Does distracting your toddler with your phone reduce their capacity to self-regulate?

The authors of a study of pre-school age children’s use of mobile devices has recommended that use of screens, and of smartphones and tablets in particular, should be limited.

The study was carried out at the University of California. Fifty-six children and their parents participated; the children were aged between 32 and 47 months. In this sample, the children used television and computers between zero and 68 hours a week, and tablets and smartphones between zero and 14 hours a week. Screen time was not related to family income although children in families who were better off tended to start using mobile devices at a younger age than children from less affluent backgrounds.

The children’s ability to self-regulate was assessed as skills needed to manage thoughts and feelings are vital for positive health and success at school and in social encounters.

The study found that children who were introduced to devices, including television and smartphones, earlier in life were less good at self-regulation than children who were introduced to screens later on in childhood. The primary researcher acknowledged that exposure to high-quality media designed for young children can be beneficial. However, the study advises that exposure should be limited especially to mobile devices which can be accessed anywhere and therefore have greater capacity to interfere with sensitive interactions between parents and children which are essential for young children’s healthy development.

Lawrence, A.C., Narayan, M.S., Choe, D.E. (2020) Association of young children’s use of mobile devices with their self-regulation. JAMA Pediatrics. DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.0129

[Editor’s Note: This three study is particularly important for educators and health care professionals working with families across the transition to parenthood. They strengthen the evidence-base for what has long been known – that a healthy diet is important pre-conception; that screens can interfere with sensitive communication between parents and children, and that hugs are a powerful means of helping parents and babies to relax!]

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