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Distracting Toddlers with Screens Can Lead to Developmental Dysfunction & Long-Term Behavioural Problems


A study released this week has shown using a screen to calm down a misbehaving child can lead to behavioural problems. It is some of the first published research investigating the relationship between digital media and emotional regulation in toddlers.

Learning how to regulate your emotions is a key part of growing-up that we naturally are supposed to learn from the people around us. Regulating emotions is important later in life for developing resilience, coping with attachment, and substance use.

Previous research tells us having high media exposure during infancy reduces our ability to self-regulate. What we don’t know is what happens when we rely on screens to regulate emotions during our early years.

Researchers asked parents how often they and their child use media to measure how differently the toddlers reacted during the later experiment.

MEASURING MEDIA USE IN TODDLERS

269 toddlers and their primary caregivers participated in the study. The toddlers were around 2 and a half years old and nearly all of the primary caregivers were their mothers.

The researchers wanted to see how the primary caregivers use screens to regulate difficult emotions in their toddlers like temper tantrums. They ran the toddlers and parents through a series of surveys accompanied by an observational experiment.

The first survey established what sort of temperament the child has. It asks questions about how your child reacts when another child is at your house, how often your child clings to a parent when meeting someone new, and how often your child plays with their favourite toys for over 10 minutes.

The rest of the surveys asked the parents about how they use screen media with their child. They also asked the parents about their own media usage.

TESTING HOW THE TODDLERS REACT WHEN A KIDS’ SHOW STOPS UNEXPECTEDLY

Then came the experiment. They sat each toddler/parent pair in a room with a research assistant off in the corner out of eyesight. The parent was then instructed to help their child play a clip from Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood, a very popular kids’ show.

They chose a clip from the program that specifically deals with how to react when you’re angry to give the toddlers every chance at regulating their emotions later in the experiment.

Five minutes in, the clip abruptly ended in the middle of the episode. For the next two minutes, the research assistants recorded how the toddlers reacted.

The results of the observations were combined with the surveys to see what media use patterns make toddlers more likely to react negatively to having the clip stop unexpectedly.

Screenshot from Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood episode ‘Feeling Angry During Playtime’. Fred Rogers Productions & 9 Story Media Group.

PROBLEMATIC MEDIA USE

Toddlers were more likely to use media to the point where it interferes with their social, behavioural, or academic functioning if their parents said they often give them screens to calm down.

Behaviours in children with this “problematic media use” include loss of interest in other activities, preoccupation with media, withdrawal from others, high tolerance for media, and deception surrounding media.

When the clip stopped during the experiment, these toddlers also displayed more extreme reactions like screaming, tantrums, crying, or wrestling the parent for control of the screen.

In short, relying on screens to regulate negative emotions in toddlers is associated with problematic media use and less emotional regulation.

TODDLERS WITH EXTROVERSION AND DIFFICULT TEMPERAMENTS

Extroverted toddlers and toddlers with difficult temperaments also have higher problematic media use and more extreme reactions when the clip ended.

The study’s authors suggest extroverted toddlers may be given screens more often because they wear-out their parents, leaving screens as a less demanding way to calm negative emotions. Similarly, toddlers with difficult temperaments may be given screens more often to quickly and easily calm them down but also to avoid negative emotions before they occur.

Relying on screens when managing toddlers who are extroverted or who have difficult temperaments may then make them dependent on those screens to regulate their emotions during times of stress or distract themselves and avoid unpleasant emotions altogether.

RELYING ON SCREENS TO REGULATE EMOTIONS

The researchers say parents should avoid using media as a primary method of regulating emotions in toddlers as it may lead to problematic media use during infancy. Using screens as a distraction whenever a child is fussy or bored reinforces ideas that negative emotions are something to escape from that can only be controlled externally.

They speculate learning to distract ourselves from negative emotions at an early age could have implications later in life when faced with intimate relationships, mental health issues, failure, and boredom.

The data used in this study come from Project M.E.D.I.A., a long-term project that began in 2017 and will follow the toddlers in this research for another 16 years to examine how media influences them throughout their life.