
If your child likes bookstores or libraries or ice cream then use that as the end-of-week reinforcer. Don’t use these activities for other things during the week. The reinforcer will be more powerful if they can only earn if they have tokens left over.

Use unique tokens
Make the tokens or buy tokens that the child cannot find or replace himself so I would not use money or other items that the child may be able to find around the house. Keep the tokens that your child exchanges in some place where they cannot find them to prevent cheating.

This procedure when used correctly can be a very easy and fun way to decrease unwanted behaviors. In addition to TV watching it can also be effective to reduce video game playing or computer usage. DRL procedures are the basis of many programs for adults as well; for example tapering off the number of cigarettes smoked.

The program will be more successful with your child if you help them come up with alternative activities to replace the time spent watching TV. You can start by posting a list of other activities, which could include you doing something with your child. Remember that this not punishment. It’s just a way to encourage your child to broaden their horizons and decrease an over-dependence on a specific activity. Many parents have found that when their child does not engage in excessive TV watching or computer games they actually do engage in more social or imaginative play or reading.

Try it out and let me know how it goes! If you need any guidance on trying this DRL procedure or in individualizing it for your child and situation please feel free to contact me! I will email you back with suggestions.