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Mobile devices may soothe children, but with consequences

Young children can experience emotions very intensely and may express these in terms of tantrums and defiance. Between the ages of two and five, children develop the skills necessary for emotional self-regulation, including the capacity to calm themselves down when upset. However, when parents are faced with a distraught child who is screaming and fussing, they may reach for a mobile digital device, such as a smartphone or tablet, to distract the child and bring peace back into the arena. Although this may bring immediate relief to the upset child, its efficacy as a long-term solution has not been tested. 

A study conducted by researchers at Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan, has now investigated the bidirectional relationships between using digital devices to soothe young children, and the levels of executive function and emotional reactivity in those children. The study involved 422 parents or caregivers, each one with a child aged between 3 and 5 years. Baseline data collection took place between August 2018 and January 2020, and was followed for each child by subsequent surveys after 3 months and 6 months. 

Executive functioning involves a set of mental processes that a person needs in order to assess and control their own behavior, and to ensure that it achieves the desired goal. These cognitive skills develop over time in young children, in tandem with the development of the frontal lobe of the brain. Deficits in executive function manifest in poor impulse control, hyperactivity, inability to pay attention and difficulty in following instructions. 

Emotion regulation, in contrast, refers to a person’s ability to manage and respond to emotional experiences and unexpected emotional challenges that occur throughout the day. In this study it included both a measure of the child’s propensity to emotional reactivity and the child’s capacity to calm down when upset. 

Parents answered questions online about their use of digital devices to calm their child. In particular, they were asked “When your child is upset and needs calming down, how likely are you to give him/her a mobile device to use, like a smartphone or tablet? Parents responded on a 5-point scale ranging from 0 (not at all likely) to 4 (very likely). In addition, parents rated their child’s levels of executive function and emotional reactivity using standard psychometric tools for preschoolers. 

The results of the analysis, published in the JAMA Pediatrics, suggest that, even at the time that baseline data were collected, there were links between the use of digital devices for calming, and the child’s executive function and emotional reactivity. This pattern continued in the data after the first three months, and after the six-month survey. The relationship was stronger when emotional regulation was associated with device use for calming. The researchers found that the relationship was bidirectional – higher emotional reactivity in children was associated with an increased use of devices for calming purposes, and an increased use of devices for calming was associated with higher emotional reactivity in children.

“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,” said lead author Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. “Particularly in early childhood, devices may displace opportunities for development of independent and alternative methods to self-regulate.”

The association was particularly marked in boys and in children with a tendency to show hyperactivity, impulsiveness and a strong temperament (surgency); these traits tend to make children more likely to react intensely to feelings like anger, frustration and sadness. In these two groups, frequent use of digital devices as a calming tool was associated with symptoms of emotional reactivity or dysregulation over the 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.

“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,” said Dr. Radesky.

And it may be particularly the parents of these children who are most likely to turn to digital devices to soothe their children. The preschool period is already a developmental stage when children may be more likely to exhibit difficult behaviors, such as tantrums, defiance and intense emotions, making this an especially difficult time for children who already struggle with self-regulation. 

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

It may be tempting for parents to use videos, apps, or photographs on a device to distract a young child during moments of distress. However, the results of the current study suggest that, if used frequently, this tactic may end up making childrens’ own emotion-regulation skills worse over time. Radesky, who is a mother of two herself, acknowledges that there are times when parents may strategically use devices to distract children, such as during travel or when multitasking with work. 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.

Among solutions Radesky recommends as alternatives to a digital device are: 

  • Sensory techniques: Young kids have their own unique profiles of what types of sensory inputs calm 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. If you see your child getting antsy, channel that energy into body movement or sensory approaches.
  • Name the emotion and what to do about it: When parents label what they think their child is feeling, they both help the child connect language to emotions and also show the child that they are understood. The more parents can stay calm, the more they can show kids that emotions are “mentionable and manageable,” as Mister Rogers used to say.
  • Use color zones: When children are young, they have a hard time thinking about abstract and complicated concepts like emotions. Color zones (blue for bored, green for calm, yellow for anxious/agitated, red for explosive) are easier for kids to understand. Color zones can be made into a visual guide kept on the fridge, and will help young children paint a mental picture of how their brain and body are feeling. Parents can use these color zones in challenging moments (“You are getting wiggly and in the yellow zone – what can you do to get back to green?”)
  • Offer replacement behaviors: Kids can show some pretty negative behaviors when they are upset, and it’s a normal instinct to want it to just stop. But those behaviors are communicating emotions – so kids might need to be taught 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 ‘excuse me, mom.’”)

“All of these solutions help children understand themselves better, and feel more competent at managing their feelings,” said Dr. Radesky. “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. 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.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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