‘Digital Pacifiers’: A Modern Comfort or A Huge Concern?

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Using smartphones as ‘digital pacifiers’ or ‘dummies’ is an increasing phenomenon in our modern society, where smartphones serve as soothing tools for both toddlers and teens.

While the term ‘pacifier’ or ‘dummy’ traditionally refers to a rubber object designed to calm babies by satisfying their innate sucking reflex, the concept has evolved in the digital age to include handheld electronic devices, particularly smartphones and tablets.

Kids are glued to their device.

The allure of smartphones as digital pacifiers is obvious. This is the generation who never allows themselves to be bored – or is it because we don’t allow them to be bored?

With vibrant screens, engaging apps, and an endless array of entertainment options, smartphones possess an inherent ability to captivate young minds and momentarily alleviate distress or boredom. Whether it’s colourful games, interactive stories, educational videos, or soothing music, these devices offer a plethora of stimuli that can effectively distract, calm, or entertain children of all ages.

But is that a good thing?

The problem is that it’s probably all done unconsciously.

From pink smartphones attached to prams, to the touchscreen iPotty toilet for the toddler who never needs to be apart from their iPad, to a digitally tethered teenager, we are all addicted to our smartphones.

We’ve all seen parents handing over a smartphone to a toddler in a restaurant or an iPad to a baby in a pushchair.

It’s too easy it’s too soon!

Parents are on automatic pilot resorting to using smartphones as digital pacifiers in various situations:

I just want to change that and make families more mindful of what they are doing.

Which one of these have you seen?

During nappy changes or clothing changes: Parents use a smartphone to play soothing music or show colourful, moving images to distract their baby and keep them calm or distracted.

While queuing at the supermarket: Parents use their smartphone to keep their child busy and entertained to prevent them getting bored or fractious.

Distraction during meltdowns: When children become restless, fussy, or tantrum-prone, parents hand them a smartphone to divert their attention and prevent full-blown meltdowns, especially in public settings like restaurants.

At mealtimes: To ‘encourage’ a fussy eater! But using smartphones to distract children during meals can disrupt family bonding and hinder the development of healthy eating habits. It can lead to mindless eating because it can stop a child from becoming aware of when they are full. It also more importantly stops real life connection and conversation.

Social gatherings: Handing a child a smartphone at a family gathering – like an elderly grandma’s birthday party, a friend’s wedding, or a cousin’s funeral. But by constantly using smartphones to distract children during social gatherings can inhibit their ability to engage with others, develop social skills, and form meaningful connections with family and friends. It may also convey a message that virtual interactions are more important than face-to-face communication.

On a train or car journey: Instead of looking out of the window and chatting about what they can see or hear parents’ hand over their smartphone, so kids look down than rather look around them!

Before bedtime: Engaging with smartphones before bedtime can disrupt toddlers or teenagers’ sleep patterns due to the blue light emitted by screens, which can interfere with the production of melatonin and make it difficult for them to fall asleep. This can also result in inadequate or poor quality sleep which affects a child’s overall health and well-being.

During class or studying: Using smartphones during class or while studying can distract teenagers from learning and negatively impact their academic performance. It can lead to missed information, reduced comprehension, and lower grades.

While crossing roads: Using smartphones while crossing roads is extremely dangerous and speaks for itself as it can lead to accidents, injuries, or even fatalities.

While smartphones can be convenient tools for momentarily pacifying children, their excessive use as ‘digital pacifiers’ raises concerns for me.

Most parents are just making smartphones the default device without thinking!

If we use them as emotional regulators relying solely on smartphones to distract children from uncomfortable emotions or challenging situations, we are preventing them from developing healthy coping mechanisms and emotional resilience. We are sending the message that it’s not okay to feel or express ‘big emotions’ like anger, frustration or boredom which is potentially leading to long-term emotional difficulties whatever their age.

Let’s stop sleepwalking into smartphones as convenient ‘digital pacifiers’ in too many simple situations – it’s time to ‘pause to ponder’ when you hand them over either to babies, toddlers, or teenagers

Let’s make getting a smartphone a milestone – a rite of passage, like getting your first bike, or passing your driving test – not just a digital pacifier with no sense of occasion.

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