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Why using smartphones to calm young children may backfire

It was associated with increased emotional dysregulation in kids.

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Smartphones and tablets were only found to provide short-term relief to pacify young children. (Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

By Stephen Beech via SWNS

Using smartphones or tablets to pacify young children may backfire - by stifling their emotional development, suggests a new study.

Digital devices may help calm down toddlers in the short term - but could also reduce their chances to practice emotional coping skills, according to the findings.

Scientists say that handing a moody preschool-age child a screen may seem to offer a quick fix, yet it could also lead to more severe challenging behavior further down the line.

The findings of the American study, published in JAMA Paediatrics, show that frequent use of smartphones and tablets to calm upset children aged three- to five years old was associated with increased emotional dysregulation in kids, particularly in boys.

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Using screens to pacify young children might reduce their ability to self soothe in the long-term. (Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

Study lead author Doctor Jenny Radesky said: “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.

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

The study involved 422 parents and 422 three- to five-year-old children.

The research team analyzed 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.

The findings suggest that the association between device-calming and emotional consequences was particularly high among boys and children who may already experience hyperactivity, impulsiveness and a strong temperament that makes them more likely to react intensely to feelings such as anger, frustration and sadness.

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Dr. Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, said: “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."

She says that the preschool period is a stage when children may be more likely to exhibit difficult behavior - such as tantrums, defiance and intense emotions.

And that may make it even more tempting to use devices as a parenting tool.

Dr. Radesky, a mom-of-two herself, said: “Caregivers may experience immediate relief from using devices if they quickly and effectively reduce children’s negative and challenging behaviors.

“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 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.”

people, children, technology, friends and friendship concept - happy little girls with smartphones lying on floor at home
(Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

She acknowledged that there are times when parents may strategically use devices to distract children such as during travel or multitasking with work.

While the occasional use of digital devices to occupy children is expected and realistic, Dr. Radesky said it is important for it not to become a primary or regular soothing tool.

She says pediatric health professionals should also initiate conversations with parents and caregivers about using devices with young children and encourage alternative methods for emotional regulation.

Dr. Radesky added. "Using a distractor like a mobile device doesn’t teach a skill - it just distracts the child away from how they are feeling.

"Kids 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.”

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