Handing fussy preschoolers screens can be a quick fix, but this calming strategy could backfire, research suggests.

Frequent use of devices like smartphones and tablets to calm upset children ages three to five was associated with increased emotional dysregulation in kids, particularly in boys, in a study in JAMA Pediatrics.

“Using mobile devices to settle down a young child may seem like a harmless, temporary tool to reduce stress in the household, but there may be long term consequences if it’s a regular go-to soothing strategy,” says lead author Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

“Particularly in early childhood, devices may displace opportunities for development of independent and alternative methods to self-regulate.”

The study included 422 parents and 422 children ages three to five who participated between August 2018 and January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic started. Researchers analyzed parent and caregiver responses to how often they used devices as a calming tool and associations to symptoms of emotional reactivity or dysregulation over a six-month period.

Signs of increased dysregulation could include rapid shifts between sadness and excitement, a sudden change in mood or feelings, and heightened impulsivity.

Findings suggest that the association between device-calming and emotional consequences was particularly high among young boys and children who may already experience hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and a strong temperament that makes them more likely to react intensely to feelings like anger, frustration, and sadness.

Read the full article about screens' impact on the mental health of children by Beata Mostafavi at Futurity.