Giving children devices to calm them can lead to worse behaviour later in life: study
The Sector > Research > Giving children devices to calm them can lead to worse behaviour later in life: study

Giving children devices to calm them can lead to worse behaviour later in life: study

by Freya Lucas

December 20, 2022

While many parents, and sometimes early childhood education and care (ECEC) professionals can be tempted by giving a child a device to prevent a “meltdown” or distract them from more  intrusive behaviour, new research has shown that this calming strategy could be linked to worse behavior challenges later in life. 


Frequent use of devices like smartphones and tablets to calm upset children aged between three and five years of age was associated with increased emotional dysregulation in children, particularly in boys, according to a Michigan Medicine study published in JAMA Pediatrics.


“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,” lead author Dr Jenny Radesky explained.


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


The study included 422 parents and 422 children who participated between August 2018 and January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic started. Researchers analysed parent and caregiver responses to how often they used devices as a calming tool and associations to 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.


Findings suggest that the association between device-calming and emotional consequences 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.


“Our findings suggest that using devices as a way to appease agitated children may especially be problematic to those who already struggle with emotional coping skills,” Dr Radesky said.


Typically children in the preschool-to-kindergarten period are in a developmental stage where they may be more likely to exhibit difficult behaviors, such as tantrums, defiance and intense emotions which can make it even more tempting for parents or educators to use devices as a coping strategy.


“Caregivers may experience immediate relief from using devices if they quickly and effectively reduce children’s negative and challenging behaviors,” Dr Radesky explained. “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 behaviour 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.”


Alternative soothing methods can help build emotion regulation skills


While occasional use of media to occupy children is expected and realistic, it is important for it not to become a primary or regular soothing tool. Other solutions which may support when parents or educators are inclined to offer a device include: 


  • Sensory techniques: Young children 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.


  • Name the emotion and what to do about it: When caring adults 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.”


  • Use colour zones: When children are young, they have a hard time thinking about abstract and complicated concepts like emotions. Colour zones (blue for bored, green for calm, yellow for anxious/agitated, red for explosive) are easier for children to understand and can be made into a visual guide, and help young children paint a mental picture of how their brain and body is feeling. Adults can use these colour zones in challenging moments (“you are getting wiggly and in the yellow zone — what can you do to get back to green?”)


  • Offer replacement behaviours: Children can show some pretty negative behaviours when they are upset, and it’s a normal instinct to want it to just stop. But those behaviours are communicating emotions — so children might need to be taught a safer or more problem-solving replacement behaviour 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’.'”)


Using timers, giving children clear expectations of when and where devices can be used, and using apps or video services that have clear stopping points and don’t just auto-play or let the child keep scrolling are other techniques that can support.


When children are calm, caregivers also have opportunities to teach them emotional coping skills, Dr Radesky says. For example, they can talk to them about how their favourite stuffed animal might be feeling and how they handle their big emotions 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 competent at managing their feelings,” Dr 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. Children 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.”


To review the study in full please see here.

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