Digital Devices Hinder Kids’ Emotional Regulation Development

Summary: A new study reveals that using digital devices to manage children’s tantrums hampers their ability to regulate emotions later in life. Researchers found that frequent use of tablets or smartphones for calming children results in poorer anger management skills. Instead of digital devices, parental support in navigating emotions is crucial. These findings highlight the need for educating parents on healthier emotion regulation strategies.

Key Facts:

  1. Using digital devices for tantrum control leads to long-term emotion regulation issues.
  2. Children given devices for calming showed poorer anger and frustration management.
  3. Parental coaching in emotion management is more beneficial than digital distractions.

Source: Frontiers

Children learn much about self-regulation – that is affective, mental, and behavioral responses to certain situations – during their first few years of life. Some of these behaviors are about children’s ability to choose a deliberate response over an automatic one. This is known as effortful control, which is learned from the environment, first and foremost through children’s relationship with their parents.

In recent years, giving children digital devices to control their responses to emotions, especially if they’re negative, has become common.

This shows a child using a tablet.
Children who were given devices more often as they experienced negative emotions also showed less effortful control at the follow-up assessment. Credit: Neuroscience News

Now, a team of researchers in Hungary and Canada has investigated if this strategy, referred to as parental digital emotion regulation, leads to the inability of children to effectively regulate their emotions later in life.

The results were published in Frontiers in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

“Here we show that 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 Dr Veronika Konok, the study’s first author and a researcher at Eötvös Loránd University. “This leads to more severe emotion-regulation problems, specifically, anger management problems, later in life.”

More devices, less control

“We frequently see that parents use tablets or smartphones to divert the child’s attention when the child is upset. Children are fascinated by digital content, so this an easy way to stop tantrums and it is very effective in the short term,” Prof Caroline Fitzpatrick, a researcher at the Université de Sherbrooke and senior author of the study, explained.

However, the researchers expected that in the long run, the practice has little benefit. To confirm their thesis, they carried out an assessment in 2020 and a follow-up one year later. More than 300 parents of children aged between two- and five-years-old completed a questionnaire which assessed child and parent media use.

They found that when parents used digital emotion regulation more often, children showed poorer anger and frustration management skills a year later. Children who were given devices more often as they experienced negative emotions also showed less effortful control at the follow-up assessment.

“Tantrums cannot be cured by digital devices,” Konok pointed out. “Children have to learn how to manage their negative emotions for themselves. They need the help of their parents during this learning process, not the help of a digital device.”

Helping parents support children

The researchers also found that poorer baseline anger management skills meant that children were given digital devices more often as a management tool.

“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.

It is important not to avoid situations that could be frustrating to the child, the researchers pointed out. Instead, it is recommended that parents coach their children through difficult situations, help them recognize their emotions, and teach them to handle them.

To equip parents of children with anger management problems for success, it is important that they receive support, the researchers said. For example, health professionals working with families could provide information on how parents can help their children manage their emotions without giving them tablets or smartphones.

“Based on our results, new training and counselling methods could be developed for parents. If peoples’ awareness about digital devices being inappropriate tools for curing tantrums increases, children’s mental health and well-being will profit,” Fitzpatrick concluded.

About this emotion and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Deborah Pirchner
Source: Frontiers
Contact: Deborah Pirchner – Frontiers
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Cure for tantrums? Longitudinal associations between parental digital emotion regulation and children’s self-regulatory skills” by Veronika Konok et al. Frontiers in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry


Cure for tantrums? Longitudinal associations between parental digital emotion regulation and children’s self-regulatory skills

Introduction: Parents often use digital devices to regulate their children’s negative emotions, e.g., to stop tantrums. However, this could hinder child development of self-regulatory skills. The objective of the study was to observe bidirectional longitudinal associations between parents’ reliance on digital devices to regulate their child’s emotions and self-regulatory tendencies (anger/frustration management, effortful control, impulsivity).

Methods: Parents (N = 265) filled out the Child Behavior Questionnaire—Short Form and the Media Assessment Questionnaire twice: the initial assessment (T1) took place in 2020 (mean child age = 3.5 years old), and follow-up (T2) occurred a year later in 2021 (mean child age = 4.5 years old).

Results: Higher occurrence of parental digital emotion regulation (PDER) in T1 predicts higher anger and lower effortful control in T2, but not impulsivity. Higher anger in T1, but not impulsivity and effortful control, predicts higher PDER in T2.

Discussion: Our results suggest that parents of children with greater temperament-based anger use digital devices to regulate the child’s emotions (e.g., anger). However, this strategy hinders development of self-regulatory skills, leading to poorer effortful control and anger management in the child.

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