The Trouble with Toddlers and Touchscreens

Tablet-style touchscreens first became popular in 2010 when Apple released the first iPad, and people were fascinated; these touchscreen devices seemed so versatile and useful – people of all ages could use them, and even babies and young kids could navigate the internet with their fingers. Touchscreens became really popular, and their potential for education began to stir up interest in worldwide teaching and tech communities. By March 2018 it was clear humans thought iPads were part of the future of learning; Apple reported that since 2010, over 180, 000 apps had been developed for educational purposes. 

There have been many studies highlighting the benefits of these touchscreen devices for children’s learning and development, including one that showed touchscreen apps can help children learn how to tell the time. 

However, there has been relatively little research so far into the potential negative effects of these rapidly-responsive screens, on growing human beings. Last month a team of researchers from the University of Bath, King’s College London, and Birkbeck, University of London published some new research that pointed out some of the worrying effects these devices could have on young toddlers. 

Do Screens Lower Attention Span?

This research found through studying a group of 40 toddlers, that those with high daily touchscreen usage appeared to have less ability to resist distractions when they appeared on a working screen, than toddlers with comparatively lower, or no use of touchscreens, at all. 

Importantly, one key project  researcher, Dr Ana Maria Portugal emphasised, “We are currently unable to conclude that the touchscreen use caused the differences in attention as it could also be that children who are more distractible may be more attracted to the attention-grabbing features of touchscreen devices than those who are not.”

Therefore, more research is needed to determine the angels and devils of touchscreens. Future investigations need to find if a difference in touchscreen usage really caused this difference in attention span, and need to determine if paying these “distractions” attention means these kids will find it difficult to concentrate on other non-virtual tasks. Or could it be that this averted focus to distractions is a positive adaptation, allowing these children to multitask better in our now increasingly virtually-run world. 

Dr Rachael Bedford, from the  University of Bath’s  Psychology Department suggested, “What we need to know next is how this pattern of increased looking to distracting objects on screens relates to attention in the real-world: is it a positive sign that the children have adapted to the multitasking demands of their complex everyday environment or does it relate to difficulties during tasks that require concentration?”. 

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These researchers pointed to the importance of these interesting results and the need for further investigation in light of the imminent debate surrounding child development and screen time. These findings are especially relevant during the current pandemic; people of all ages, including developing kids, are operating at much higher levels of screen time every day for school, paid work and recreation, such as scrolling through YouTube, binging a Netflix show or using an educational app like Duolingo (which is actually a pretty fun app even though the bird sends you millions of emails). 

Touchscreens and Sleep

Sleep plays a lead role in how children’s’ brains develop, and especially in how well a child’s brain can absorb new information. When people, but particularly kids, absorb information or learn new things, they form new connections in their brain between cells called neurons. When children get optimal sleep, they are much better able to form these connections, and so are more able to learn. The ability to reform these connections is called synaptic plasticity. Synaptic plasticity is so cool because it shows that when people learn a new skill their brain connections evolve, for example one study showed that the brains of London taxi drivers have a bigger hippocampus than other people, which is a key brain region involved in navigation and memory. 

Human brains have the most synaptic plasticity when in infancy and toddlerhood, which may be why children can pick up languages so easily compared to adults. Their brains are just like big information sponges! 

It is thought between 20-30% of young kids have sleep issues and it has been well documented in the recent years of TV and video-game popularity, that heavy screen usage makes it harder to sleep. More recently, post touchscreen-invention, the blue light from screens, and the temptation to play on tablets at bedtime has had impacts on the regularity of toddler sleeping patterns. This may have bigger impacts in the long term on children’s ability to soak up new information during the day.

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One study also suggested that heavy screen use, especially for those under five, can become a problem if it replaces or impacts the parent-child relationship, which is really important for the forms of brain development that kids can’t do independently with a screen. 

Hopefully more research will help clarify the extent of the fun, but also the worrying impacts of these revolutionary devices for our toddlers in the future.

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    Emma Monaghan

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