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Studies Warn Against Using Devices To Soothe Upset Kids — Here’s Why

Beware of developing unhealthy digital device habits in your young kids.

Kids are full of emotions: happy, confused, excited… The list goes on. While positive, joyful feelings make memories, feelings of anger and sadness often lead to temper tantrums — and overcoming these tantrums can be a struggle. This is one of the reasons that digital devices are so ubiquitous among toddlers. (Handing an upset child a digital device as a means of appeasing them can be a life-saver when you’re trying to get 18 things done at once.) Unfortunately, doing this has consequences. Research shows that using electronics to manage children’s tantrums hinders their emotional development. Keep reading to learn the risks of relying on screen time to calm kids in emotional crises, and what to do instead.

The Science on Excessive Screen Time for Kids

In general, using digital devices is therapeutic because the act of scrolling and swiping sends dopamine to the brain. Often called “the feel-good” hormone, dopamine heightens feelings of pleasure — which can result in increased digital device dependency. This effect is well-documented in adults, but kids experience it too. 

Allowing a fussy child to play on a smartphone or tablet when your hands are full is fine every now and then. It’s important, however, not to make it a habit — and this is even more important if the child is five years-old or younger. That’s because children five and under are in the throes of learning how to express and manage their emotions. Relying on electronics to soothe them (instead of other screen-free strategies) hinders their emotional development and blocks the exploration of mechanisms for governing their emotions.

Study on Toddlers (Ages 2 to 3)

An observational study published in Computers in Human Behavior examined the development of addictive-like media use in toddlers. This study involved 269 toddlers and their parents. Each toddler’s parents completed tasks and questionnaires that measured and assessed the child’s temperament and reliance on devices as a means of regulating the toddler’s emotions. 

The researchers found a clear link between high reliance on electronics to balance a toddlers’ emotions and strong negative feelings when electronics were taken away. The authors concluded that a) excessive reliance on technology as a parenting tool impedes a child’s natural ability to regulate their feelings, especially when things aren’t going their way; and b) reliance on electronics for emotional regulation at an early age fosters a dependency on electronics for emotional relief.

Study on Young Kids (Ages 3 to 5)

Similar research published in JAMA Pediatrics analyzed how this dilemma affected 422 parents and 422 children. In this study, parents self-reported their frequency of using devices as calming tools. They also recorded how electronic use was linked to symptoms of emotional dysregulation such as mood changes and heightened impulsivity. The study duration was 18 months, from August 2018 to January 2020, which included a six-month follow-up period. 

Researchers found that frequent use of devices to placate kids was associated with fewer emotion-regulating learning opportunities. “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,” lead author Jenny Radesky, MD, says in a press release

Both of these studies show the negative consequences of this tantrum-technology cycle for young kids. Fortunately, there are other strategies to use when your child is upset that may enhance their emotional development.

Alternative Ways To Soothe Fussy Kids

Dr. Radesky, a mother of two, understands that devices can help distract kids when they start getting agitated. But, she advises against using them as the primary soothing tool, suggesting the below solutions instead:

  1. Sensory techniques: Young kids have their own unique preferences with regard to sensory inputs that relax them. These might include swinging, hugging, squishing putty in their hands, or listening to music. If your child is getting antsy, channel that energy into the body movement or sensory approaches that they favor.
  2. Describing emotions: When parents label what they think their child is feeling, they achieve two things: They help the child connect language to feelings, and they show the child that they are understood. The more parents are able to stay calm, the better able they are to show kids that emotions are “mentionable and manageable,” as Mister Rogers used to say.
  3. Color zones: Unlike adults, young children have a hard time thinking about abstract concepts like emotions. Instead, use color zones (blue for bored, green for calm, yellow for anxious or agitated, and red for explosive) to help kids clarify their feelings. Color zones help children paint a mental picture of how their brain and body is feeling. Parents can turn color zones into a visual guide to keep at home or on-the-go and use them in challenging moments. (For example: “You are getting wiggly and in the yellow zone — what can you do to get back to green?”)
  4. Replacement behaviors: Kids can show negative behaviors when they’re upset, and it’s a normal instinct to want those behaviors to end. Those behaviors, though, are communicating emotions — so kids must be taught safer, solutions-driven behaviors to replace them. This might include teaching a sensory strategy (“Hitting hurts people, so you can hit this pillow instead”) or clearer communication (“If you want my attention, just tap my arm and say ‘Excuse me, mom.'”).

The Bottom Line

The techniques that alleviate tantrums will be different for each child. But, equipping yourself with the tools to do so — sans digital devices — teaches them how to navigate difficult emotions in a healthy way. Plus, you may find yourself dealing with fewer tantrums once they’ve learned to better manage their feelings. A parenting win-win! 

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