Parents of young children are constantly responding to their little ones’ emotions. So what happens when your child is upset and you can’t calm them down? Is it okay to resort to screen time? What effect does media have on their development? Does this change with age? Researchers are asking these questions to better understand the developmental impacts of digital technology during children’s highly formative years.
Children are born with the capacity to develop executive functions — processes for self-regulation — but they must be learned.
Recent studies show that relying on screens to calm kids down can impact their ability to regulate emotions and develop executive functioning.
Learn a few alternative calming methods to practice next time your child is upset.
Executive functioning in the early years
The first five years of life are filled with rapid growth and development. Children’s brains are hard at work forming neural connections, building pathways, and quadrupling in weight. By the age of six, young children’s brains have gained roughly 90% of their adult volume. During this time, there is potential to develop executive functioning — a set of mental skills and processes that allow us to self-regulate. Executive functioning allows us to plan ahead, follow directions, stay focused, problem solve, and demonstrate self-control. However, these skills are not inherent — they must be learned through relationships and experiences, including media use.
A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics evaluated the impact of mobile phones on young children’s long-term executive functioning and emotional reactivity. Participants included 422 children between the ages of three and five years, who were evaluated at three different points in time: an initial baseline as well as at three and six-month follow-ups. Researchers found that, at baseline, executive functioning and emotional reactivity were impacted by increased mobile device use to calm children. However, at three and six-month follow-ups, only emotional reactivity continued to be impacted, specifically in males or children who were more temperamental.
Other research about media and executive functioning
One recent study found that young children with weaker executive functioning are prone to heavier media use for emotional regulation. Other research shows that some children who consistently co-used educational media with their parents developed higher levels of executive functioning. Young children don’t easily translate what they see on screen into their lives, but engaging in media use with parents allows them to observe and adapt new information to their environment.
What is a healthy dose of screen time?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than one hour per day of media use for children ages two to five years old. Recent surveys show that children under eight years old use an average of 2.5 hours of screen media per day. There is certainly a time and place to use phones as a distraction for your child — airplanes, painful medical procedures, etc. But research shows that relying on media use as a calming measure could impede children’s executive function and emotional regulation. So next time your child is in meltdown mode, and you want to give in to soothing with screen time, try one of these tips first.
Alternative calming methods:
- Use sensory toys. Color, texture, function, and sounds can redirect your child’s senses to something they can interact with.
- Identify emotions. Ask your child how they’re feeling by offering a visual. Try adopting a feelings wheel or color chart that codes emotions. Talk through those feelings.
- Coloring. Sometimes getting feelings out on paper is the best way for your child to move through their emotions.
- Implement a 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise. Ask your child to tell you 5 things they can see, 4 things they hear, 3 things they feel, 2 things they smell, and 1 thing they taste.
- Play calming music. Meditative and nature sounds can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for generating calm.
- Make a media plan. This tool by the American Academy of Pediatrics can help your family visualize your media goals and stay accountable to them. Offering consistency can help both you and your child avoid relying on screens.
While it can be tempting to offer screens to calm your child, studies show that relying on screens for emotional regulation impacts their ability to self-regulate. Add a few tools to your arsenal so that when the next tantrum comes, you’re reaching for some other strategies.
- JAMA Pediatrics. Longitudinal Associations Between Use of Mobile Devices for Calming and Emotional Reactivity and Executive Functioning in Children Aged 3 to 5 Years.
- Neuropsychology Review. Brain development during the preschool years.
- Center on the Developing Child. Executive Function and Self-Regulation.
- Acta Paediatrica. Children aged 3-4 years were more likely to be given mobile devices for calming purposes if they had weaker overall executive functioning.
- Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Associations Between Parenting, Media Use, Cumulative Risk, and Children's Executive Functioning.