Don’t Overuse Mobile Devices to Calm Screaming Children: Study

Don’t Overuse Mobile Devices to Calm Screaming Children: Study

14 Dec. 2022 – Almost every parent has been here: Their toddler screams in the middle of the cereal aisle or throws a tantrum in another public place. When reason fails, you hand over a phone or tablet that’s playing a video, app, or other digital hoax. Problem solved.

But while it’s sometimes good to use mobile devices to soothe tantrums, new research suggests that too often it can slow down a child’s ability to manage their emotions productively.

“If you see that tantrum bubbling up in your child, if your usual choice is to quiet it by giving them a phone, I would encourage parents to reconsider,” says Jenny S. Radesky, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan, who led the study.

The new research, published in JAMA Pediatrics, tracked 366 3- to 5-year-olds with typical developmental patterns. Parents rated at the start of the study, and then 3 and 6 months later, how likely they were to give their children mobile devices to calm them down.

During the study, parents recorded how often their child’s mood or feelings suddenly changed, and researchers used these logs to measure which children were more emotionally reactive. Parents also noticed how often their children rushed into new situations.

After 6 months, the children of parents who were most likely to use mobile devices to calm down were more emotionally reactive. Boys were more likely than girls to show reactive tendencies, as were the children who rushed into new situations more often.

Radesky says the results are solid enough to guide parental decisions. In particular, she encourages parents not to reward tantrums with quick access to a phone or tablet, as this can become a vicious cycle.

“It could be that kids realize, ‘Hey, if I have a tantrum, everything shuts down, and I don’t have to do the thing I don’t want to do,'” says Radesky.

She also sees a potential cost to adults. Parents who quickly turn to mobile devices in stressful situations can deprive themselves of the opportunity to learn effective parenting techniques, such as teaching their children to breathe or to express their displeasure with words rather than destructive actions.

“It gets in the way of parents practicing, ‘Okay, I’m going to stay calm and I’m going to try to figure out what’s going on in this little kid’s brain,'” says Radesky.

She advises parents to think of ways to deal with tantrums ahead of time, such as having stickers on hand to give to kids who start yelling in the grocery store. They can also try to make their child laugh, or give a quick snuggle. As a last resort, a parent can give a child a tablet, but with pre-loaded videos on emotional regulation for a potential teaching moment. Parents should also be careful when using their own mobile devices around their children. In another study published earlier this yearresearchers in the United States and the Netherlands found that 5- to 12-year-olds whose parents used their phones around them more often were less likely to be emotionally attuned to the needs of others.

Robin Nabi, PhD, a communications expert at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a co-author of the phone study, says when it comes to digital devices, parental choices are critical to helping children build emotional skills.

“It’s not ‘Don’t give your kid a tablet,’ because it’s not going to happen,” she says. “The questions are: How do you do it? When do you do it? How often do you do this? It would be much more productive for parents to have that kind of advice rather than just saying, ‘Don’t do it’.”

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