Is increased screen time impacting children’s emotional growth?

Filip Vukasin

10/01/2023 3:36:41 PM

New research shows an association between mobile devices and emotional dysregulation in children, with potentially long-term consequences.

Child on iPad
Protracted screen time may be having a detrimental long-term impact on children.

Research published in JAMA Pediatrics has shown that using mobile devices to calm children may reduce opportunities for learning emotion-regulation strategies.
Studying 422 children aged 3–5, US researchers found children who were given mobiles to calm down were less able to think clearly according to executive function assessments, and more likely to have emotional reactions than those who were never or only rarely calmed by mobiles.
Dr Andrew Leech, a GP with a special interest in children’s mental health, told newsGP the research comes as no surprise.
‘We are turning more and more to technology to calm our children,’ he said.
‘This starts at school, with the use of iPads for example, and carries on at home.
‘Parents will often tell me it is very hard to set limits on screen time and when they do eventually turn off the screen, there will be a meltdown or tantrum. It becomes a vicious cycle.’
Dr Leech says the research highlights that parents are often struggling to manage children with difficult behaviours, with many finding that screens provide the most effective short-term solution.
However, while they often provide immediate relief, the practice may be having detrimental – and increasing – impacts in the longer-term.
As part of the research, parents completed online surveys about their children. Use of mobile devices for calming purposes was assessed with the question ‘when your child is upset and needs calming down, how likely are you to give him/her a mobile device to use, like a smartphone or tablet?’
Parents responded on a five-point scale ranging from zero (not at all likely) to four (very likely).
When the researchers followed up the cohort at three and six months, they found those calmed by mobiles were still more likely to have increased emotional reactivity, with the strongest effect on boys and children with ‘high surgency’.
High surgency refers to traits like extraversion, strong temperament, anger and impulsivity.
Lead author, Dr Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioural paediatrician, said the results suggest that the short-term calming effect of screens has an opposite long-term effect by increasing emotional reactivity.
The issue is especially fraught in early childhood, as the use of devices may displace opportunities for children to develop independent and alternative methods for self-regulation.
‘Caregivers may experience immediate relief from using devices if they quickly and effectively reduce children’s negative and challenging behaviours,’ she said.
‘This feels rewarding to both parents and children and can motivate them both to maintain this cycle.
‘[But] when you see your 3–5-year-old having a tough emotional moment – meaning they are screaming or crying about something, they’re getting frustrated, they might be hitting or kicking or lying on the floor … if your 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 Leech, who is an advisory member for the Curtin University Healthy Digital Child program, says he is seeing an exponential rise of screen use in children – with associated negative effects.
‘My feeling is children’s brains are not equipped or ready to deal with the amount of screen use we are providing them,’ he said.
‘They are being hyper-stimulated.
‘This also leads to less opportunity to learn social skills, have outdoor play and has a ripple effect onto issues such as obesity, learning difficulties, and even ADHD.’
Meanwhile, Dr Radesky says that as screens increase a child’s emotional reactivity, they are more likely to get a bigger reaction when daily frustrations come up.
She recommends better alternatives to screens such as naming the emotion for children, using physical input to calm them down like hugging, and offering replacement behaviours such as hitting a pillow.
‘All of these solutions help children understand themselves better and feel more competent at managing their feelings,’ Dr Radesky said.
‘It takes repetition by a caregiver who also needs to try to stay calm and not overreact to the child’s emotions, but it helps build emotion regulation skills that last a lifetime.
‘In contrast, using a distractor like a mobile device doesn’t teach a skill – it just distracts the child away from how they are feeling. Kids who don’t build these skills in early childhood are more likely to struggle when stressed out in school or with peers as they get older.’
The current Australia guidelines recommend no more than one hour per day of sedentary recreational screen time for 3–5-year-olds.
Dr Leech suggests setting limits, having boundaries and being mindful of what children are using screens for.
‘Teach your child how to use screens safely. Spend time with your child on their device to help them navigate technology,’ he said.
‘Not all technology is equal. Some will provide benefit in learning such as reading, music, socialising, analytical thinking and hand-eye coordination. 
‘Be careful with gaming addiction, particularly in boys. I am seeing a jump in the number of boys spending excess hours on games, and a rise in adverse mental health effects through doing this.
‘Monitor apps like YouTube and TikTok, these are both potentially harmful in the content they provide children.’
He also says clearer guidelines are needed, as is more understanding of the appropriate level of screen use.
‘Remember boredom is a good thing,’ Dr Leech said. ‘A child saying they are bored allows for creativity.’
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