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Screaming or Screening: Children’s Self-regulation in an Age of Screens

It’s certainly very tempting to hand over an iPhone to a screaming toddler when every other trick, distraction and strategy has failed to calm them down, or ease their frustration. Many modern parents admit to using iPads and iPhones to avert a meltdown or tantrum.


But as a children’s technology and development expert (and a mum!) I’m worried about the long-term impacts on children’s emotional development if we do this all the time!


[tweet bird=”yes”] Are we swapping screams for screens? [/tweet]


Screens as Digital Pacifiers

Are we using screens as emotional crutches for children? And if so, what life-long habits are we developing if we’re teaching them to revert to screens to avoid unpleasant feelings?


Are our children’s technology habits detrimental to their social and emotional development?


In the video below I talk about how we’re using screens to avoid screaming and how our technology habits are changing children’ self-regulation skills.


Yep, I’ll be totally honest and declare that I have used my iPhone as a digital pacifier. It was a quick fix. It was effective. And boy, was I relieved (there’s nothing worse than being stuck in a traffic jam that does not move an inch for TWO HOURS! There are only so many coloured cars you can count and boats you can talk about when you’re stuck on a traffic jam on a bridge that doesn’t move for two hours!). So in this instance, I did use my phone as a pacifier, but I didn’t feel any “techno-guilt”.


We’ve all been there. The dreaded toddler tantrum, or the “emotional explosion” as they’re sometimes referred can cause parents much distress (who else has wanted to throw a tantrum right alongside their child?). Tantrums seem to happen in the most inconvenient and inopportune times: at the shops, while we’re waiting in a queue at the post office, or waiting at the doctor’s surgery, sitting at swimming lessons, or waiting at a bus stop.


And whilst they’re certainly a “normal” part of development (in fact psychologists tells us they’re an essential part of a child’s emotional development), it doesn’t make them any more tolerable. As adults we often try to avoid them, or minimise their impact (yes, guilty here too as there have been times I’ve given in to our almost 2 year-old to avoid the tsunami of emotions that often follows).


So it’s little surprise to learn that many parents are seeking solace from tantrums by using screen devices to pacify upset youngsters.


Is the use of “digital pacifiers” harming our children’s development? Are we trying to distract them with devices to help them calm down, instead of helping them to deal with their “big” emotions?


Developing Self-Regulation

I’m not the only one worried about the use of screens as digital pacifiers. Child psychologists are also raising concerns that our reliance on technology to soothe and pacify our children may actually be inhibiting their emotional development because they’re not being given as many opportunities to learn how to control their emotions.


Learning how to self-regulate and deal with our emotions is a critical life skill. It’s a skill that children can only learn from experience. They can’t avoid it. They can’t sidestep around it. Children literally need to experience emotions first-hand to learn how to respond in socially-appropriate ways.


I’m concerned that we’re more frequently we’re using screens to skirt around our children’s big emotions instead of encouraging them to go through their emotions.


Do we want our kids screaming or screening?

Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine in the US have also suggested that today’s children need to develop ways of self-regulating their feelings, as opposed to constantly masking and distracting them with gadgets and screens.


Dr Jenny Radesky, clinical instructor in Developmental-Behavioural Pediatrics at Boston University, was reported recently as saying: “If these devices become the predominant method to calm and distract young children, will they be able to develop their own internal mechanisms of self-regulation?”


Children need to experience frustration. They need to experience anger. They need to experience sadness. They literally need to feel these emotions to learn appropriate ways to deal with them (and yes, sadly that means that they need to have the public meltdown at the shops where they have the cockroach tantrum, so that they can learn more appropriate ways to deal with these emotions). Learning to self-regulate is an essential life skill.


What About Children With Additional Needs?


I also know that for many parents of children with additional needs, that the screen can actually be a great way to calm or soothe children who are upset, over-excited or agitated. I’ve worked in schools and preschools where educators and families use screens in deliberate ways to help children re-set or re-calibrate their emotions. And this has been highly successful. In these instances, screens are often intentionally used to provide a solution to a problem. They’re not being used as a quick-fix.


No, I’m not trying to cause “techno-shame”


Please rest assured that as a parent I completely understand how tempting it is to give in to their pleas or alleviate a meltdown by handing over my device. This post is not intended to make you feel guilty if you use screens to calm down a child. I’m not trying to upset or anger parents. We all have enough on our plates to fret about without adding “techno-guilt” to the mix.


And yes, as I mentioned at the start of this post I’ve used my phone as a digital pacifier from time to time (I’m not perfect at all!).


But for many children, technology is being used as the quick-fix to prevent or alleviate “emotional explosions” all the time.


I’m concerned that perhaps we’re becoming too reliant on screens to mollify upset, frustrated or bored children. I’m worried that we’re sometimes a little too quick to hand over a device to pacify or soothe. And if we’re always doing this then we’re not allowing children the opportunity to experience, first-hand some “big” emotions. I’m worried that we’re denying our kids the opportunity to learn how to regulate their emotions (in ways that are appropriate) and don’t always involve dulling their emotions with screens.


So next time, before you frantically reach for your smartphone or tablet to hand over to avert or end a tantrum ask yourself, “Is it better, in the long run for my child to screen, or to scream? What’s going to serve them best?”


Handing over an iPhone might provide temporary relief from the situation at hand, but what’s the long-term impact? Our kids can’t learn to self-regulate when they’re clutching a screen in their hands.


I talk to parents throughout Australia about screen-time and how parents can help their children use technology in healthy and helpful ways (and also minimise any potential risks). If you’re interested in having me speak at your pre-school, school local council or community group, Click here to find out more.


I’d love to know in the comments below, do you think kids’ screen habits are shaping their emotional development? Does this worry you as a parent or educator?

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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