The digital age. That’s what they call it, right? This tech-savvy, tech-dependent world our children are growing up in. Kids today often know how to log in to an iPad and scroll until they find Ms. Rachel on YouTube before they can utter their first word. But does screen time cause tantrums?
To our grandparents, the whole screen time thing seems backward and wrong. But it seems like it’s just the way of things to us. There are, of course, many parents still holding out and saying NO to the whole screen-time thing. And honestly, if it works for them, perfect. But for me, especially on the longest, coldest, rainiest days of being stuck in the house with a 4-year-old, 2-year-old, and newborn, you can be assured that my kids watch Paw Patrol and YouTube Kids and whatever else was available to get all of us through the day.
I’ll never judge a mom for allowing her kids screen time because I understand, and I’ve been there. However, we parents of the modern world should consider the impact excessive screen time has on our children and whether screen time causes tantrums.
Does Screen Time Cause Tantrums?
Multiple studies say yes. Unfortunately, screen time does cause tantrums and often affects children’s behavior, and leads to health concerns such as obesity, sleep disturbance, and behavioral issues.1,2,3
“Excessive screen time has been linked to school problems, anger, aggression, frustration, depression and other emotional problems,” Aditi Garg, MBBS from Allina Health, says in this article. “Over-stimulation causes kids to have poor focus and depletes their mental energy, which often leads to explosive behavior.”10
In addition, Dr. Garg adds in the article that behavioral issues can arise from:
- less time for human interaction with family, friends, and nature
- less time engaging in other activities which are more relaxing, like art and crafts, reading and might help cope with frustrations from other issues
- less time for fun, such as at the playground with friends
- sleep disruption, which can cause mood disturbance and cognitive issues
- lack of physical activity, which can also impact mood
When our kids sit for too long while staring at an overly stimulating screen, rather than getting up, moving around, getting fresh air, and relaxing their brains and eyes, it will affect them. And those effects are often seen through negative behavior, such as tantrums.4
Using Screens to Calm a Child May Lead to More Tantrums
One article published on CNN Health addresses the impact of giving our kids screens to calm them down when they are having tantrums or showing “big emotions.”11 And it explains how this parenting tactic can potentially lead to more tantrums in the future to get a little screen time.
“When you see your 3- to 5-year-old having a tough emotional moment, meaning they are screaming and crying about something, they’re getting frustrated; they might be hitting or kicking or lying on the floor. … If your go-to strategy is to distract them or get them to be quiet by using media, then this study suggests that is not helping them in the long term,” according to Dr. Jenny Radesky in the CNN article. Radesky is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Michigan Medical School.
Dr. Radesky added, “There are two problems with distracting with media: It takes away an opportunity to teach the child about how to respond to difficult emotions, and it can reinforce that big displays of their difficult emotions are effective ways to get what they want.”
In an article on Parenting Science, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., echoes this sentiment of why teaching our children to cope with big emotions with a screen can be harmful. “Children end up with a very limited ability to handle difficult emotions,” she says in the article. “In essence, their emotion regulation ‘tool box’ contains a single trick: Soothe yourself with electronic entertainment devices. And this might lead to more trouble. What if kids come to feel that screen time soothing is the only way to feel better? What if kids start showing signs of dependency, and throw severe tantrums when they are asked to stop using electronic media?”12
Prolonged Screen Exposure Can Drive Tantrums
Prolonged exposure to screens with rapidly changing or moving stimuli (like TV shows or games) during the ages of 2-6 preconditions the mind to look for and expect a high stimulation level. This can result in difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity, and cognitive or communication issues. All of which can drive or influence increased tantrums.5
Therein lies the struggle. Are kids melting down because they are too dependent on screens? Are we creating screen-dependent kids by letting them soothe with technology? Or are we stuck in a damaging cycle of both?
So, is all screen time bad for our children?
The short answer is no; screen time can support digital literacy and problem-solving skills, which can improve educational development. Too much screen time can be harmful, and coping with meltdowns by adding more screen time to our children’s lives isn’t necessarily the answer. But, as a mom of three, I’ll never chastise a parent for handing her kid the iPad to watch some Bluey or letting her toddler play with her phone so Mom can talk with a friend over coffee.2
Blocking All Screen Access Is Unrealistic
Blocking all access to screen-time technology isn’t feasible. Schools use tablets, smart boards, and computers — even as young as preschool. Teachers and administrators realize the value of kids doing their hands-on work, at their own pace, via apps rather than filling out worksheets or using traditional books. My children were learning how to create PowerPoint presentations with friends in their Google Classrooms in kindergarten — something I didn’t experience until high school!
And look at the world. Are you going to a restaurant? You might need to order your food via your phone. Parking in the city? Need an app for that. Are you wondering how to get to your kids’ tournament next weekend and where the closest hotel is? Need to pay a bill? Find a reputable contractor? Check-in at urgent care? Apps. Computers. Smartphones. Screens.
Our kids are growing up in this world, so the earlier they become accustomed to technology, the better. But does that mean it’s healthy for a 3-year-old to stare at a TV or tablet for 10 hours daily? Probably not, since it seems screen time causes tantrums.
Finding the Middle Ground to Manage Tantrums
So how do we find a middle ground? Child Mind Institute suggests educational programs on PBS like “Sesame Street” or open-ended apps like “choose your own adventure” games for young children. My kids love watching Bear Grylls and choosing his steps as he goes on adventures. They interacted and learned all sorts of incredible survival skills and nature facts!8
Shows and apps like these mean your little one is out of your hair for a hot minute, and they are learning things like empathy and kindness, as well as all about the amazing animals and plants that live in the sea. A win all around.
But the same article says parents should also remember that entertainment is just that—entertainment. Not every second of your child’s day needs to be structured or educational. Just like adults like to relax and watch TV, kids can too. So next time your preschooler wakes you up before the sun, plop them in front of an episode of “Daniel Tiger,” and don’t feel guilty about it for a second.
How to Manage Screen-Time-Related Tantrums
Most experts agree that children must express their emotions and see and hear us validate them. Just like we get frustrated when things don’t go our way, so do they. That doesn’t mean we give in, though. That means we get down to their level, look them in the eye, and calmly say, “I know it’s sometimes hard when we must turn the iPad off. It’s okay to be upset.”
But we hold the boundary. The iPad is still turned off. We validate that it’s normal and okay to be sad about it.6
Healthy Little Sleepers discusses emphasizing and understanding their big emotions. “They’re mad and upset at having to stop something they were enjoying, and on top of that, they’re dealing with a genuine dopamine surge and reeling brain,” the article explains. “Help them come down from that crash by connecting with them and acknowledging that you know they’re having a hard time.” 8
Reacting to their anger with our own anger only intensifies the negativity and doesn’t achieve any objectives, like helping kids understand why they need to take a break.
Tips to Manage Screen Time to Avoid Tantrums
You’ve empathized with their anger and frustration. What’s next? How do you and your child move forward with a healthy screen-time relationship that has limits?
Here are some tips on helping your child build healthy screen habits.9
- Set and maintain consistent rules on how much screen time you allow.
- Don’t use screen time as a reward or punishment.
- Monitor and help choose what your child is watching and watch with them.
- Give your child something to do inside and outside the home, like chores or activities.
- Be a role model and follow the same rules you set for your children.
Communicating to your toddler that there will only be two episodes of “Elmo” and that’s it, there are no surprises that might set them off. Also, parents may find it helpful to disable the feature on streaming devices that automatically plays the next show. Watching a new show start as they’ve been told it’s time to turn their device off can be upsetting for kids, so having a pre-recorded show that simply ends with nothing automatically following it or having that feature turned off makes the transition smoother.
Remember that young children are emotional and still learning to process their big feelings. If your child melts down in front of Grandma over turning off Bluey, it’s okay. It’s normal for your child to have a tantrum over screen time. You’re still a good parent. And trust me, if Grandma had a tablet when her kids were young, she would have 100% stuck it in their grubby little hands to keep them entertained, too. You’re doing great, and you’ve got this.