New Research on Toddlers and Touchscreens


As technology advances it is becoming more common to see younger and younger children using electronic devices in their everyday life. Much research has been done to observe the effects of these devices on adult attention span and eye strength and focus. However, as these devices are becoming a regular staple in most people’s lives many parents are beginning to question the effects on a child whose brain is still yet to fully develop. The early years of childhood are critical for later health and development. Research has shown that about 90% of brain growth occurs before kindergarten and although the brain does continue to develop and change into adulthood, the first few years are suggested to build the foundation of health, learning, and success.

jpkidsandcompany. Learning Begins at birth. (2019)

At present Birkbeck’s TABLET (Toddler Attentional Behaviors and Learning with Touchscreens) project is one of the few longitudinal studies being conducted to observe the effects of touchscreens on very young children. In conjunction with the TABLET project, researchers from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology used 12-month old toddlers recruited as part of the TABLET project for an adjacent study. This study aimed to investigate the debate around the impact of screen time on toddlers and their neurological development.

In order to collect data, researchers recruited 12-month-old infants, each having different levels of touchscreen usage, and followed them for 2.5 years prospectively. At recruitment, groups were matched on developmental level (Mullen Scales of Early Learning), age, sex, background TV (parent-reported minutes per day), and mother’s education. Participants were reassessed at 18-months and at 3.5-years. User groups were reassigned using the within-sample median of 15 minutes of touchscreen usage a day. During follow up toddlers took part in a computer task in which they were trained to search for a red apple amongst a varying number of blue apples (easy search), or blue and red apple slices (hard search). An eye tracker was used to monitor their gaze and reward participants when they found the red apple.

Results showed that both at 18-months and 3.5 years old, high touchscreen users were faster than the low users to find the red apple in the easy search. However, interestingly, there was no difference between groups in the harder search. This said, the real-world consequences such as a child’s ability to focus in class or on a task remain inconclusive but establishes a foundation for future studies within this field. Despite the study being inconclusive, longitudinal studies as such are limited, and little is known within this field. Researchers from the study have said that the next step moving forward in this study is to know whether this attention difference has a positive or negative effect on daily life.

Original Source: Portugal, A. M., et al. (2020). “Saliency-Driven Visual Search Performance in Toddlers With Low- vs High-Touch Screen Use.” JAMA Pediatr.

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