Smartphones can make toddlers’ tantrums worse rather than calm them

Giving toddlers a smartphone or a tablet to calm them down could make their tantrums even worse, a new study warns. 

In experiments, US researchers observed toddlers between the ages of two and three after a cartoon they were watching ended prematurely. 

Parents were also asked questions about how heavily they relied on electronic media, including TVs, tablets, phones and video games, to calm their child down.

Toddlers who were more used to being given electronic media to prevent a tantrum had more extreme emotions when it was removed, the experts found.

Although letting a toddler play on a phone or tablet seems like a harmless way to distract them when they are being difficult, in the long-run, this can make reactions worse and worse when they’re taken away.  

Researchers advise parents that they should avoid using smartphones and tablets as their main strategy to avoid a potentially embarrassing tantrum in a public place.  

Participants included 269 toddlers (two to three years old) and their parents, who completed several observational tasks and questionnaires. Results suggested the more toddlers are given devices to stop them from playing up, the bigger the tantrums will be later


Media emotion regulation refers to the practice of using media to regulate difficult emotions. 

For example, if a child is throwing a tantrum at the grocery story, a parent may give them a phone to try to regulate their emotions and help them calm down. 

Infants who have higher media exposure tend to experience a hindered ability to regulate their emotions in general.

‘Parents should avoid using media as a primary way of regulating their children’s emotions,’ said the study’s lead author, Sarah M. Coyne at Brigham Young University in Utah.

‘This may be related to the development of problematic media strategies during childhood.’ 

Parents regularly use media to help regulate their child’s ‘difficult emotions’, particularly for those with a more difficult temperament.

However, no research has examined how this may be related to the development of problematic media use in early childhood.

A 2016 study found parents often use media as a way to calm or distract their young children when they experience strong emotions. 

But parents promoting media to distract children from their emotions may be a ‘risky strategy’ and it could lead to compulsive use later in life, the researchers of this new paper say. 

For their experiments, they worked with 269 toddlers and their parents to collect data on multiple factors – temperament, ‘problematic media use’ and ‘media emotion regulation’.  

Media emotion regulation is essentially the degree to which parents let their kids use media to calm them down.

To judge each child’s temperament, parents completed a questionnaire that ranked the accuracy of multiple statements about their child.

Questions included ‘while having trouble completing a task, how often did your child get easily irritated?’ 

Parents also reported on ‘children’s problematic media use’ – which included ‘when my child has had a bad day, screen media seems to be the only thing that helps them feel better’. 

Parents regularly use media to help regulate their child's difficult emotions, particularly for those with a more difficult temperament

Parents regularly use media to help regulate their child’s difficult emotions, particularly for those with a more difficult temperament 

Media emotion regulation, meanwhile, ranked statements like ‘how often do you give your child a cell phone, tablet, or other media device to help keep them calm when you’re out in public?’ 

The researchers also observed how each child reacted when an episode of kids TV series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was unexpectedly stopped before it had ended.

The results showed that higher levels of media emotion regulation were associated with more addictive media use and more extreme emotions when media was removed – like toddlers throwing themselves on the floor, screaming and crying. 

Parents of extroverted or difficult toddlers were more likely to rely on media to avert a tantrum, creating something of a viscous cycle.     

The researchers caution that using media instead of taking toddlers aside and teaching toddlers to manage problematic emotions could hinder the child’s ability to learn to regulate their emotions, which is essential later in life.

‘Our findings demonstrate a link between media emotion regulation processes and problematic media use and should be further studied and discussed to better help parents raise emotionally healthy and resilient children in a world becoming increasingly media dependent,’ the team write in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. 

The findings comes shortly after another team of researchers reported that toddlers who spend a lot of time playing with touchscreen devices are more easily distracted. 

Using eye tracking technology, the UK experts found infants with high daily touchscreen use were quicker to look at other objects when they appeared within their line of sight on a computer screen. 

They were also less able to resist distraction compared to toddlers with no or low touchscreen use, the experiments found. 

According to Ofcom, 63 per cent of infants aged three to four years used a tablet at home in 2019 – up from 28 per cent in 2013.

It’s believed this figure will likely have risen due to more devices around the home, due to the need to stay connected during lockdown.          


There are no official guidelines for screen time limits.

But there are calls for interventions to be put in place due to growing concern about the impact of screen time, and social media use, on the mental health and wellbeing of young people. 

The Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) both give guidance for parents.

Among the AAP guidelines used as a reference in the study are:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. 
  • Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing. 
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. 
  • Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them. 
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.