How using screen time to calm youngsters may influence child development

Many parents use electronic devices to keep young children occupied or calm, and a new study suggests it’s a bad idea. A Northern Virginia psychiatrist has tips for what to do instead.

Findings published in JAMA Pediatrics suggest that using mobile devices for calming children 3 to 5 years old corresponds with a decrease in executive functioning and an increase in emotional reactivity.

“The findings of this study suggest that, particularly in young boys or young children with higher surgency, the frequent use of devices for calming should be avoided,” researchers found.

What the study identifies as surgent temperaments involve kids who are a little bit more tightly wound, so they have more challenges with emotional dysregulation in general. These children can be hyperactive, very impulsive and view every little thing as a big deal, according to Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a board-certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with the Mid Atlantic Permanente Medical Group of Kaiser Permanente.

Patton-Smith said executive functioning, as noted in the study, involves mental processes that typically happen in the prefrontal cortex that enable people to focus, attend, plan, execute multiple tasks and have impulse control.

“Emotional reactivity happens when there are intense emotions that are triggered by an external event. And often, the event leaves you feeling hurt, angry, defensive, and (it) can cause someone to lash out or be very impulsive, which can then cause issues that a person would later regret,” Patton-Smith said.

The study finds detrimental impact of screen time is more pronounced in boys

Offering perspective on using mobile devices to calm preschool-aged children, Patton-Smith who practices in Burke and Falls Church, Virginia, said coping with difficulties is part of healthy childhood development that can improve emotional intelligence and decrease emotional reactivity.

“Having kids go through tantrums, or at times have challenges where they are feeling frustrated is not a bad thing. We’re not trying to completely eliminate that because that’s something they have to work through, so they can improve impulse control as they get older,” Patton-Smith said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children aged 2 to 5 not have more than one hour total of screen time per day.

“When they are using phones, electronic devices of any kind, to help decrease this natural processing growth and development, we are preventing the process from taking place and increasing the likelihood of more outbursts down the road,” Patton-Smith said.

Offering alternatives for how parents might otherwise respond, Patton-Smith said begin with empathy.

“What does that mean? Understand that instead of trying to fix a situation, and tell them why they don’t need to act that way. Identify the feeling and mirror it back. This helps them understand that they can have these feelings and be able to work through them. And when kids feel heard and understood, that helps them calm in general,” she said.

For example, if a child is having a tantrum because the parent said no to going to the playground, Patton-Smith said the parent can say, “Hey, I know you’re mad that we’re not going to the playground. I understand that. And that’s OK. This is something we have to work through together.”

Something else that works when kids are having meltdowns is distraction.

Dr. Asha Patton-Smith is a board-certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with the Mid Atlantic Permanente Medical Group of Kaiser Permanente. (Courtesy Kaiser Permanente)

“If a child is having some sort of ongoing challenge — they’re upset with something I said or something that a parent said — I’ll switch to something else, like, ‘Hey, what are you going to eat for lunch today?’ Or, ‘Hey, that’s a wonderful blue color on you.’ So that is very helpful because kids have a short attention span anyway,” she said.

Distractions might include doing something fun, such as winking at them or switching to a game.

Parents who identify situations that might trigger a child may anticipate what’s coming and talk with them about it ahead of time.

However, new triggers can emerge, Patton-Smith said, adding that it is essential for parents to talk to their child or to create an environment that is “less stress-inducing.”

“So it’s consistently just monitoring the child and seeing what’s happening and tracking them in real time,” she said.

The duration of the study was from August 2018 to January 2020 — before the pandemic.

“So the thought is that there’s actually more use of external devices, including mobile devices in kids since COVID. So this actually might be a little bit more of an issue than even the researchers found in their prospective outcome study,” Patton-Smith said.

If parents are becoming concerned about tantrums — seeing tantrums in other areas outside of home, such as at school or in social situations — and they seem to be significantly increasing, Patton-Smith suggests reaching out to the school or the child’s medical care provider for some more tips.

Patton-Smith recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics website for information and guidance on screen time.

“There are also contracts you can make with your kids to help with that process, especially with older kids, and ideas, tips on how to just help kids emotionally regulate and build up empathy.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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