Screen time GOOD for toddlers? Digital devices may strengthen attention in young kids, study says

BATH, England — It’s increasingly common these days for the parents of young children and toddlers to have concerns about introducing their kids to modern smartphones, tablets, and other touchscreen devices. Surprisingly, however, a new study finds all that screen time may actually be beneficial for certain aspects of toddlers’ attention spans and ability to block out distractions.

In an experiment, toddlers who had used touchscreen devices more often were much faster at picking out targeted objects that stood out visually.

The study’s authors, a team of researchers from the University of Bath, believe their findings provide a much needed different perspective when it comes to the use of modern technology and young children. Doctors, parents, and pundits typically believe these gadgets only serve to harm children’s development. The research team, however, says there really isn’t all that much scientific evidence to support that stance.

“The use of smartphones and tablets by babies and toddlers has accelerated rapidly in recent years. The first few years of life are critical for children to develop the ability to focus their attention on relevant information and ignore distraction, early skills that are known to be important for later academic achievement. There has been growing concern that toddler touchscreen use may negatively impact their developing attention but this fear is not based on empirical evidence,” comments lead researcher Professor Tim Smith, from Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, in a release.

Measuring attention span as children age

A group of 12-month old toddlers were gathered together for this research. The children had varying levels of touchscreen experience at that point in their young lives.

Then, each toddler was tracked over the following three-and-a-half years. At the 18-month mark, and then again after a full 3.5 years, the toddlers were evaluated with an attention span assessment. The test consists of two tasks, with the first being easier than the second. The first asks the toddlers to pick out a red apple among a group of blue apples. The second entails finding red apples amidst a collection of red apple slices and blue apples.

While the kids perform these tasks, an eye tracker keeps tabs on their gaze and provides visual rewards whenever a child correctly identified a red apple.

“We found that at both 18 months and 3.5 years the high touchscreen users were faster than the low users to find the red apple when it stood out amongst blue apples. There was no difference between the user groups when the apple was harder to find,” co-study author Dr. Rachael Bedford of the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology comments. “What we need to know next is whether this attention difference is advantageous or detrimental to their everyday life. It is important we understand how to use this modern technology in a way that maximizes benefits and minimizes any negative consequences.”

Screen time not the end of the world

So, while it may seem that giving a toddler an iPad to kill some time could be a bad idea, the authors suggest it won’t turn kids into zombies.

“We are currently unable to conclude that the touchscreen use caused the differences in attention as it may also be that children who are generally more attracted to bright, colourful features seek out touchscreen devices more than those who are not,” main researcher Dr. Ana Maria Portugal concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Pediatrics.

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