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Mobile device use for calming children

In a recent study, parents who reported frequently giving their children mobile devices for calming purposes reported increased emotional activity and temperamental surgency in their children.

Young children often given mobile phones for calming their emotions may struggle with emotion-regulation in later years, according to a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Emotional and cognitive processes undergo vital development during childhood. These processes have been associated with greater school success than crystallized intelligence, with executive function (EF) being noted as providing attention flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory.

Cognitive skills develop early in life, with deficits appearing in young children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Rapid cognitive development occurs in children aged 2 to 5 years and is affected by environmental factors including digital media.

Television and general screen time have been examined for their effects on emotional development, but there are few studies on the outcomes of mobile devices on emotion-regulation. The effects of mobile devices on ADHD symptoms such as attention and impulse inhibition also have little data.

Investigators conducted a longitudinal study to determine how frequent use of mobile devices to calm young children affects EF and emotional reactivity. Data was collected through web-based surveys from August 2018 to January 2020, with collection occurring at baseline and follow-ups at 3 and 6 months.

Survey responders were English speaking parents or guardians of children aged 3 to 5 years who lived with their child for over 5 days per week. Participating families owned at least 1 Android or iOS device. Frequent use of a mobile device by children was not required for participation in the study.

Exclusion criteria included delays in child development and psychotropic medication use. There were 422 participants at baseline, 375 at 3 months, and 366 at 6 months. The Comprehensive Assessment of Family Media Exposure Consortium Qualtrics survey was used to collect data on media use and behaviors, content, and context of families. 

When responding to the survey, parents rated how likely they were on a 5-point scale to give their child a mobile device for calming purposes. Parents also filled out additional surveys on child impulsivity and emotional reactivity.

Child covariates included sex, race, ethnicity, age, childcare or preschool enrollment, and prematurity. Parent covariates included sex, age, marital status, educational attachment, household income and size, and employment status.

About 94% of parents were female, with an average age of 34 years. About 60% had a college degree or higher. For children, about 53% were male, with an average age of 3.8 years. In terms of race and ethnicity, about 74% were non-Hispanic White.

Of the 422 parents at baseline, 36 were very likely to give their child a mobile device for calming purposes. At month 3, this figure was 29 of 375, and 29 of 366 at month 6. 

In male children, frequent mobile device use for calming purposes was highly associated with emotional reactivity, with higher mobile device use leading to higher emotional reactivity. Female children did not see similar associations.

High temperamental surgency was also associated with increased used of devices for calming purposes in children. These results indicate an overall displacement in emotion-regulation strategies after frequent use of mobile devices to calm children. Investigators recommended health care professionals encourage alternative calming strategies.

Reference

Radesky JS, Kaciroti N, Weeks HM, Schaller A, Miller AL. Longitudinal associations between use of mobile devices for calming and emotional reactivity and executive functioning in children aged 3 to 5 Years. JAMA Pediatr. 2022. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4793