How children using digital devices might backfire

Thursday, 12 January, 2023

How children using digital devices might backfire

Increased emotional dysregulation could be the result of frequently using smartphones and tablets to calm children who are upset, new research suggests.

The study by Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan found that the use of devices among children aged 3–5 could lead to behaviour challenges down the road — especially for boys.

“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 Jenny Radesky, M.D., a developmental behavioural paediatrician 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 study included 422 parents and 422 children aged 3–5 who participated between August 2018 and January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic started. Researchers analysed 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.

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

“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,” Radesky said.

She noted that the preschool-to-kindergarten period is a developmental stage when children may be more likely to exhibit difficult behaviours, such as tantrums, defiance and intense emotions. This may make it even more tempting to use devices as a parenting strategy.

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

“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 behaviour 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.”

Radesky, who is a mother of two herself, acknowledged that there are times when parents may strategically use devices to distract children, such as during travel or 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.

The Michigan Medicine study was published in JAMA Pediatrics.

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