Study finds kids given ‘digital pacifiers’ struggle to manage emotions

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Tantrums are a normal part of growing up, but how they are handled can significantly impact a child’s emotional development.

Researchers from Hungary and Canada have studied how giving children digital devices to manage tantrums affects their ability to regulate emotions later in life.

They found that children who frequently received digital devices during tantrums had more trouble managing their emotions.

The study emphasizes the importance of letting children experience and learn to handle negative emotions with the help of their parents.

During the first few years of life, children learn a lot about self-regulation—how to control their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations.

This includes choosing a thoughtful response over an automatic one, known as effortful control, which is heavily influenced by their relationship with their parents.

Recently, it has become common for parents to use digital devices to calm their children during emotional outbursts.

The research team wanted to see if this practice, called parental digital emotion regulation, affects children’s ability to manage their emotions as they grow older. The findings were published in Frontiers in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Dr. Veronika Konok, the study’s first author from Eötvös Loránd University, explained, “If parents regularly offer a digital device to calm their child or stop a tantrum, the child won’t learn to regulate their emotions.

This can lead to more severe emotion-regulation problems, especially anger management issues, later in life.”

Professor Caroline Fitzpatrick from the Université de Sherbrooke, the study’s senior author, added, “Parents often use tablets or smartphones to distract their child when upset. While this works in the short term, we expected it would have little benefit in the long run.” To test their theory, the researchers conducted an assessment in 2020 and a follow-up a year later. Over 300 parents of children aged two to five completed a questionnaire about their media use.

The results showed that children whose parents used digital devices to manage tantrums had poorer anger and frustration management skills a year later. These children also demonstrated less effortful control in the follow-up assessment.

Dr. Konok emphasized, “Tantrums cannot be cured by digital devices. Children need to learn how to manage their negative emotions with the help of their parents, not a screen.”

The researchers also noted that children with poorer baseline anger management skills were given digital devices more often. “It’s understandable that parents use digital devices if their child has trouble managing emotions, but our results show this can make the problem worse,” said Dr. Konok.

Instead of avoiding frustrating situations, parents should coach their children through difficult emotions, help them recognize their feelings, and teach them how to handle them. The researchers suggest that health professionals provide parents with information on managing their children’s emotions without relying on digital devices.

This could lead to better mental health and well-being for children.

“By raising awareness that digital devices are not appropriate tools for managing tantrums, we can improve children’s mental health and well-being,” concluded Professor Fitzpatrick.