Toddlers & Touchscreens

#freshfromthelab. In a blog post back in December, we presented some of the exciting early findings of the TABLET (Toddler Attentional Behaviours and Learning with Touchscreens) project, which aims to investigate the link between early touchscreen use and later childhood development. Today, Ana Maria Portugal, third-year PhD student who has been running the project at the CBCD, talks us through some of the methods she has been using to investigate the effects of screen time on our little ones.

As we mentioned in our previous TABLET post, the age of access to screens is rapidly decreasing – in 2015 already 58% of 5-20-month-olds were using a touchscreen! Funny videos (such as this one) of babies trying to drag or swipe faces in magazines are popping up all over the internet. So, with screens now making up a key part of babies’ sensory environments, it’s no surprise that parents are beginning to question whether they are having a positive or negative impact. Unfortunately, the lack of rigorous research in this field fails to offer any definitive answers. Some researchers have linked TV-watching with ADHD-related behaviours, such as hyperactivity and poor self-regulation, whereas others have argued there are positive associations between action video-gaming and visual processing, suggesting that gamers are more flexible and generally better at allocating their attention.

The TABLET project aims to address this debate by looking at how touchscreen use (i.e. the use of tablets or smartphones) early in life is associated with things like attention and executive functions (or brain control processes) in the lab. One of the tasks researchers used to investigate this was the ‘visual search’ task. This involved getting toddlers who were high and low users of touchscreens to search for a ‘target’ apple on-screen using just their eyes. In the scenario on the right, there were lots of distractors (including objects either of the same colour or shape as the ‘target’ apple) so this little girl would need to use what is known as ‘top-down attentional control’ to carefully filter out the meaningful target from the many distractors in the scene. In another scenario, the infants were presented with a simple scene with only one type of distractor (e.g. only blue apples). In order to find the ‘target’ apple in this type of scene, they would need to use what is known as ‘bottom-up attention’ to quickly locate the popping-out target in the scene with their eyes (click here for more in-depth information on bottom-up and top-down attention).

Researchers on the TABLET project haven’t just been using eye-tracking to explore the effects of screen time on child development. Ana has also been using a number of ‘real-world’ tasks to assess how early touchscreen use affects children’s executive functions. The toddlers had to patiently wait for increasing periods of time for Ana to ring a bell before getting a treat, to retrieve smarties from a transparent puzzle box, to do a treasure hunt with Ana and to sort cards by adapting to a change of rules. As well as inhibiting previous unsuccessful strategies and automatic responses, children had to come up with many different solutions and monitor their own performance!

By assessing these differences in attention and executive functions across high and low users of touchscreens, researchers on the TABLET project are beginning to shed some light on whether touchscreens are having a positive or negative impact on child development. Published research from the project suggests that there are some positive associations between touchscreen use and the development of fine motor skills (click here to read the paper) but negative associations between touchscreen use and sleep (click here to read the paper). This clearly suggests that more research is needed to explore the nature of the relationship between touchscreen use and developmental outcomes. It’s likely that touchscreens are not solely ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but that they sit somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, boosting some aspects of child development and displacing others.

Keep your eyes peeled for more TABLET study results on the blog and for more information on child screen time visit the TABLET project twitter page.

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