If you’re a parent trying to cook dinner, take a phone call, or run an errand, the last thing you need is your child having a meltdown. In these moments, handing a fussy preschooler a digital device can seem like a quick fix, like giving a baby a pacifier. But new findings suggest that this parenting strategy could be linked to worse behavior challenges in the future.
According to a new study from the University of Michigan, frequent use of devices such as smartphones and tablets to calm upset children ages 3-5 was associated with increased emotional dysregulation, particularly in boys. This finding suggests that parents should be careful about relying on digital devices to calm their children in the short term, as it may actually lead to more tantrums and other undesirable behaviors down the road.
Today’s digitally pacified tantrum could be tomorrow’s double trouble
Just as a river can be both a source of life and a destructive force, technology can be a double-edged sword for young children. Parents should be mindful of this balance and use technology wisely.
“Using mobile devices to settle down a young child may seem like a harmless, temporary tool to reduce stress in the household, but there may be long-term consequences if it’s a regular go-to soothing strategy,” said lead author Jenny Radesky, who is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
“Particularly in early childhood, devices may displace opportunities for the development of independent and alternative methods to self-regulate.”
The study, which was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, included 422 parents and 422 children ages 3-5. Researchers analyzed the responses of parents and caregivers to a survey that determined how often they used devices as a calming tool and the associations with symptoms of emotional reactivity or dysregulation over a six-month period.
Signs of increased dysregulation could include rapid shifts between sadness and excitement, a sudden change in mood or feelings, and heightened impulsivity. The study found that the association between device-calming and emotional instability was particularly high among young boys and children who may already experience hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and a strong temperament that makes them more likely to react intensely to feelings like anger, frustration, and sadness.
These findings suggest that parents should be careful about relying on digital devices to calm their children in the short term, as it may have negative effects on their emotional development in the long term. Just as a bird must learn to fly on its own before it can soar, children must learn to regulate their own emotions before they can thrive. Of course, this can be a highly challenging process, especially when children are in their preschool-to-kindergarten phase, a development stage when they are the most likely to exhibit tantrums, defiance, intense emotions, and other difficult behaviors — which is why the temptation to use devices to soothe troublesome children can be too great to resist.
“Caregivers may experience immediate relief from using devices if they quickly and effectively reduce children’s negative and challenging behaviors,” Radesky says. “This feels rewarding to both parents and children and can motivate them both to maintain this cycle.
“The habit of using devices to manage difficult behavior strengthens over time as children’s media demands strengthen as well. The more often devices are used, the less practice children – and their parents – get to use other coping strategies.”
Digital devices shouldn’t be used as a crutch for good parenting
As a mother of two herself, Radesky has a lot of empathy for parents struggling to manage their young children’s emotions and outbursts. She says that the occasional use of digital media through phones, tablets, and computers can be productive and instructive. It is also unrealistic to deny children screen time when most if not all of their peers have access to devices. However, it’s when digital devices become the primary tool or method for soothing that things become troublesome. Instead, Radesky recommends that parents try sensory techniques, emotional management through labeling, using color zones, and offering replacement behaviors as viable soothing strategies.
Each child may have a unique profile of what types of sensory input calm them down, such as 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 notice your child getting antsy, redirect their energy into body movement or sensory approaches.
Another effective strategy is to label and discuss the child’s emotions. By naming what they think their child is feeling, parents can help the child connect language to emotional states and show them that they are understood. It’s important for parents to remain calm in these situations and show the child that emotions are “mentionable and manageable,” as Mister Rogers used to say.
A third approach is to use color zones to help young children understand abstract concepts like emotions. The color zones (blue for bored, green for calm, yellow for anxious/agitated, red for explosive) provide a visual guide that can be kept on the fridge and used to help children paint a mental picture of how they are feeling, both in mind and body. Parents can use the color zones in challenging moments by asking the child “you are getting wiggly and in the yellow zone – what can you do to get back to green?”
Finally, it’s important to offer replacement behaviors for negative actions that children may exhibit when they are upset. While it’s natural to want these behaviors to stop, this is their way of communicating emotions and may require you to teach them a safer or more problem-solving replacement behavior. This could include teaching a sensory strategy (such as hitting a pillow instead of people) or clearer communication (such as asking for attention instead of interrupting).
“All of these solutions help children understand themselves better, and feel more competent at managing their feelings,” Radesky said. “It takes repetition by a caregiver who also needs to try to stay calm and not overreact to the child’s emotions, but it helps build emotion regulation skills that last a lifetime.
“In contrast, using a distractor like a mobile device doesn’t teach a skill – it just distracts the child away from how they are feeling. Kids who don’t build these skills in early childhood are more likely to struggle when stressed out in school or with peers as they get older.”
The findings were reported in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.