Using screens to calm children may lead to future problems with emotion regulation: study

Using screens to calm children may lead to future problems with emotion regulation: study

The story at a glance

  • The ubiquity of smart devices makes them an attractive option for parents looking to appease upset children.

  • However, frequent use of these devices in children aged 3 to 5 could lead to impaired emotional regulation down the line.

  • Researchers suggest that parents and caregivers use alternative methods to calm children.

For many parents, giving an upset child a smartphone or tablet to calm them down is second nature.

But new research suggests that frequent use of these devices to soothe children may be linked to more serious behavior problems in the future.

Writing in JAMA Pediatrics, the researchers explained that increased device use was associated with increased emotional reactivity after three and six months of follow-up, particularly in boys. The association was also strong in children who had previously experienced hyperactivity, impulsivity, or a strong temper.

While occasional use of devices to occupy children can be hard to avoid, problems can arise when they’re used as a primary or regular soothing tool, the researchers said.

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The authors hypothesize that use of the devices could shift children’s opportunities to learn emotional regulation strategies over time.

“Using mobile devices to calm a young child may seem like a temporary and harmless tool to reduce stress in the household, but there may be long-term consequences if it is a calming strategy. regular,” lead author Jenny Radesky said in a statement. Radesky is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at CS Mott Children’s Hospital, University of Michigan.

“Particularly in early childhood, devices can displace opportunities for the development of independent and alternative methods of self-regulation,” she said. Based on the findings, pediatric healthcare professionals might want to encourage the use of alternative calming approaches, the authors wrote.

These can include sensory techniques, such as listening to music or moving their body, or helping the child name the emotion and what to do about it. Parents could also have children use colored areas to map emotions or suggest alternative behaviors like hitting pillows.

“Using a distractor like a mobile device doesn’t teach a skill – it just distracts the child from how they feel. Children who don’t develop these skills in early childhood are more likely to struggle when ‘they get stressed at school or with their peers as they get older,’ Radesky said.

The researchers evaluated data from 422 parents and 422 children, aged 3 to 5 years. The study was conducted between August 2018 and January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parents completed an online survey on behaviors, context and content of family media use, as well as additional surveys on children’s executive function and emotional reactivity.

Increased emotional dysregulation may include rapid changes between sadness and excitement, increased impulsivity, or a sudden change in mood.

Children may exhibit more challenging behaviors like temper tantrums between kindergarten and kindergarten, which can make screens an even more appealing solution for parents.

“Caregivers can experience immediate relief from device use if they quickly and effectively reduce negative and challenging behaviors in children,” Radesky said. “It’s rewarding for parents and children and can motivate them both to keep this cycle going.”

To avoid tech-related tantrums, the researchers suggest parents set timers for screen time and make it clear when and where devices can be used.

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