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Using Devices to Appease Agitated Kids: A Double-Edged Sword

It’s a scene that plays out in households across America multiple times a day: A parent hands their fussy toddler an iPad to play games or watch shows, just to get a few minutes of peace. While using devices to appease agitated kids may work in the short-term, experts caution this approach can have negative long-term effects on children’s development, behavior and relationship with technology.

On the surface, plopping a kid in front of a screen to calm them down makes sense. The bright colors, fun sounds and continuous stimulation provide an instant activity that captures their attention. “Parents are tapping into the same reward pathways in the brain that technology designers deliberately try to target,” explains Dr. Christina Nicolaidis, a pediatrician specializing in child development. “Apps and shows are designed to be sticky to keep kids engaged.”

Once absorbed in a device, most kids quickly become quiet, placid and immersed in the digital world. This provides immediate relief to frazzled parents needing a short break. “I’ll admit, I rely on the tablet when I’m trying to make dinner and my toddler is melting down,” says Lisa Chen, a mother of two. “It’s an easy way to keep him occupied so I can focus on getting food on the table.”

However, researchers are finding that regularly using devices as digital pacifiers can interfere with kids’ development of emotional regulation. “Young children are still learning to process strong feelings like anger, frustration and sadness,” explains Nicolaidis. “If they rely on screens every time they feel upset, they don’t get practice identifying and managing big emotions on their own.”

Studies show kids who frequently use devices to zone out have more difficulty self-soothing, concentrating, delaying gratification and exhibiting self-control. Excessive screen time at young ages is linked with more tantrums, aggression and acting out later in childhood. “Kids never learn to tolerate discomfort or find coping mechanisms that don’t involve technology,” says Nicolaidis.

Overreliance on devices can also negatively impact the parent-child relationship. When parents consistently reach for a tablet instead of comforting their child, it can weaken attachment and bonding. “ Young kids need close contact with caregivers to feel safe and secure,” explains Nicolaidis. “If screen time becomes a substitute for that physical and emotional connection, it can interfere with development of a secure attachment.” Kids may start to associate the device with feeling better, rather than associating a parent with comfort and support.

Additionally, using technology as a pacifier can establish media as a primary tool for avoiding unpleasant emotions. “This creates patterns and habits that often stick with kids as they get older,” warns Nicolaidis. Studies show high media use in early childhood correlates with more screen addiction and dependence later in life. “Kids who learn young to find refuge from their feelings in technology have a harder time developing what we call digital resilience,” she says.

So what’s the best approach when kids are upset and parents need a quick fix? Experts suggest trying alternative soothing techniques first before turning to a device. “Hold your child, use a calm voice, empathize with their emotions, suggest new activities—these human-based connections should be the first line of defense, not digital distraction,” advises Nicolaidis.

If a child remains agitated, she recommends letting them engage with media for limited periods, and working to expand their emotional toolbox over time. “Have your child take some deep breaths, splash water on their face or hug a stuffed animal before playing on a device—help them practice self-regulation skills.” Modeling healthy media use is also key; parents should try to be mindful of their own technology habits.

Most importantly, Nicolaidis emphasizes kids need plenty of device-free interaction with caregivers from an early age. Making eye contact, singing songs, telling stories and engaging in back-and-forth conversations all help build crucial language and bonding. “Young children’s brains develop rapidly in response to real-life human contact,” she explains. “That kind of active engagement and attachment simply can’t be replicated through digital devices.”

While handing a fussy child a smartphone may temporarily restore calm, the long-term impacts call for moderation. Using devices judiciously, and not as an emotional salve, will help ensure healthy child development. With mindfulness and purpose, technology and quality time can peacefully coexist.