The Danger With Using Screens As a Digital Pacifier

The Danger With Using Screens As a Digital Pacifier

By Ariane Robinson

Last week as I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, the little toddler in front of me started throwing a tantrum over a piece of candy he wanted.  Even before the first tear had rolled down his cheek, his mother pulled out her phone and handed it to the little boy. Just like magic, the little boy instantly stopped crying and began playing on his mom’s phone.  I was amazed that the mother never said anything to the little boy, and that he was instantly soothed by the sight of her phone. I wish I could say that I have never seen this happen before, or that I have never tried it myself, but that would be a lie.

All too often, I see parents using technology to handle their children’s emotions.  This is something parents must be cautious about because learning how to self-regulate and deal with our emotions are very important life skills that help to create strong kids and adults.  If our children don’t develop these skills when they are young then it could lead to unhealthy coping strategies, which can lead to addiction. It is important for us to remember as parents that children must experience emotions first-hand to learn how to respond in socially appropriate ways. (Goodwin, 2015)

Here are 5 ways parents can help kids self-regulate without electronics:

  1. Model healthy emotional self-management by resisting our own little “tantrums” such as yelling. Children can learn a lot about managing their emotions just from watching their parents. If you feel yourself getting angry you may need to take a break, or if you cannot leave your child, practice breathing slowly.  It is ok to admit to your child that you are upset. It sets a good example for children by showing them that everyone has difficult feelings at times and that they are manageable. Parents also must model healthy screen habits.  If you find yourself trying to escape emotions by turning to a screen, then your child may be picking up on this habit as well.

  2. Prioritize a deep nurturing connection. It is important that parents are warm and affectionate to their children. Even older children need to feel connected to us or they can’t regulate themselves emotionally. If you notice your child getting dysregulated, the most important thing that we can do is try to reconnect. Parents do not need to plan some big outing to connect with their child.  It can be as simple as taking a walk together, or playing a game that they enjoy. Face-to-face connection and human interaction are important.

  3. Accept your child’s feelings, even when they’re inconvenient (as feelings often are). (Example: “Oh, Sweetie, I know that’s disappointing….I’m so sorry things didn’t work out the way you wanted.) When empathy becomes our “go to” response, our child learns that emotions may not feel good, but they’re not dangerous. This helps them to process them as they come up.  When a parent acts with empathy towards a child it also helps them feel as though someone understands, and makes them feel better, and they are more likely to cooperate.

  4. Guide behavior rather than spanking or shaming. When a child is shamed for crying, or spanked for being angry then the message they receive is that the emotions that drove them to “misbehave” are bad. When a child receives those emotions they may try to repress them. Then when they bubble up again your child may lash out because those emotions feel scary to them.

  5. Help our child feel safe enough to feel his emotions, while limiting his actions. (Example: “You can be as mad as you want, but I won’t let you hit.”) If you can stay compassionate, your child will feel safe enough to express the tears and fears that might be behind their acting out. If you can help them cry, those feelings will evaporate and the anger and acting out will improve, too (Markham, 2013).

In the digital age where we are surrounded by screens it is important that parents take a step back and ask themselves if we’re using these screens as an emotional crutch for our children. And if so, what life-long habits are we encouraging our children to develop if we’re teaching them to revert to screens to avoid unpleasant feelings (Goodwin, 2015)?  If we want our children to grow up to be strong healthy adults, as parents we need to allow them to feel their emotions and practice managing them without suppressing them online until they feel numb.

If you are interested in learning more about how to develop a strong healthy child, check out our book 30 Days to a Stronger Child. Also, if you have older children and you want to teach them about how to use the technology they have for good, check out our new book Noah’s New Phone.

Available in paperback or Kindle!

Ariane Robinson is the mother of five children.  She is a Marriage and Family Studies Major and a certified facilitator with PREPARE/ENRICH. A program designed to help couples develop skills to improve their relationships. She enjoys working with families and helping to strengthen their relationships.

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Goodwin, K. (2015, June 01). Screaming or Screening: Children’s Self-regulation in an Age of Screens. Retrieved from

Markham, L. (2013, July 5). 5 Steps To Help Kids Learn To Control Their Emotions. Retrieved from