Well-Being Mental Health

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

“Using a distractor like a mobile device doesn’t teach a skill – it just distracts the child away from how they are feeling.”
Child on smartphone.

Story at a glance

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

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

  • Researchers suggest parents and caregivers employ alternative methods to calm children down.

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

But new research suggests frequently using these devices to soothe children may be linked with worse behavior challenges in the future. 

Writing in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers explained an increased use of devices was associated with heightened emotional reactivity after three and six months of follow-up, particularly among boys. The association was also strong among children who already experienced hyperactivity, impulsiveness or a strong temperament. 

Although using devices occasionally to occupy children can be hard to avoid, problems may arise when they’re employed as a primary or regular soothing tool, researchers said.

America is changing faster than ever! Add Changing America to your Facebook or Twitter feed to stay on top of the news.

Authors hypothesize using the devices could displace opportunities for children to learn emotional regulation strategies over time. 

“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 in a statement. Radesky is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. 

“Particularly in early childhood, devices may displace opportunities for development of independent and alternative methods to self-regulate,” she said.

Based on the findings, pediatric health care professionals may want to encourage use of alternative calming approaches, authors wrote. 

These could include sensory techniques, like listening to music or moving their bodies, or helping the child name the emotion and what to do about it. Parents could also have children use color zones to map out emotions or offer replacement behaviors like hitting pillows.

“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,” Radesky said. 

Researchers assessed data from 422 parents and 422 children, who were between the ages 3 and 5. The study was carried out between August 2018 and January 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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

Increased emotional dysregulation could include rapid shifts between sadness and excitement, heightened impulsivity or a sudden change in mood. 

Children may exhibit more difficult behaviors like tantrums between the time from preschool to kindergarten, which can make screen devices an even more appealing solution for parents. 

“Caregivers may experience immediate relief from using devices if they quickly and effectively reduce children’s negative and challenging behaviors,” Radesky said. “This feels rewarding to both parents and children and can motivate them both to maintain this cycle.” 

To prevent tech-related tantrums, researchers suggest parents set timers on screen time and clearly state when and where the devices can be used. 

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.