Toddler pitching a fit in public? Why you don’t want to use your phone or other screens to mollify him

BYU study says what quiets him short-term can create long-term problems

If Lincoln throws a “terrible twos” fit in the grocery store, Stephanie Parkin will do her best to distract her youngest. But she’s not going to fall back on a tactic that’s all-too-familiar to most parents who have an out-of-sorts toddler.

The cellphone stays in her purse. That’s not a tool the Roy, Utah, mom will use to mollify him.

Several years ago, she and her husband Tyler took Lincoln’s sister Tenley, now 7, to the pediatrician because they were worried about her. She didn’t make eye contact and didn’t seem to listen to them or connect.

The doctor’s advice was unexpected. Instead of running tests, he asked them to take away all the toddler’s access to screens for two weeks, then come back.

“She was a different child,” Parkin said, noting that while she and Tyler were stunned, the doctor wasn’t. “He’s seen a lot of kids and how their behavior completely changes and they learn to communicate more and to notice the people around them instead of just staring at a device.”

Now the Parkins put strict limits on how much screen time their children can have. Joslyn, 9, Tenley, 7, and Riley, 5, cannot watch TV or do anything involving screens for more than 2 hours a week. Lincoln’s only occasionally allowed to watch tractors in short YouTube segments he loves.

Research from Brigham Young University says the Parkins are making smart choices. Using media to regulate emotion when very young children get cranky or demanding is problematic and can establish unhealthy media use patterns, according to “Tantrums, toddlers and technology,” published in the upcoming July issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

They found use of media to calm the little ones down or distract them was associated with, among other things, even bigger tantrums when the distraction was taken away.

Stephanie Parkin watches daughter Riley, 5, swing at their home in Roy on Thursday, May 20, 2021. The Parkins say they severely limit screen use by their children. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Never too young to watch?

A 2017 Common Sense survey found children under age 2 are on screens for about an hour a day, while older children consume even more.

That doesn’t mean all media use is bad at that age, as BYU professor of human development Sarah Coyne wrote in a recent Institute for Family Studies blog about the new research, which she led.

Who doesn’t love that grandparents who live far away can Zoom and read stories to baby? Who doesn’t see potential to reinforce letters or colors or shapes?

Still, “other forms of media use can hurt a toddler’s cognitive development and shorten attention span, especially depending on the content and context of media,” wrote Coyne.

Screens are “simply not a good strategy for dealing with a child’s strong emotions,” she told the Deseret News. Tech is a mixed bag that brings with it fears of media addiction and negative consequences that parents don’t need to introduce into such young lives.

Doing so is a fairly common practice, though. In nearly any restaurant where a young family dines, you can spot a toddler or two immersed in a cellphone, quiet and well-behaved, she said. For some parents it’s an “automatic” tool that only 3% of the parents studied said they never use. Nearly 1 in 5 said they often do.

The kids most apt to be handed media are high-energy, demanding kids and kids who often throw tantrums, Coyne said. Those whose parents use media to regulate their emotions and calm them threw the biggest tantrums when devices were taken away.

Coyne said the study found the children don’t learn to deal with boredom or other negative emotions and rely on media instead of learning to manage their emotions themselves. And it could contribute to media addiction, which she said roughly 10% of adults and adolescents struggle with.

The practice also gets in the way of what could be a relationship-building, learning moment.

“When you give the child the device, you are missing out on an opportunity to engage with the child around their own emotions,” said Coyne, who suggests acknowledging the cranky mood. “Are you feeling sad or bored? I totally understand why.”

Labeling emotions helps a child recognize them. And it offers a chance to problem-solve by suggesting, perhaps, counting together or telling stories as you shop. There are other distractions. A parent could have a little backpack of toys the child only gets to play with in the store, forestalling the meltdown. There are lots of options that don’t involve handing the small child a screen.

But she also tells parents to be kind to themselves. There are times when one simply cannot have a screaming child — and screens may be the surest answer, said Coyne. “There are times on a long flight or trying to work and the kid is screaming in my ear, when I don’t feel super guilty. But avoid the habit and automaticity.”

The research was part of a longitudinal study looking at how kids develop a relationship with media over time. The researchers had parents of 269 toddlers ages 2 and 3 fill out questionnaires about how they use media with toddlers and also had the children watch a few minutes of a “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” episode about controlling one’s emotions. Then they took the phone away suddenly and categorized the ensuing behavior.

Stephanie Parkin laughs when she says that Lincoln has never been soothed with a screen, so he doesn’t miss it. And she’s pretty sure his parents have done him a big favor.

Tyler and Stephanie Parkin walk and bike with their children near their home in Roy on Thursday, May 20, 2021. The Parkins say they severely limit screen use by their children. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News