When your toddler is in the throes of a meltdown, sometimes the easiest option can be to hand them a device with their favourite show on to try and quell the rage.
While it might work in the short-term, guaranteeing parents a few more minutes of peace (and sanity), in the long run it’s not necessarily the best strategy, according to a new study, because it prevents little ones from learning how to regulate their emotions.
Researchers from the University of Michigan conducted a study involving 400+ children aged three to five years old, according to The Times. They discovered that kids who were given smartphones and iPads to play with displayed worse behaviour over time – and were more likely to have frequent tantrums, particularly if they were boys.
Tantrums are basically a way for children to let out strong emotions before they’re able to express them in socially acceptable ways, suggest experts at John Hopkins Medicine.
While they can seem anything but ordinary when they’re happening, they’re actually a very normal part of childhood development and begin to diminish as a child gets older and becomes more able to communicate their wants and needs.
It’s thought some kids are becoming dependent on screens to distract from negative emotions and therefore aren’t learning how to navigate complex emotions when they experience them.
So instead of offering up your smartphone or iPad during a tantrum, researchers suggest a couple of alternative strategies, such as giving your child a book to read or telling them to name their emotions (this might include helping them to name their emotions if they’re still quite little).
Children who start to get “antsy” should be encouraged to channel that energy into body movement or sensory approaches, the researchers added. So this could include swinging, hugging, jumping on a trampoline, squishing putty in their hands, listening to music or looking at a book.
Of course, there are times when you’re driving in a car or on a train and you might have to revert back to old habits and whip out the smartphone.
But on the whole, parents are encouraged not to use “distractors” like phones or iPads regularly because it “doesn’t teach a skill – it just distracts the child from how they are feeling”.
“Kids who don’t build these skills in early childhood are more likely to struggle when stressed as they get older,” said assistant professor Jenny Radesky, from the University of Michigan Medical School.
“Using mobile devices to settle 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 strategy.”