Touchscreens and Toddlers – What Do We Know?

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It’s hard to ignore digital technology today - it’s everywhere. Most households have a TV and since the release of the first iPad in 2010, we’ve seen production, ownership and use of touchscreens increase substantially. Recently, we’ve also seen the number of young children using touchscreens rise. Despite this, we don’t know much about how it influences their development, which this blog is going to explore.

Most research into young children’s technology use has been devoted to understanding how television viewing influences development. Generally, it suggests children’s television viewing can have a mixed influence. We know if TV is on in the background, it can diminish play. If content isn’t age-appropriate, we know there are negative associations with things like language learning. On the other hand, if children watch developmentally appropriate shows or are watching with their parents, TV isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can be beneficial.

However, watching TV isn’t the same as using touchscreens. Think about it. With TV, you sit and watch a show and you can’t directly interact with it. It’s quite a passive activity and we don’t have to think too much while we’re doing it. Instead, touchscreens require us to interact with it to work, react to our touch, and are portable and easier to tailor to our preferences compared to a TV. Touchscreens offer a different experience compared to TV, so could influence development differently.

Currently, there aren’t many studies examining the influence of touchscreens, but some recently published studies have started to explore this area more. One area of research is the transfer deficit, where toddlers experience difficulty transferring information from two-dimensional platforms, like screens, to three-dimensional objects. Researchers wanted to know whether interactivity influenced toddlers’ ability to transfer information learned from a screen to real-world objects. Toddlers aged between 23 and 36 months watched a video of someone naming objects through a tablet computer. The video would pause before the objects were shown and to continue, they were instructed to either touch anywhere on the screen, touch a specific point on the screen, or they were told to watch the video without any interaction. Once they had followed instructions and watched the video, they had to correctly identify the same object in the real-world. They found younger toddlers (24 to 27 months) learned best when they had to touch a specific point on the screen. The oldest toddlers (32 to 36 months) could transfer information whether or not they interacted with the screen. This study shows transferring information between screens and the real world improves with age. Additionally, if videos have some interactive elements, toddlers can transfer information from screens to the real-world earlier on.

Another study looked at the relationship between touchscreen use, language acquisition, fine motor development (small and precise physical movements, like grasping objects), and gross motor development (bigger movements, generally involving the whole body like walking). Researchers surveyed parents of children between 6 and 36 months and asked about the age their children first started using touchscreens and the ages they hit certain developmental milestones, such as their first word, sitting up, and stacking 3 or more blocks or other small objects. Although there were no relationships between technology use and language acquisition or gross motor development, they found that children who used touchscreens earlier could stack blocks earlier. The study provides insight into how touchscreens might relate to motor development. Because it’s correlational, we don’t know which way around it is. Could it be that early touchscreen use helps develop fine motor skills, or do children with better fine motor skills use touchscreens earlier? Further research is needed to answer this question, but it offers an interesting perspective on how touchscreens and children’s development could interact and influence each other.

We’re starting to see that young children can learn from tablets if there are interactive elements, and we also know there is a relationship between touchscreen use and fine motor control. But research has only just started to scratch the surface. That’s why we’re running our new survey, “Technology, learning, social skills, and play” for anyone with a child between 0 and 47 months. We want to know more about how children’s technology use and their non-digital activities relate to different developmental aspects including learning, social skills and play. We’ll be able to find out whether tablet use is linked to pretend play and whether it relates to how much young children seek novelty in their real-world settings. We want to hear from you whether or not your child is physically active yet, whatever country you’re from and whatever your child’s type of development. Just register or login on our homepage at babylovesscience.com.

 

We ask parents to complete the survey twice, 6 months apart. This will let us look at how technology affects development over time. For every parent who completes the survey at both time points, we will donate £2 to UNICEF.

 

 

  • Stephanie Powell is a PhD candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Sheffield, in England. Her research focuses on how technology affects creativity early on. Her PhD is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

 

References:

Anderson, D. R., & Pempek, T. A. (2005). Television and very young children. American Behavioral Scientist, 48(5), 505-522. doi:10.1177/0002764204271506

Bedford, R., de Urabain, I. R. S., Cheung, C. H. M., Karmiloff-Smith, A., & Smith, T. J. (2016). Toddlers' Fine Motor Milestone Achievement Is Associated with Early Touchscreen Scrolling. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01108

Christakis, D. A. (2014). Interactive Media Use at Younger Than the Age of 2 Years Time to Rethink the American Academy of Pediatrics Guideline? Jama Pediatrics, 168(5), 399-400. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.5081

Kirkorian, H. L., Choi, K., & Pempek, T. A. (2016). Toddlers' Word Learning From Contingent and Noncontingent Video on Touch Screens. Child Development, 87(2), 405-413. doi:10.1111/cdev.12508

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