Temper tantrums: Screens interfere with children’s emotional regulation, study finds

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It’s late, dinner is on the stove, your phone rings and your child’s tantrum begins. A little screen time almost always works to calm them down.

As tempting as it may be to give them a smartphone or turn on the TV as their default response, soothing with digital devices can lead to more emotional reactivity issues down the road, a new study has shown.

“Even slightly increasing a child’s emotional reactivity, it just means it’s more likely that when one of those everyday frustrations comes up, you’re more likely to have a bigger reaction,” said conduct study author Dr. Jenny Radesky, Behavioral Developmental Pediatrician.

Researchers looked at 422 responses from parents and caregivers to assess how likely they were to use distraction devices and how dysregulated their 3-5 year old’s behavior was over a six-month period, according to the study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.

According to the study, frequent use of digital devices to distract from unpleasant and disruptive behaviors like tantrums was associated with greater emotional dysregulation in children, especially boys and children who had already difficulties with emotional regulation.

“When you see your 3-5 year old having a tough emotional time, meaning he’s screaming and crying about something, he’s getting frustrated, he may hit or kick or lay on the floor. … If your strategy is to distract or silence them using the media, this study suggests that it doesn’t help them in the long run,” said Radesky, an associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Michigan Medical School.

There are two problems with media distraction: it takes away an opportunity to teach the child how to react to difficult emotions, and it can reinforce that large displays of their difficult emotions are effective ways to get whatever they want, Radesky said.

“I’m just going to show big emotions so we can stop what we’re doing, and I can escape that request,” she said.

The study aligns with current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the World Health Organization that children between the ages of 2 and 5 should have a very limited screen time, said Dr. Joyce Harrison, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine School in Baltimore.

Harrison, who was not involved in the study, said while there are limits to the diversity of participants, it was well-designed and built on existing research.

Instead of distraction, Radesky recommends taking tantrums and emotional dysregulation as opportunities to teach children how to identify and respond to emotions in meaningful ways.

“Nothing replaces adult interaction, modeling and teaching,” Harrison said.

Instead of punishing their expressions of frustration, anger or sadness with a time out, Radesky said it might be a good idea to set up a comfortable place for kids to collect their feelings — maybe something with poufs or blankets or a tent.

The message should be, “You’re not bad at having big emotions, you just need to reset. We all need to reset sometimes,” she added.

It can be helpful for caregivers to help children name their emotions and offer solutions when they react inappropriately to those feelings, she said.

That could mean identifying that the hitting and crying is because a child misses their mother, then offering a hug and going to take a picture of her, Radesky added.

But sometimes talking about emotions is too abstract for preschoolers, and in those cases, Radesky recommended using color areas to talk about emotions.

Calm and content can be green; worried or agitated may be yellow; and upset or angry can be red, using graphics or pictures of faces to help children match how they are feeling with the color area they are in. To reinforce it, adults can talk about their own emotions in terms of colors in front of their children, Radesky said.

You and your child can go through the colors together and write soothing tools for the different zones, she added.

These teaching moments are hard work, but fear not — you don’t have to do it perfectly every time, Radesky said.

Sometimes you’ll have the emotional reserves to work through those feelings with your child, but sometimes you might just have the energy to offer a hug or expect the behavior, she added.

“The first step is just for parents to take care to notice when you feel that surge of your own emotion in response to your child’s emotion,” Radesky said. “I can try to stay calm to show them that their emotions aren’t scary.”

What really matters is that the child sees that the adults in their life are trying to figure out what the feeling is, where it comes from and how to help it, she said.

Sometimes watching the media is an answer, but be selective. If you’re going on a long car ride or running a lot of errands and need to keep your child calm, keeping a child busy with the media can be helpful, Radesky said.

And there’s content that can help teach emotional regulation when your tank is empty. Find media that aim to speak directly to children about emotions – like Daniel Tiger or Elmo belly breathing — can be like a meditation instead of a distraction, Radesky said.

Raising children is a complex and sometimes overwhelming task, and no caregiver will be able to give their child everything they want all the time, she said.

The study doesn’t say to never distract a child with media, but rather to stick with your go-to tools that encourage emotional regulation, Radesky said.

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