Giving Kids a Mobile Device to Distract Them from Tantrums Can Hinder Emotional Regulation

Experts urge parents to avoid putting a screen in their child's hands during disruptive behavior


Increased screen time could cause more problems for a child's emotional reactivity, according to new research.

The study, which was published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, analyzed how 422 parents use mobile devices to distract their children, ages 3 to 5, and how it impacts their behavior over the course of six months.

Researchers found that frequent screen time used to distract a child from disruptive behaviors like tantrums was associated with more emotional dysregulation in children, particularly young boys.

"When you see your 3- to 5-year-old having a tough emotional moment, meaning they are screaming and crying about something, they're getting frustrated, they might be hitting or kicking or lying on the floor. If your go-to strategy is to distract them or get them to be quiet by using media, then this study suggests that is not helping them in the long term," Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and lead author of the study, told CNN.

She explained to the outlet that using mobile devices in those moments can inadvertently teach children that those behaviors can get them what they want. It also takes away the opportunity to teach them about how to respond to difficult emotions.

Instead, Radesky suggested teaching a child how to respond to their emotions by giving them a relaxing and comfortable place to collect their thoughts and feelings.

"You're not being bad for having big emotions, you just need to reset. We all need to reset sometimes," she explained of the advice.

The World Health Organization advises parents against exposing children under age 1 to screens — in any capacity.

Giving recommendations for "sedentary time" in infants younger than 1 year old, the group says "screen time is not recommended." Instead, "when sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver is encouraged."

In addition, for kids between the ages of 1 and 2, "sedentary screen time (such as watching TV or videos, playing computer games) is not recommended."

With children aged 2 to 4, "sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better," the WHO advises, encouraging caregivers to be "engaging in reading and storytelling" instead, just as in younger age groups.

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