During the pandemic, children’s screen time soared as extended lockdowns and social distancing left many parents at a loss for how to keep their kids engaged while attempting to work and manage the home.1 Even parents who may have once resisted overusing screens in the past now used them as a crutch, not just for entertainment (and online schooling), but also to pacify them when their kids misbehaved, got upset or otherwise acted temporarily unmanageable. While using screen time in this way can be an effective way to calm kids down quickly, there is growing evidence that shows the method can actually cause behavior problems down the line. This is especially true for toddlers, who are exceptionally impressionable at their young age.
Toddlers: Screens vs. Child Development
Studies show that children under two learn less from a video than they learn from other people, with general comprehension not really occurring until after age two.2 While a child under age two may appear captivated by what’s on the screen, they won’t actually be learning from it.
While the effects of screen time on brain development is still emerging, some risks associated with early exposure include language delays, attention difficulties and negative effects on executive function, especially for children under age five.3 Excessive screen time also limits the amount and quality of parent–child interaction and distracts from play, which have been proven to be beneficial for child development.4
Too much screen time can also correlate with poor sleep. Experts say that the blue light that emits from screens inhibits melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep. When children use screens close to bedtime, their brain is tricked into thinking it’s day time. One study shows that infants six to twelve months old who were exposed to screens in the evening showed significantly shorter nighttime sleep than those who had no evening screen exposure.5
Learning how to regulate emotions begins as early as infancy and has long-term associations with how a child will cope and build resilience in the face of life’s challenges. When parents use screen time to soothe their toddlers, the children do not properly learn how to regulate their emotions. Dr. Jenny Radesky, Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician, writes at CNN, “Allowing frictionless feeds to soothe us can distract from the family interactions that actually help build resilience and make meaning out of stressful times.”6
In a four-year longitudinal study, screen time at four years of age was associated with dysregulation at a later age.7 Dysregulation refers to a poor ability to manage emotional responses or to keep them within an acceptable range and may include outbursts of anger, crying, passive-aggressive behaviors or conflict.
Tips on How to Respond
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), parents should avoid giving screens to their children younger than 18 to 24 months, except when video chatting with family.8 The AAP also recommends limiting screen use for preschool children to just one hour a day of high-quality programming (think educational shows like Sesame Street).
If you’ve been using screens to calm your child when they are upset, consider these ways to naturally soothe your crying toddler instead:
- Do nothing: Doing nothing might seem counterintuitive when your child is in the midst of a meltdown, but you may be surprised how quickly a tantrum (or potential tantrum) dissipates if you ignore their outbursts, especially if they’ve learned this is an effective way to get your attention. However, you should step in if your child is in danger of hurting themselves or others. If this happens, take your child to a quiet, safe place to calm down.
- Be consistent: Whether you’re using a time-out or a calm-down corner to calm your child down or ease a tantrum, be consistent with the time you set in this space.9 You should also be consistent with how and when they can use their devices if you want to continue permitting screen time in the home. Being consistent with daily routines can help the child anticipate what comes next in the day and be less inclined to revolt against transitions if they know what to expect.
- Praise good behavior: One of the most effective ways of preventing meltdowns in the first place is to praise good behavior. Offering extra attention when your child behaves well is good motivation for them to do more of it. They’ll also be less motivated to seek attention from bad behavior (especially if you’ve started ignoring these negative pleas for attention).
- Acknowledge their emotions: Sometimes empathy is the best way to stop a tantrum in its tracks and give your child what he or she needs. While your child might be acting disproportionately to something, it doesn’t mean their feelings aren’t genuine. By acknowledging what they feel and helping them find words to name those feelings, your child will feel seen, heard and understood instead of shamed.
- Try Brillia’s 5-Pillar approach: Brillia’s 5-pillar approach is a holistic program that combines neuroscience and behavioral science to help children learn how to calm themselves and improve attention. The pillars include healthy nutrition, adequate sleep, mindfulness techniques and controlled screen time. If you feel that your child’s behavioral problems are rooted in deeper issues like anxiety, ADHD or hyperactivity, Brillia is a gentle, non-prescription supplement to help reduce anxiety and stress, and to enhance focus, attention and emotional regulation. Brillia has no harmful side effects and no contraindications, so if your child is already taking medication for a condition like anxiety or ADHD, Brillia can be safely added to their routine without contraindications. Brillia takes 2-3 weeks to build in the system, and it is not a magic pill to stop all tantrums, but if your child has these chronic symptoms, Brillia is an effective option to help your child feel calmer and less irritable when combined with healthy lifestyle changes.
In the end, remember that tantrums are not a sign of bad parenting. While you might be tempted to avoid a tantrum and soothe your toddler with a device, remind yourself that your child is just learning how to manage their emotions. Screen time will only impede their progress. And don’t guilt trip yourself about using screens from time to time or if you turned to devices more than you’d like to admit during the pandemic. The great thing about the resilience of children is that they have the ability to bounce back and successfully adjust to their new, healthier non-screen habits in no time.
Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a certificate in Narrative Therapy. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.