When your child has a meltdown while you’re running an errand or doing a chore, what do you do to deal with it? Many would probably admit to handing over a smartphone or a tablet so the child can keep themselves occupied.
As the consumer electronics industry grew, this quick fix to pacify fussy children has become more common among caregivers. But while the approach appears to be harmless as a temporary tool, new research suggests it’s not advisable in the long run.
A recent JAMA Pediatrics study looked at hundreds of parents and children aged 3 to 5 to determine how the use of mobile devices as calming tools impacts child development.
The University of Michigan researchers found that the use of devices to calm boys and children with high temperamental surgency (like hyperactivity or impulsiveness) was associated with higher emotional reactivity. In other words, these findings suggest that the frequent use of mobile devices as a soothing tool is associated with increased emotional dysregulation in kids.
Child Development and Electronics
Tantrums and defiance, of course, are common during any child’s developmental stage. However, using devices to manage difficult behavior might take away their opportunity to learn how to deal with these emotions.
“When we were young, we threw a tantrum to express our emotions and to make demands because we could not verbalize our emotions and needs,” says Chen Chen, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong and research associate at Harvard University who was not involved with the study. “When we grow up, we learn that verbal communication is much more effective and much less damaging than throwing tantrums.”
Solving a need by adopting an escape strategy is usually a last resort. And if the last resort becomes an everyday knee-jerk reaction, Chen says, something is likely to go wrong. For example, if a child tends to use a tablet at the dining table, they may lose the opportunity for exposure to language or an interest in socializing.
“If electronic devices keep replacing a child’s opportunities to learn verbalizing social-emotional needs in the most sociable moments, the child can only burst all those emotions into tears, or innate those anger and fear behind timid silence,” Chen says.
Adults and Electronic Devices
Aside from the impact of mobile devices on kids, it’s also crucial to investigate the reasons caregivers use them as calming tools in the first place.
A 2020 study published in Computers in Human Behavior demonstrated that when adults use electronics to soothe a kid, they are most likely simply soothing themselves. Adults may offer the electronics to obtain some peace of mind, avoid the stares of other passengers on a train or avoid the frowns from other customers in a restaurant, for example.
Based on these findings, parents’ lack of confidence in their own parenting abilities is a predictor of increased screen time for children.
“It is when I put parents under the spotlight that I realized this is exactly what parents were trying to avoid,” explains Chen, a lead author of the study. “Device is a parental escaping strategy.”
But the immediate relief electronics provide both child and parent may inadvertently establish a reliance on them; therefore, it’s necessary to help upset children work through their emotions rather than distracting them from what they’re feeling. This allows them to build the skills they will need when faced with future distress.
It wouldn’t be realistic to completely cut out the use of electronic devices as a soothing tool. However, using them less frequently and exploring alternative calming approaches may be a good way to go.
Caregivers can try taking slow, deep breaths with their child when they begin to show feelings of irritation. Hugging and physical touch can also work — but others may prefer sensory approaches like pushing the wall or looking at something visually stimulating. Not all children are the same, so the effectiveness of different calming techniques will vary.
Chen recommends that, before immediately resorting to electronics, caregivers take the time to discern why a child is exhibiting difficult behaviors. They might be in pain, or feeling anxious or lonely, all of which must be addressed accordingly.
Read More: Should Children Be Screened for Anxiety?
In any case, talking them through their emotions is the best way to help them understand themselves better.
A research-backed way of helping children recognize and regulate strong emotions is emotion coaching, says Sarah Coyne, a professor of human development at Brigham Young University. It’s a strategy that helps young children learn how to express their emotions with words.
American psychologist John Gottman outlined the five steps of emotion coaching in his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. These include acknowledging the child’s emotion, recognizing it as an opportunity to connect, validating what they feel, labeling the emotion and then problem-solving together.
The use of electronics as a soothing tool, Coyne says, is probably a short-term gain with a long-term loss.
“Giving a child a device might calm them in the moment, but it might increase their dependence on devices to regulate emotions in the future,” she says. “So, I would say use media sparingly as a way to regulate emotions in young children.”