Monday, January 30, 2023
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Study Shows Using Digital Devices to Calm Young Kids Leads to Bigger Behavioral Problems



In today’s high-tech world, it’s a quick and easy, if not intuitive and practically automatic, fix to grab your cell phone or other digital device and hand it to whatever restless kid you may be taking care of, in hopes the instant intervention buys you even a little more time without the little one further crying or whining.

But, now, researchers from the University of Michigan warn using digital gadgets to soothe young children may lead to bigger behavioral problems in the future.

Frequent use of devices such as smartphones and tablets to appease upset children ages 3-5 was linked to increased emotional dysregulation — an inability to self-manage feelings, other thoughts and even physiological reactions — most notably in boys. The findings are part of a Michigan Medicine study published in early December in JAMA Pediatrics.

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

The study involved 422 parents and 422 children ages 3-5 who participated in the research between August 2018 and January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Over the six-month period, members of the study team analyzed the frequency parents and caregivers used devices as a calming tool and how those tendencies were associated with symptoms of emotional reactivity or dysregulation over the same time span. Signs of increased dysregulation may include rapid shifts between sadness and excitement, sudden changes in mood or feelings and heightened impulsivity.

The research found the relationship between device-calming and heightened emotional reactions that included anger, frustration and sadness was strong 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.

“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 Radesky, who admits the preschool-to-kindergarten period of human development is a stage when children may be more likely to exhibit difficult behaviors, such as tantrums, defiance and intense emotions, which makes  the use devices as a parenting strategy a tempting alternative.

“Caregivers may experience immediate relief from using devices if they quickly and effectively reduce children’s negative and challenging behaviors,” Radesky said. “This feels rewarding to both parents and children and can motivate them both to maintain this cycle.” However, “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.”

Radesky, a mother of two herself, acknowledged that there are times when parents may strategically use devices to distract children during extraordinary times, such as during travel or the parent must multitasking with work. And while occasional use of media to occupy children is realistic and even expected, it’s important they guard against using devices as a primary or regular soothing tool.
Radesky said young children in fact have their own unique profiles of what types of sensory input calms them down, which could span behaviors like swinging, hugging or apply other types of physical pressure, jumping on a trampoline, squishing putty in their hands, listening to music or looking at a book or sparkle jar. In other words, if the child in question is getting antsy, the child can be shown to channel that energy into body movement or sensory approaches.

Another strategy involves helping a child to identify and name the emotion they are feeling, and then determine what they can do to modify it, said Radesky. That approach helps children connect language to states of feeling, but also reassures them that they are understood.

Children can also be taught “replacement behaviors” that don’t simply urge them to stop what they’re doing or feeling, but acknowledge and them channel their behaviors to be more acceptable, Radesky said, such as teaching a child to hit a pillow instead of hitting someone else, or showing you, as a patent or caregiver will absolutely respond positively in a meaningful way if a child uses more managed communication, instead of yelling or screaming.

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