Are ‘Digital Pacifiers’ Effective?

Attempting to calm children’s negative emotions with digital devices is common. Researchers in Hungary and Canada delved into the strategy—parental digital emotion regulation—and found that the practice leads to an inability to regulate their emotions later in life. They published their results in Frontiers in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Self-regulation, learned very early in life, involves choosing a deliberate response over an automatic one. Children learn this effortful control through their relationship with their parents. What happens when parents offer their child a digital device to stop a tantrum? The child doesn’t learn to regulate their emotions, paving the way to a higher possibility of anger management problems as adults.

Children are fascinated by digital content, which easily diverts them from negative emotions. The researchers expected that, in the long run, there wouldn’t be much long-term benefit. To prove or disprove their thesis, the team surveyed more than 300 parents of children between the ages of 2 and 5 in 2020 and followed up with them in 2021. The questionnaire assessed parent media use.

They found that by using digital emotion regulation often, children showed poorer anger and frustration management skills even just a year later. The children also showed less effortful control at the follow-up assessment.

Tantrums are a part of childhood, as they consistently test boundaries. The best practice, however, is for a parent to coach children through difficult situations, teaching them to recognize their emotions and how to handle them.

Health professionals working with families can provide information on how parents can help their children manage their emotions without giving them tablets or smartphones.

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