Soothing toddler tantrums with screen time can cause behavioral problems later

March 12, 2021

Giving kids screen time to calm them down could cause big problems down the line. (Unsplash/Samantha Sophia)

When young children misbehave, parents often give them phones, tablets or other devices to calm them down. But this overreliance on electronics to help impressionable toddlers regulate their emotions has the potential to cause behavioral problems as they grow, a new study determined. 

The paper, published March 1 in Computers in Human Behavior, is one of the first to investigate the relationship toddlers have with media, as well as the way media specifically is used as a form of emotion regulation. In the study, a sample of 269 parent-toddler pairs were assessed on how the adults use electronics to regulate difficult emotions in their young children. The researchers found that regulating emotions using media was associated with problematic media use in toddlers, and that caregivers used media emotion regulation at different rates depending on their child's temperament.

Learning to regulate emotions is an important skill that begins in infancy, and has long-term implications on coping, resilience, substance use and attachment strategies, according to the paper. But caregivers are now defaulting to using electronics to distract young children when they are misbehaving or experiencing other strong emotions, both in public and at home. 

In the age of accessible smartphones, tablets and e-learning devices, this practice is common, but potentially damaging, the authors stressed, given that toddlerhood is such a critical time for learning basic emotion regulation.

"Parents will utilize media more to manage their children's difficult emotions, especially if the child has a difficult temperament," the authors said in paper. "Children may then rely on media to manage emotions in general, and will show more problematic behavior around media, including increased negative emotions when media are taken away."

Media addiction has been studied extensively in adolescence and early adulthood, but problems with media likely develop much earlier in life, Sarah Coyne, a professor at Brigham Young University and lead author of the paper, told The Academic Times

The researchers employed a series of questionnaires and an observational task to measure and analyze the media consumption habits of toddlers and their caregivers. They hypothesized that children who regulated their emotions with media more often would show more problematic media use and strong emotions when TV, phones or tablets were taken away.

Problematic media use, or excessive media use, interferes with a child's functioning and is seen through behaviors such as a loss of interest in other activities, preoccupation with media, withdrawal from others, high tolerance for media and deception surrounding media.

Cross-sectional data for the study was sourced from Project M.E.D.I.A., a longitudinal study following children from prenatal to adulthood about how family processes affect media use, social development, personality and temperament. Some authors of the paper are affiliated with Project M.E.D.I.A.

The sample included 269 children, all about two years old, living in Denver with a primary caregiver. The authors of the study developed a novel media emotion regulation questionnaire, which was designed to measure how parents use media to help their children regulate their moods and emotions. 

The questions included "How often do you give your child a cellphone, tablet or other media device to help keep him/her calm when you're out in public?" and "How often do you have your child watch TV/DVDs on any media device as a way of calming down before bed?"

Participants were additionally tested with the Early Childhood Behavior Questionnaire-Short Form, which asks caregivers questions about their child's behavior in order to measure temperament. Parents also reported on their child's problematic media use with the nine-item Problematic Media Use Measure Short Form, which assesses factors such as loss of interest in other activities, preoccupation with media, tolerance and deception due to media use, primarily in kids under 12. 

In the observational task, children watched a short video clip of a kid's TV show that discussed and modeled what to do when angry. The clip ended after five minutes, in the middle of the episode, and the children were observed for an additional two minutes. The researchers wanted to determine whether the children would be emotionally reactive when the TV media was removed, even considering the subject matter of the clip.

The caregivers separately responded to a questionnaire that assessed their own use of screen media. The researchers expected that this would be related to the likelihood that they would give their child a media device in an attempt to regulate their emotions.

"What we wanted to see is parental strategies for regulating their own child's emotions through media. Does that predict problems with media? Or the development of problematic media use with kids?" Coyne said. 

When the parents reported that their child had a difficult or unruly temperament, they tended to give their child electronics more often to calm them down compared to the parents who said their child had an easy temperament. And parents who reported using more media to regulate their child's difficult emotions also reported more problematic media behaviors in the children.

The study also found that parents who had a lower education level and a higher personal use of media were significantly more likely to regulate the emotions of their child with media. Parents who use more media themselves could feel less worried about the dangers of high media use in children, according to the authors.

Coyne and the research team said it's likely that toddlers with difficult temperaments are given media to both regulate their emotions and to prevent negative emotions altogether. But if a child comes to expect some form of media consistently, and not only when they are upset, then they may assume that it will be returned if it's taken away and show less severe emotional reactions in the moment.

"By providing media as a distraction whenever a child is fussy or bored, the parent is taking away the opportunity to learn that these emotions are acceptable to feel, and instead reinforces the idea that unpleasant emotions are something to try to get away from," the authors said. "Furthermore, it reinforces the idea that emotions are due to external conditions and controlled by the outside."

"We worry that the biggest problem of providing young children with media at an early age, especially as an emotion-regulation strategy, is that it will make social-emotional connection with other humans much harder because they will not have learned that negative emotions can be tolerated, worked with and even learned from," they continued.

Coyne recommended more in-depth longitudinal research on this topic to better understand the implications of heavy media use in toddlers. Project M.E.D.I.A. began collecting data from its participant families in 2017, and plans to follow them for a total of 20 years in order to examine how media influences children throughout their lifetime.

The study, "Tantrums, Toddlers and Technology: Temperament, Media Emotion Regulation, and Problematic Media Use in Early Childhood," published March 1 in the Computers in Human Behavior journal, was authored by Sarah M. Coyne, Jane Shawcroft, Megan Gale, Jordan T. Etherington, Hailey Holmgren and Laura Stockdale, Brigham Young University; and Douglas A. Gentile, Iowa State University.

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