The Dangers of Using Your Phone as a 'Shut Up Toy'

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Handing your frustrated, about-to-melt-down toddler a smartphone or tablet to thwart disaster is something only the very rare modern parent has never tried. But it may be time for everyone to take a time out from the practice, according to a new article published in the journal Pediatrics, which suggests that the quick fix could be stunting the emotional growth of young children.

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“I’m not judgmental, but coming at this from the perspective of a mother grappling with how to make decisions about all of this,” Dr. Jenny Radevsky, lead author and development behavioral pediatrician at Boston University Medical Center (and mother of two), tells Yahoo Parenting.

The article, “Mobile and Interactive Media Use by Young Children: the Good, the Bad, and the Unknown,” looks at six different studies on technology and young children. But it’s not taking sides, she says. “We recognize the promise and opportunity of new technology, but there needs to be a measure of caution around it — and a realization that these technologies are proliferating so rapidly that research just isn’t keeping up,” Radevsky notes. “We wanted to make a statement about the theoretical risks.”

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As the study points out, “It has been well-studied that increased television time decreases a child’s development of language and social skills. Mobile media use similarly replaces the amount of time spent engaging in direct human-human interaction.” Further, it states, “Pediatric guidelines specifically regarding mobile device use by young children have not yet been formulated, other than recent suggestions that a limited amount of educational interactive media use may be acceptable for children under 2 years…Recommendations for use by infants, toddlers, and preschoolers is especially crucial, since effects of screen time are potentially more pronounced in this group.”

A big worry, Radevsky says, is the potential impact on a young child’s ability to develop emotional regulation skills — or the ability to tolerate stress or disappointment without having a meltdown — as well as develop cognitive and motor regulation skills (the ability to plan or to sit still). “Each develops naturally as the brain matures,” she says, “but some kids are wired to have more difficulty.” According to a study she conducted on this topic in 2014, the harder a kid is to parent, behaviorally speaking, the more likely he or she is to develop excessive media-use habits. “I worry that these are the kids we are going to put screens in front of,” she says, although she adds, “a little of it is okay.”

However, the study notes, “use of mobile media to occupy young children during daily routines such as errands, car rides and eating out is becoming a common behavioral regulation tool — what the industry terms a ‘shut up toy.’”

And doing this, Radevsky fears, may replace other important kids’ activities — Lego building, cake baking, and fort building, for example — that foster self-regulation. “They learn this mostly through play, either independent play or with some help from parents,” she says. It also winds up showing that distraction is the best reaction to stress and anxiety, rather than parent-child connecting in a way that helps young children feel their emotions are affirmed, supported, and able to be worked through.

Radevsky says it’s easy to understand why so many parents turn to the techno fix, starting, of course, with our own excessive media habits making it feel like a natural. “It’s easy, and we live such busy, stressed out lives,” she concedes. “Plus parents are getting enormous messaging from marketers that these are really educational devices,” despite the fact that so many so-called “educational” apps have no evidence of such a claim. Finally, she notes, is the basic enjoyment level of this brave new world of parenting. “There’s something thrilling,” Radevsky says, “about seeing your child figure out a touchscreen.”

Still, the journal article has a clear message: “At this time, there are more questions than answers when it comes to mobile media,” the authors say. “Until more is known about its impact on child development quality family time is encouraged, either through unplugged family time, or a designated family hour.”

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