Smartphones and tablets: Frequent use to calm children can backfire

Smartphones and tablets: Frequent use to calm children can backfire. 


Sometimes, giving a preschooler a digital device seems to offer a quick fix. But this calming strategy may be linked to worse behavior problems, according to a new study. Frequent use of devices such as smartphones and tablets to calm children aged 3 to 5 years has been associated with greater emotional dysregulation in children (imbalance in the management of emotions), according to a Michigan Medicine study published on JAMA Pediatrics.


“Using mobile devices to calm a young child may seem like a harmless and temporary way to reduce stress in the home, but it can have long-term consequences if it becomes a habitual calming strategy ,” said lead author Jenny Radesky, behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan Health CS Mott Children’s Hospital.

“Especially in early childhood, devices can replace opportunities for the development of independent and alternative methods of self-regulation,”

Radesky added.


The study included 422 parents and 422 children aged 3 to 5, who participated between August 2018 and January 2020, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers analyzed parental responses about 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 greater dysregulation can include rapid transitions between sadness and excitement , a sudden change in mood or feelings, and increased impulsivity .


“Parents or caregivers (relatives, babysitters) can experience immediate relief from the use of devices if they quickly and effectively reduce children’s negative and problematic behaviors,” says Radesky. This is rewarding for both parents and children and can motivate both to maintain this cycle. The more often the devices are used, the less children – and their parents – practice using other strategies”.

Alternative calming methods

Radesky, acknowledges that there are times when parents can strategically use devices to distract children, such as when traveling or out or doing household chores. While occasional use of media to occupy children is expected and realistic, it is important that it does not become a primary or regular distraction tool . Pediatric health care providers should also initiate conversations with parents and caregivers about device use with young children and encourage alternative methods for emotion regulation.

Among the solutions Radesky recommends when parents are tempted to resort to a device:

  • Sensory Techniques : Young children have their own unique profile of sensory inputs that calm them down. For example, they can rock, hug, listen to music or look at a book. If you see your child nervous, channel this energy into body movement or sensory approaches;
  • Naming the emotion: When parents label what they think the child is feeling, they help the child connect language to feelings, but also show him that he is understood . The more parents manage to stay calm, the more they can show children that emotions are “nameable and manageable”;
  • Using Color Zones : When children are young, they have a hard time thinking about abstract and complicated concepts like emotions. The color zones (blue for boredom, green for calm, yellow for anxiety/agitation, red for explosion) are easier for children to understand and can be turned into a visual guide to keep on the fridge. for example. Parents can use these color zones in times of difficulty (“you are agitated and you are in the yellow zone: what can you do to go back to green?”).
  • Offer substitute behaviors : Children can exhibit very negative behaviors when they are angry and it is normal for them to want to stop. But these behaviors communicate emotion, so children may need to be taught a safer or problem-solving substitute behavior . This could include teaching sensory strategy or clearer communication (“if you want my attention, just pat my arm and say ‘excuse me, mom’”).
  • Parents can also prevent tech-related tantrums by setting timers , giving kids clear expectations about when and where they can use the devices, and using video apps or services that have clear cut-off points and don’t just autoplay or let the baby keep scrolling.

“All of these solutions help children understand themselves better and feel more competent at managing their feelings,” Radesky said. “It takes some repetition on the part of the caregiver, who also tries to stay calm and not overreact to the child’s emotions, but this helps build lifelong emotion regulation skills. ”.

“Conversely, using a ‘distractor’ such as a mobile device does not teach a skill, it simply distracts the child from what they are feeling. Children who don’t develop these skills in early childhood are more likely to have problems when stressed at school or with peers as they get older,” adds Dr. Radesky.

  • Longitudinal Associations Between Use of Mobile Devices for Calming and Emotional Reactivity and Executive Functioning in Children Aged 3 to 5 Years (


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