And sometimes, handing a fussy preschooler a digital device seems like a quick fix. But this calming strategy may be linked to bad behavior challenges down the road, new findings suggest.
According to a Michigan Medicine study, frequent use of devices such as smartphones and tablets to pacify children aged 3-5 was associated with emotional dysregulation in children, especially boys. JAMA Pediatrics.
Lead author Jenny Radesky, MD, said, “Using mobile devices to organize a young child may seem like a harmless, temporary tool to reduce stress in the home, but it can have long-term consequences. ” , a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan Health CS Mott Children’s Hospital.
“Especially in early childhood, tools may displace opportunities for the development of independent and alternative methods for self-regulation.”
The study included 422 parents and 422 children aged 3-5 who participated between August 2018 and January 2020, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers analyzed parents’ and caregivers’ responses to how often they used the devices as a calming tool and associations to emotional reactivity or symptoms of dysregulation over a six-month period.
Signs of increased procrastination can include rapid shifts between sadness and excitement, sudden changes in mood or emotions, and increased impulsivity.
The findings suggest that the association between device-calming and emotional outcomes was particularly high in young boys and children who may already experience hyperactivity, impulsivity and a strong temper that can lead to feelings such as anger, frustration and sadness. are more likely to react violently.
“Our findings suggest that using devices as a way to appease agitated children may be particularly problematic for those who already struggle with emotional coping skills,” Radesky said.
She notes that the preschool-to-kindergarten period is a developmental stage when children may be more likely to display difficult behaviors, such as tantrums, defiance and intense emotions. This may make it even more tempting to use devices as a parenting strategy.
“Caregivers can experience immediate relief from using the devices if they quickly and effectively reduce children’s negative and challenging behaviors,” Radesky says. “This appears to be beneficial to both parents and children and may motivate them both to perpetuate the cycle.
“The habit of using tools to manage difficult behavior is reinforced over time because the children’s media demands also become stronger. The more often tools are used, the less practiced the children—and their parents— Father – find other coping strategies to use.”
Alternative soothing methods can help build emotion regulation skills.
Radesky, herself a mother of two, acknowledges that there are times when parents can strategically use devices to distract children such as while traveling or multitasking with work. While the occasional use of media to occupy children is expected and realistic, it is important that it not become the primary or routine soothing tool.
She adds that a pediatric health professional should initiate conversations with parents and caregivers about using devices with young children and encourage alternative approaches to emotional regulation.
Among the solutions Radesky recommends is when parents are tempted to turn to a device.
- Sensory Techniques: Young children have their own unique profiles of what types of sensory input soothe them. This can include swinging, hugging or cuddling, jumping on a trampoline, scrunching putty, listening to music, or looking at a book or sparkle jar. If you notice that your child is becoming irritable, channel that energy into body movement or sensory approach.
- Name the feeling and what to do about it: When parents label what they think their child is feeling, they both help the child associate language with states of emotion, but they also show the child that they understand. Huh. The more parents can stay calm, the more they can show children that emotions are ‘notable and manageable,’ as Mr. Rogers used to say.
- Use color fields: When children are young, they have difficulty thinking about abstract and complex concepts such as emotions. The color zones (blue for bored, green for calm, yellow for anxious/excited, red for explosive) are easy for children to understand and can be built into a visual guide placed on the fridge, and young children can use a Helps create a mental picture of how their brain and body are feeling. Parents can use these color zones in challenging moments (“You’re rocking and in the yellow zone – what can you do to get back in the green?”)
- Offer Substitution Behavior: When kids are upset they can show some negative behavior, and it’s a common tendency to wish it would just stop. But those behaviors are communicating feelings – so children may need to be taught safer or more problem-solving replacement behaviors instead. This may involve teaching a sensory strategy (“Hitting hurts people; you can hit this pillow instead”) or explicit communication (“If you want my attention, just tap my arm and say ‘Excuse me, Mom.'”)
Parents can also prevent tech-related tantrums by setting timers, giving kids clear expectations about when and where devices can be used, and using apps or video services that have clear stop points and not just auto-play or let the child keep scrolling.
“When children are calm, caregivers also have opportunities to teach them emotional coping skills,” says Radesky. For example, they can talk to them about how their favorite stuffed animal might be feeling and how they handle their big feelings and calm down. This type of playful discussion uses children’s language and resonates with them.
“All of these solutions help children understand themselves better, and feel more capable of managing their emotions,” Radesky said. “It takes repetition by a caregiver who 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 from how they’re feeling. Children who don’t build these skills in childhood, They’re more likely to have conflicts when there’s stress at school or with peers as they get older.”