The iPad Generation

Science: Dr Tim Smith on the irresistible allure of screens: Is touchscreen use impacting child development?


Dr Tim Smith is a faculty member at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) at Birkbeck University. Last March, he gave a captivating talk discussing the findings of the TABLET (Toddler Attentional Behaviours and LEarning with Touchscreens) project– a project which aims to investigate the associations between touchscreen use in 6 to 36-month-old children and a range of developmental outcomes. Today, Megan and Ana (both part of the TABLET team) report on his talk.


Tim started off by acknowledging that, since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, the way in which we use screens has changed dramatically. No longer tied down to desk computers, we can access the internet 24 hours of the day using handheld devices. This might explain why 64% of our waking lives are now spent engaging with a screen! But, it’s not just adults being drawn in by the magnetism of screens. The interactive nature of touchscreens makes them accessible to almost everyone and, with the age of access to screens decreasing, we are beginning to question the impact they may be having on our little ones.


The topic of screen time has been hotly debated in the media, inspiring controversial statements which tend to lack a scientific basis. Unsurprisingly, the uncertainty surrounding the effects of screen time has left many parents searching for answers and led policymakers to adopt a more conservative approach. The American Pediatric Association guidelines, for instance, advise zero-screen-time for children under 18 months.


But there are screens everywhere - in parents’ pockets, in the family home, sometimes even in the nursery or restaurants - making the zero-screen-time policy entirely unrealistic. TABLET’s statistics actually say that about 75% of children under 3 are daily users of touchscreens and 10% have their own touchscreen. Duration of use increases with age, from 10 minutes a day before 12 months to 45 minutes a day at 2-3yrs (read more about our findings here). Similar high-use statistics have been shown in France, Northern Ireland and the USA.


Despite the media backlash, the intuitive interface of the touchscreen offers toddlers cognitive and sensory stimulation. With screens now a significant part of our children’s sensory environments, it is important to discuss the positive and negative impacts they may be having.


One line of research which holds some answers is about TV exposure. This tends to suggest that passive screen time has a negative impact, with one hypothesis stating that the more time a child spends watching a screen, the less time they spend exploring their environment or interacting with others. As such, they could be missing out on vital opportunities to develop language and social or emotional skills. Another theory concerns the flashing, noisy and fast-paced nature of the images on-screen. This fast flow of information could familiarize children with a high level of arousal and has been linked to attention problems, hyperactivity and poor emotional regulation. Another hypothesis argues that the ‘blue light’ which is constantly emitted by screens impacts the sleep-wake cycle, and consequently children’s sleep routines. However, this research is still in its relatively early stages and the truth is that we just don’t know what impact screen time is having - it could be that screen time actually has no direct impact on child development and that these negative results are explained by other factors, like the child’s temperament or family dynamics.


Most of the research surrounding screen time is specific to TV usage rather than the use of interactive touchscreens. Research concerning other mediums has highlighted the positive impact of screen time. For instance, content which is both developmentally and educationally appropriate has been shown to help children learn objects, events, and language, and research into the impact of video games suggests that playing them can increase performance in visual processing.


The TABLET project was started back in 2015 when Tim, Dr Rachael Bedford and Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith noticed many inconsistencies and unanswered questions in the literature surrounding touchscreen usage. The project aims to address the controversial media claims using a large population of 715 UK parents, who filled out online questionnaires about their child’s touchscreen usage. Tim, Rachael, and Annette were particularly interested in how touchscreen use relates to early developmental milestones, sleep habits and temperament.


The questionnaire asked parents to report the age their kids achieved milestones, such as when they first crawled, stacked blocks or said their first word. In the study, earlier touchscreen use was associated with earlier achievements of fine motor precise movement coordination) skills, such as those needed for stacking blocks. Importantly, this association was only found for ‘active’ use of the touchscreen – when the child was scrolling rather than simply looking at a screen (read more about fine motor achievement and touchscreen use here).


Parents also filled out a brief sleep questionnaire to determine the effect of screen time on sleep. Touchscreen use was associated with less sleep at night, more sleep in the day and a longer time to fall asleep (read more about sleep and touchscreen use here). This may be due to the ‘blue light’ that devices emit, which has been shown to impact sleep-wake cycles, keeping children awake at night.


The questionnaire findings of the TABLET study could not address the popular assumption that child attention span is influenced by time spent using electronic devices. To address this, a smaller sample has been invited to Birkbeck’s Babylab, where we expect to gain more fine-grained results on the associations between early touchscreen use and attentional control. Keep an eye out on the blog for more TABLET findings in the New Year!


As the results of the TABLET project show, screen time may be having both positive and negative influences on our children’s development. Although touchscreen use has been associated with disruption to sleep-wake cycles, it has also been linked with the earlier fine motor achievement for stacking blocks. But, with child screen time becoming the norm and no longer the exception, it is important to acknowledge that there is not yet enough evidence on the topic to reliably inform practice. Hence why Rachael and Tim have developed a public engagement project to help establish a two-way dialogue with parents and early-years practitioners. Their aim is to disseminate research on child screen time to parents, as well as finding out more about how parents feel towards touchscreen use.


For more information on child screen time visit the TABLET project twitter page!


Authors: Megan Tongs and Ana Portugal

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