If you work from home as a parent, a touchscreen device can be a wonderful tool. Pass one on to your child and they’ll be quietly busy for your zoom meeting or crunch time when you approach an important appointment. However, touchscreens can also feel like a compromise for parents who have long feared that screen time could affect their children’s development.
Our three year study The association between the use of touchscreens and the attention of young children was measured in the following children, aged one to three and a half years. For the first time, we were able to show that toddlers who used touchscreens were less able to avoid distractions while performing a task on a screen than toddlers with no or little daily touchscreen use. On the other hand, we found that toddlers with high daily touchscreen consumption are better able to spot conspicuous, attention-grabbing objects when they first appear on a screen.
These results are important given the increase in screen time seen during COVID-19 national lockdowns. In the UK, for example Three out of four parents reported that their children spent more time watching TV or playing with a tablet during closed periods. Custom screen time for adults rose across the board by an hour during the UK spring lockdown.
Even before the pandemic, mobile media was an essential part of family life. Something 63% of toddlers aged three to four years used a tablet at home in 2019 – more than double what similar research found in 2013. In our previous studiesWe recorded daily use of touchscreen devices by children as young as six months of age.
Toddlers on tablets
Mobile touchscreen media such as smartphones and tablets are a common form of entertainment for infants and young children. However, there is growing concern that the use of touchscreens in young children could adversely affect their attention development.
The first years of life are crucial for children learn how to control their attentionSelect relevant information from the surrounding area while ignoring distractions. These early attention skills are known to promote later social and academic success. However, until recently there was no empirical scientific evidence to suggest a negative impact of touchscreen use on attention control.
In 2015 we have the TABLET project at the Birkbeck Center for Brain and Cognitive Development to see if such an association could exist. We tracked 53 year old infants with varied touchscreen use. We observed them in infancy (18 months) and up to pre-school age (three and a half years).
At each age, parents reported online how long their child spent daily with a touchscreen device (tablet, smartphone or touchscreen laptop). Families visited ours too Babylab complete a series of experimental evaluations with the research team. This included some computer tasks that used an eye tracker that allowed researchers to very accurately quantify what babies were looking at on a screen.
By measuring how quickly and how often toddlers look at objects that appear in different positions on the screen, we can understand how children controlled their attention. We were particularly interested in their “salient” attention (an automatic form of attention that allows us to react quickly to moving, bright, or colorful objects) and their “targeted” attention (a voluntary form of attention that helps us, us to concentrate on task-related things).
After collecting data for three years, we found that infants and toddlers with high levels of touchscreen usage had faster alertness. This means they could see new stimuli on the screen faster, like a cartoon lion suddenly appearing. This effect repeated and confirmed our results in an earlier study in 2020.
We then presented tasks in which toddlers were directly asked to suppress their attention and use voluntary attention instead. We found that with more touchscreen use, children were slower to control their attention and less likely to ignore distracting objects when trying to focus their attention on another target.
Our research is inconclusive and does not show a causal role for touchscreens. It could also be that more distractible children are more attracted and absorbed by the attention-grabbing features of interactive screens.
While touchscreens share similarities with TV and video games, our new research finds different associations with attention than before with these other media platforms. This suggests that touchscreens may have different effects on the developing brain than other screens.
Next, we’d like to do more research that might help us draw conclusions about the pros and cons of touchscreens for toddlers. While recognizing a new stimulus more quickly on a screen may seem a negative finding at first glance, it’s easy to imagine jobs and situations in which this skill could be incredibly useful – like air traffic control or airport security.
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In our increasingly complex audiovisual media environment, it could actually be useful to prepare young children for the digital technologies that allow them to learn, work and play. However, there is one potential downside to our findings: toddlers with heavy touchscreen use may find it more difficult to avoid distractions in busy environments like kindergarten classrooms.
Ana Maria Portugal, Postdoc, Center for Neurodevelopmental Disorders, Karolinska Institutet;; Rachael Bedford, Associate Professor, Institute for Psychology, Bath University, and Tim J. Smith, Professor, Institute for Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London