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Are Digital Devices the New Pacifiers?

I’ll set the scene, and it’s one that might feel familiar. One weekend morning, I was enjoying a lovely breakfast in one of the most serene and beautiful hotels in L.A. As I drank in the sweeping ocean views through the dining room windows, I started lassoing stray thoughts and penning them down in my journal while sipping my coffee.

I heard the boy before I saw him. A few tables over, this cute kid - maybe 5 years old - had finished his breakfast and was getting antsy. He slid off his chair and started jogging around the room and yelling. Neither of his parents reacted. They were both entranced by their smartphones, which meant that the more he ran, the less he was checked and the louder he got.

I glanced at the other diners taking note - all had looks that were part annoyed and part amazed at how this was (or wasn’t) being handled. Finally, the boy’s mother wrangled him, plopped him back in his chair and queued up a cartoon on his tablet. There were no headphones so the show’s characters, songs and sound effects were almost as loud as he had previously been. Those in the room directed more disapproving glances toward that table, but the boy’s parents were unaware (or actively ignoring us) because they returned to their own respective scrolling. Side note: Did you know that adults spend 10+ hours per day on screens and kids up to eight years old spend almost 2.5 hours per day? And for children 8 to 18, screen time jumps to 7.5 hours per day.

They Were Practiced at the Art of Distraction

Okay, let’s put a pin in the fact that these particular parents didn’t plug headphones into the tablet and turned up the volume. There's certainly a question of manners at play. Instead, I’m choosing here to pose this specific question - should we be using digital devices as pacifiers? Surely, it often works in the short term, but are we creating bigger problems for both kids and parents in the long term? There is mounting evidence that points to increasing screen time for kids can disrupt their sleep, contribute to overall childhood obesity and might even negatively impact learning capacity.

In this particular case, these parents weren’t simply calming the child down. They rewarded something negative (uncontrolled behavior) with positive reinforcement, a tactic no one from any generation could argue is effective parenting.

So what are we teaching kids when we digitally pacify them? Did the parents miss an opportunity to engage their son directly and teach him about socially acceptable and unacceptable manners in a restaurant or public place? How would you handle an unruly kiddo?

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