Mobile Devices May Impair Toddlers' Self-Regulation

New research finds that early childhood use of screens can be problematic.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

Parents often feel pride when they discover that their toddler is adept at using their smartphone. Many are not aware of the existing recommendations to avoid any screen time at all under the age of 18 months, and only 1 hour a day from ages 2-5. But new research suggests that mobile devices like smartphones and tablets should be delayed much longer.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

As of 2014, kids under the age of two years old spend were spending an average of 3 hours on screens. According to current data, that goes up to 6 hours by age 8. And all of this despite guidelines begging parents to limit screen time and send kids outside.

Why is it so hard to limit our kid’s screen time? The truth is, most parents who find that they can’t limit their kids’ screen time say it is because the children are easier to deal with when they have it. “My kids give me such a hard time about it, and I get a little peace if I let them have it,” parents tell me. That’s exactly the issue: our kids are using screens to self-regulate.

Early childhood exposure to screens may harm self-regulation.

And that’s the problem, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis, which finds that screen time in early childhood may harm the development of self-regulation skills. The researchers looked at 56 children aged 32 to 47 months old from July 2016 to January 2019. They collected data on the age at which the children first saw a screen and how much time they spent on a device each week.

During the study period, the children were asked to complete a series of tasks during 90-minute sessions on the UC-Davis campus. The activities included things like taking turns with a researcher to build a tower out of blocks or walking slowly along a line drawn on the floor. There was also a test of delayed gratification: the children were left alone in a room with a gift and asked not to open it.

All of these tasks were considered tests of self-regulation: the ability of the children to manage themselves. Self-regulation is a major skill involving planning, self-control and the ability to notice their own feelings and behaviors. The skill, considered the basis for many other skills, is fundamental to child development.

The study found that kids who began using any screen at all in early childhood were less able to regulate themselves. That included smartphones, tablets, computers or television. But it also found that as the kids got older, ongoing exposure to TV and computers did not impact self-regulation. However, mobile devices did, which the researchers attribute to the fact that kids can take a tablet or a phone anywhere.

Photo by Ryan Fields on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Ryan Fields on Unsplash

“The portable nature of mobile devices allows them to be used in any location, such as while waiting for appointments, or in line at a grocery store. The screen use, then, could interfere with sensitive and responsive interactions with parents or practicing self-soothing behaviors that support optimal development,” said author Amanda C. Lawrence in a press release.

It looks like a self-fulfilling cycle: kids get screens when they're young and then do not develop the best skills. After that, they can’t do without screens.

But the parents didn’t seem to realize. In one fascinating finding, even when the kids performed poorly on the objective tests of self-regulation, the parent reports did not reflect it. In other words, the parents did not seem to think their kids were having any issues with self-regulation.

I found myself wondering about one possible confounder. Were self-regulation problems caused by screen time or the self-regulation skills of the parents? Pediatricians often observe that parents need to be able to tolerate substantial amounts of frustration when they limit screens. It is so tempting to use screens to calm their children. It would be interesting for a study to also test parents’ self-regulation skills. Even so, parents also learn how to regulate their children through practice, and limiting screens would give them more opportunities for this.

What can parents take away from this study?

The researchers suggested that parents may want to delay introducing any screen media to young children, possibly well into the preschool years. Once they do introduce them, limiting mobile devices seems important, as well as prioritizing educational content over other options.

“Young children are often exposed to substantial amounts of screen media. Even though [the] consumption of moderate amounts of high-quality children’s media has been established to have a positive influence on development, the current findings support limiting children’s use of mobile devices,” stated Lawrence.

This may come as discouraging news to parents during COVID-19, as they struggle to manage young children at home, often while trying to work full-time themselves. We all need to remember that compassion for ourselves and our situations is important too.

©Alison Escalante MD