How Handing a Child a Screen During a Tantrum Could Backfire Long-Term

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Key Takeaways

  • Using a smartphone or tablet to pacify a raging preschooler is a recipe for long-term anger issues, new research shows

  • The early years of life are when kids learn to regulate their responses

  • They need parents and caregivers to teach them how

TUESDAY, July 2, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- When your preschooler pitches a fit, handing them a smartphone or tablet is probably the fastest -- and the worst -- way to stop it, a new study suggests.

"If parents regularly offer a digital device to their child to calm them or to stop a tantrum, the child won't learn to regulate their emotions," said first author Veronika Konok, of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. "This leads to more severe emotion-regulation problems, specifically anger management problems, later in life."

That's because kids learn about regulating their responses to various situations in their first few years of life. Some of it is a matter of being taught how to choose a deliberate response over an automatic one -- something learned primarily from their parents. This learned ability is known as effortful control.

With many parents giving little ones digital devices to control their emotional responses, researchers in Hungary and Canada wanted to know if this squelches kids' ability to control themselves later on.

Their findings were published June 27 in the journal Frontiers in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The upshot: "Children have to learn how to manage their negative emotions for themselves," Konok said in a journal news release. "They need the help of their parents during this learning process, not the help of a digital device."

For the study, Konok and her team asked more than 300 parents of 2- to 5-year-olds to fill out questionnaires about child and parent media use. Participants completed the survey twice -- first in 2020 and again two years later. 

The responses showed that when parents leaned on digital emotion regulation, kids were less able to manage anger and frustration a year later. Kids who were frequently given devices during cranky times had lower levels of effortful control during the followup.

And the crabbier kids were, the more often they were handed a phone or tablet to shush them, researchers lamented.

"It's not surprising that parents more frequently apply digital emotion regulation if their child has emotion regulation problems, but our results highlight that this strategy can lead to the escalation of a pre-existing issue," Konok said.

Researchers urged parents to coach their kids through tough situations, help them understand their emotions and teach them ways to cope.

They said it's also important for health professionals working with families to share alternative strategies for helping kids control their emotions -- without electronics.

"Based on our results, new training and counseling methods could be developed for parents," said senior study author Caroline Fitzpatrick, of the University de Sherbrooke in Montreal. "If people's awareness about digital devices being inappropriate tools for curing tantrums increases, children's mental health and well-being will profit."

More information

Nemours KidsHealth has a guide to understanding and stopping temper tantrums.

SOURCE: Frontiers, news release, June 28, 2024

What This Means For You

Teach your preschooler how to rein in their anger -- without using a phone or tablet as a pacifer.

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