Researchers from Michigan Medicine have discovered that using smartphones and tablets to soothe upset children aged 3-5 is associated with increased emotional dysregulation, particularly in boys.
Smartphones and tablets may be helpful in the short run, but they may limit opportunities to practice emotional coping skills.
A child has a meltdown while they prepare dinner, make a phone call, or run an errand.
And sometimes, handing a fussy preschooler a digital device seems to be a quick fix. However, this calming tactic might be linked to serious behavior problems later on.
According to a Michigan Medicine research in JAMA Pediatrics, frequent use of devices like phones and tablets to calm disgruntled children aged 3-5 has been linked to increased emotional dysregulation in youngsters.
Using mobile devices to calm down a young child may seem like a harmless, temporary method to reduce stress in the home, but it might have long-term consequences if it's a regular go-to soothing strategy, according to lead author Jenny Radesky, M.D. at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.
"Independent and alternative self-regulate strategies may be displaced in the early years," says one individual.
Over a six-month period, researchers included 422 parents and 422 children aged 3-5 who participated from August 2018 through January 2020.
Increased dysregulation may include sudden shifts between sadness and joy, sudden shifts in mood or emotions, and increased impulsivity.
The association between device-calming and emotional consequences is particularly strong among young boys and children, who may already be experiencing hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and a strong temperament that makes them more susceptible to retaliation such as anger, frustration, and sadness, according to the findings.
According to our findings, using devices to calm agitated children may be particularly problematic for those who already have difficulties with emotional handling skills.
She adds that the preschool to kindergarten period is a developmental stage in which children are more likely to engage in difficult behaviors, such as tantrums, defiance, and intense emotions. This makes it even more attractive to use devices as a parenting strategy.
"Caregivers may experience immediate relief from using devices if they quickly and effectively reduce children's negative and challenging behaviors," Radesky says. "This works well for both parents and children, and may encourage them both to maintain this pattern."
"The habit of utilizing devices to manage difficult behavior develops over time as children's media demands rise as well. The more often devices are used, the less practice children - and their parents - have to utilize other coping strategies."
Radesky, who is a mother of two children, recognizes that parents may choose to distract children at different times, such as during travel or while doing work. While occasional use of media to occupy children is acceptable and appropriate, it is important that it do not become a primary or regular soothing device.
According to the pediatric health professional, parents and caregivers should initiate discussions about using devices with young children and encourage alternative approaches to emotional regulation.
When parents are tempted to turn to a gadget, Radesky suggests there are a few solutions.
- Sensory techniques: Young kids have their own unique profiles of what types of sensory input calms them down. This could include swinging, hugging or pressure, jumping on a trampoline, squishing putty in their hands, listening to music or looking at a book or sparkle jar. If you see your child getting antsy, channel that energy into body movement or sensory approaches.
- Name the emotion and what to do about it: When parents label what they think their child is feeling, they both help the child connect language to feeling states, but they also show the child that they are understood. The more parents can stay calm, they can show kids that emotions are “mentionable and manageable,” as Mister Rogers used to say.
- Use color zones: When children are young, they have a hard time thinking about abstract and complicated concepts like emotions. Color zones (blue for bored, green for calm, yellow for anxious/agitated, red for explosive) are easier for kids to understand and can be made into a visual guide kept on the fridge, and help young children paint a mental picture of how their brain and body is feeling. Parents can use these color zones in challenging moments (“you are getting wiggly and in the yellow zone – what can you do to get back to green?”)
- Offer replacement behaviors: Kids can show some pretty negative behaviors when they are upset, and it’s a normal instinct to want it to just stop. But those behaviors are communicating emotions – so kids might need to be taught a safer or more problem-solving replacement behavior to do instead. This might include teaching a sensory strategy (“hitting hurts people; you can hit this pillow instead”) or clearer communication (“if you want my attention, just tap my arm and say ‘excuse me, mom.’”)
Parents may set timers, set clear expectations for when and where devices may be used, and use apps or video services that have clear stop points, rather than just autoplay or permit the child to keep scrolling.
Caregivers have the opportunity to teach them emotionalcoping skills when they are calm, according to Radesky. For example, they can chat with them about how their favorite stuffed animal might be feeling and how they deal with their big emotions and calm down. This sort of playful discussion uses children's language and resonates with them.
"All of these approaches help children understand themselves better and become more competent at managing their feelings," Radesky said. "It takes repetition by a caregiver who also needs to try to remain calm and not overreact to the child's emotions, but it helps develop emotion regulation abilities that last a lifetime.
“A mobile device does not teach a skill,” says the author. “Children who lack these abilities early childhood are more likely to struggle when stressed out in school or with peers as they grow older.”
Jenny S. Radesky, MD, Heidi M. Weeks, PhD, Alexandria Schaller, BS, and Alison L. Miller, PhD, JAMA Pediatrics. DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4793.