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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 slowly sipping my coffee.

I heard the boy before I saw him. A few tables over, this cute kid (probably 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, and we 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 (without headphones). His 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? I guess the family that screens together…)

They Were Practiced at the Art of Distraction

Okay, let’s put a pin in the fact that the parents didn’t plug headphones into the tablet and turned up the volume. I explore device noise and awareness in another post. Also, let’s briefly suspend the obvious concerns that increased screen time for kids can disrupt their sleep, contribute to overall childhood obesity and might even negatively impact their learning capacity. Instead, I’m choosing here to pose this specific question for us. Are we okay with tablets becoming the new pacifiers?

In other words, should parents use devices to pacify or distract their children? Of course, this situation was even more layered because the parents weren’t simply calming the child down. They were curbing their son’s misbehavior by sticking his favorite show in his face. They rewarded something negative 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? If this pacifying is repeated over and over, what will this boy be like in 10 or 15 years as he grows to be a teenager, then a man? When he gets upset then, will he need a device to calm him down, a habit that will further cement his reliance on and addiction to screens?