Why Your Phone Shouldn’t Be the First Option To Calm Your Child

Mom showing her phone to her baby

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found using mobile devices to calm your child may backfire for them developmentally.
  • Kids whose parents used screens as a distraction when children got agitated struggled more with self-soothing.
  • Boys and children who already struggled with big emotions were especially affected when phones were used to calm them.

We have all been there. You're in line at the grocery store or you're at an older child's extra-curricular activity and your little one starts fussing. You can't leave and the whining and crying is becoming loud enough for others to notice. Desperate for a solution you pass your child your phone. Suddenly, they're immersed in "Bluey" or a game and you just bought yourself another 15 minutes of peace and quiet.

While sometimes parents have to do what they have to do, you may want to reconsider using your phone to keep your child calm. A new study says that doing this frequently leads to problems with emotional regulation in kids.

The Impact of Using Your Mobile Device to Calm Your Child

The study, conducted at the University of Michigan and published in JAMA Pediatrics, looked at more than 400 parents and their children between the ages of 3 and 5. The researchers wanted to know more about what happened when parents and caregivers used devices as calming tools.

They found an association between using devices to appease upset children and their ability to self-regulate. In other words, kids who were handed phones when they got fussy tended to have more trouble dealing with upsetting circumstances going forward. Boys and children who already displayed issues like hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and emotional coping skills were especially affected when caregivers used screens to calm them.

The study recommends pediatricians and healthcare providers should consider discussing alternate calming approaches with parents.

Missed Opportunities to Learn Self-Soothing

Tantrums and big emotions are common in the 3 to 5-year-old age range, and it can be tempting to just stop the madness in any way that works. But it is at these ages that kids need to be given opportunities to grapple with their emotional challenges so they can develop coping skills.

"Experiencing negative emotions like frustration, anger, and sadness, and recovering is a valuable lesson for [children] to learn," says Scott Roth, PsyD, founder, and clinical director at Applied Psychological Services of New Jersey. "It prepares them for the next disappointment and can help build resilience."

According to the study, this is a critical time period for children to develop these types of skills. Researchers say emotional regulation can be even more critical for school success than intelligence. They say it allows children to "stay calm, focused, and flexible as they face new challenges."

In fact, the more experiences kids have to face their own emotions, the better they get at it. "Successfully regulating or reducing the amount of distress a child feels can help them build confidence in their own ability," says Dr. Roth.

When we distract kids instead of helping them work through distressing situations, we take away these opportunities to practice.

Alternate Calming Techniques

If you feel like you just can't make it through the week or even day without handing over your phone to calm your child, don't be discouraged. Planning out a few tools ahead of time can help you deal with challenging situations when they come up. It might also be comforting to know that you don't just have to throw your kid into the fire, so to speak. You can offer help and guidance as they learn self-regulation.

Helping your child name their feelings is a simple tip that can go a long way. "Help your child identify what they are feeling and why first," says Ali Alhassani, a pediatrician and the Head of Clinical at Summer Health. "Once they understand their feelings, you can help them move past them with techniques like deep breathing, guided imagery, muscle relaxation, and mindfulness."

When you notice your child is getting upset, make sure to acknowledge it. Kids need to know it's okay to feel negative emotions. Dr. Roth suggests using validating statements and questions like: "'I see that you are really angry. Tell me where in your body feels angry?'" Children might say their face, tummy, or fists. "Once a child can make the mind-body connection, parents can introduce breathing techniques that promote the idea that a relaxed body can lead to a relaxed mind," says Dr. Roth.

It can also be very helpful to practice calming techniques at a time when your child is not emotionally charged. "Trying to teach your children these valuable skills and lessons in the midst of a tantrum is usually a futile venture," says Dr. Roth. "Try talking to them and teaching them when they are not already dysregulated so it can be part of the coping skill set when they are dysregulated."

What This Means for You

It can be tempting to hand your phone over when you're trying to juggle a variety of tasks on top of taking care of a small child. Doing this too often can backfire though because according to a new study, it robs your kids of the very skill (self-regulation) that they need to handle these types of moments.

At the very least, always try other strategies before using your phone. And remember, some fussing and crying are okay. It might be preferable to just let your child be unhappy for a short while. This can help them develop self-regulation skills, making it easier for them to self-soothe in the future.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jenny S. Radesky, Niko Kaciroti, Heidi M. Weeks, Alexandria Schaller, Alison L. Miller. Longitudinal associations between use of mobile devices for calming and emotional reactivity and executive functioning in children aged 3 to 5 years. JAMA Pediatrics. 2022. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4793

  2. Child Mind Institute. How can we help kids with self regulation?.

  3. Tyng CM, Amin HU, Saad MNM, Malik AS. The influences of emotion on learning and memoryFront Psychol. 2017;8:1454. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01454

  4. US. Department of Health and Human Services. Promoting self-regulation in early childhood: a practice brief.

  5. Vanderbilt University. Teaching your child to: identify and express emotions.

  6. Child Mind Institute. How to help children calm down.

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.