Using mobile devices to calm disturbed preschoolers can lead to worse behavioral challenges down the road
It’s a scene many parents have experienced – just as they’re trying to make dinner, take a phone call or run an errand, their child has a meltdown.
And sometimes giving a picky preschooler a digital device seems like a quick fix. But this calming strategy may be linked to worse behavioral challenges down the road, new findings suggest.
Frequent use of devices such as smartphones and tablets to calm restless children ages 3-5 was linked to increased emotional dysregulation in children, especially boys, according to a Michigan Medicine study in JAMA Pediatrics.
Using mobile devices to settle a toddler may seem like a harmless, temporary tool to reduce stress in the household, but it can have long-term consequences if it’s a regular go-to calming strategy.”
Jenny Radesky, MD, lead author, developmental behavioral pediatrician at University of Michigan Health CS Mott Children’s Hospital
“Especially in early childhood, devices may crowd out opportunities for the development of independent and alternative methods of self-regulation.”
The study included 422 parents and 422 children ages 3-5 who participated between August 2018 and January 2020, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers analyzed parents’ and caregivers’ responses to how often they used the devices as a calming tool and associations with symptoms of emotional reactivity or dysregulation over a six-month period.
Signs of increased dysregulation may include rapid shifts between sadness and excitement, a sudden change in mood or emotion, and increased impulsivity.
Findings suggest that the correlation between device sedation and emotional consequences was particularly high among adolescent boys and children, who may already experience hyperactivity, impulsivity and a strong temper that makes them more likely to react intensely to emotions such as anger, frustration and sadness.
“Our findings suggest that using devices as a way to calm agitated children may be particularly problematic for those who already struggle with emotional coping skills,” Radesky said.
She notes that the period from preschool to kindergarten is a developmental stage when children may be more likely to exhibit difficult behaviors such as tantrums, defiance, and intense emotions. This can make it even more tempting to use devices as a parenting strategy.
“Caregivers can experience immediate relief from using devices if they quickly and effectively reduce children’s negative and challenging behaviors,” says Radesky. “This feels rewarding for 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 also strengthen. The more often devices are used, the less children—and their parents—practice other coping strategies.”
Alternative calming methods can help build emotion regulation skills
Radesky, a mother of two herself, acknowledges that there are times when parents can strategically use devices to distract children, such as while traveling or multitasking with work. While the occasional use of media to record children is expected and realistic, it is important that it does not become a primary or common calming tool.
Pediatric health professionals should also initiate conversations with parents and caregivers about using devices with young children and encourage alternative methods of emotional regulation, she says.
Among solutions, Radesky recommends when parents are tempted to turn to a device.
- Sensory techniques: Young children have their own unique profiles of what types of sensory input calm them. This can include rocking, hugging or pressing, jumping on a trampoline, squeezing putty in your hands, listening to music or looking at a book or sparkler jar. If you see your child getting irritated, channel that energy into body movements or sensory approaches.
- Name the feeling and what to do about it: When parents notice what they think their child is feeling, they both help the child associate language with feeling states, but they also show the child that they are understood. The more parents can stay calm, the more they can show children that emotions are “notable and manageable,” as Mister Rogers used to say.
- Use color zones: When children are young, they have difficulty thinking about abstract and complicated concepts such as emotions. Color zones (blue for bored, green for calm, yellow for anxious/upset, red for explosive) are easier for children to understand and can be turned into a visual guide to keep on the fridge, helping young children draw a mental image of how their brain and body feel. Parents can use these color zones in challenging moments (“you’re writhing and in the yellow zone – what can you do to get back to green?”)
- Offer replacement behavior: Children can display some pretty negative behaviors when they’re upset, and it’s a normal instinct to want it to just stop. But these behaviors communicate feelings—so children may need to learn a safer or more problem-solving replacement behavior 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 ‘sorry, mom ‘”).
Parents can also prevent technology-related tantrums by setting timers, giving kids clear expectations about when and where devices can be used, and using apps or video services that have clear stopping points and don’t just autoplay or let the child keep scrolling.
When children are calm, caregivers also have opportunities to teach them emotional coping skills, Radesky says. For example, they can talk to them about how their favorite stuffed animal might be feeling and how they deal with their big emotions and calm down. This kind of playful discussion uses children’s language and resonates with them.
“All of these solutions help children understand themselves better and feel more competent in managing their emotions,” Radesky said. “It requires repetition by a caregiver who must also 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 as a mobile device doesn’t teach a skill – it just distracts the child from how they’re feeling. Children who don’t build these skills in early childhood are more likely to struggle when they are stressed at school or with peers as they get older.”
Radesky, JS, et al. (2022) Longitudinal association between mobile device use for soothing and emotional reactivity and executive function in children aged 3 to 5 years. JAMA Pediatrics. doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4793.