Have you ever handed your iPad or phone to your kid when he/she is fussy? What about when they are having a full-blown tantrum? I'm sure many of us have done this. It's probably not our proudest parenting moment, but it happens.
What if this was a common (almost daily) occurrence in your family? What do you think the effect of this would have on your child? These are all questions that researchers are beginning to explore. The the rapid onset of tablets and other forms of technology that parents can carry with them anywhere, the effects of this technology on children is becoming more relevant.
In a recent study, researchers examined a small sample (144 children) of toddlers ages 15-36 months and their parents (primarily mothers). The study illustrated that children who rated higher on a measure of social-emotional difficulties were more likely to be given a mobile device (iPad or phone) as a calming device, compared to other children.
Now, let's consider a few aspects of this study that help us interpret these findings.
- First, while the authors tried their best to tease about the causal link here, we do not know for sure what the causal order is in this situation. We do not know for sure if the child's difficult behavior is making it more likely for the parent to give them an iPad or if perhaps frequent use of an iPad is causing the difficult behavior.
- Secondly, the sample used in this study is quite small (144). This means that this finding is not necessarily generalizable to a general population.
- Lastly, the parents who were more likely to hand over an iPad as a calming device were those who rated themselves as having less control and more frustration with their child's behavior.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that this sample is made up of low-income families. From a social science perspective, we know that low-income families tend to be under more stress. If you are struggling to make ends meet, you tend to be stressed, perhaps distracted or not sleeping as well as you could be otherwise. Under such conditions, it is easy to understand why some of these parents found the iPad as the calming device of choice when their children behave in difficult ways.
In addition to stress, some of these parents felt like they have little ability to control their child's behavior. Maybe this has to do with the stress or maybe other unseen factors are at play. We cannot understand all the factors from this one study.
To me, what this study points to is a scenario that might be not so uncommon in many homes: a mom is working many hours just to be able to pay the rent, she is stressed and is trying to care for a toddler who may have behavioral problems or may just be a typical challenging toddler. As she faces yet another tantrum from her toddler, she hands over the iPad to calm him/her because she simply doesn't have the energy to deal with another breakdown.
Does this sound realistic? We do not know for sure what is happening in homes everyday, but studies like this give us a little insight. This study makes me feel even more strongly about the need for programs and support for all parents, but especially low-income parents. Parenting is a hard job and the added stresses of financial struggle can only make it harder. We need to support and encourage parents to interact with their children in ways that will support their development in positive ways.