Interested African American children using smartphone together at home, sitting near on couch, little preschooler girl holding phone in hands, small toddler boy looking into device, look at screen

Toddlers using touchscreens daily more easily distracted, study suggests

Image credit: Fizkes/Dreamstime

Toddlers with high daily touchscreen use are quicker to look at objects when they appear and are less able to resist distraction compared to toddlers with no or low touchscreen use, according to new research.

The research team – from Birkbeck, University of London, King’s College London, and the University of Bath – said the findings are important for the growing debate around the role of screen time on toddlers’ development, especially given the increased levels of screen time seen during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Professor Tim Smith, from Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, said: “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 learn how to control their attention and ignore distraction, early skills that are known to be important for later academic achievement.”

Smith, who is the lead researcher of the study, added: “There has been growing concern that toddler touchscreen use may negatively impact their developing attention but previously there was no empirical evidence to support this.”

To provide such evidence, Smith’s TABLET Project recruited 12-month-old infants who had different levels of touchscreen usage. The study followed them over the next two and half years, bringing them into the lab three times, at 12 months, 18 months, and three and a half years.

During each visit, the toddlers took part in computer tasks with an eye-tracker to measure their attention. Objects appeared in different screen locations. How quickly toddlers looked at the objects and how well they could ignore distracting objects were measured.

“We found that infants and toddlers with high touchscreen use were faster to look at objects when they appeared and were less able to ignore distracting objects compared to the low users,” Smith explained.

Dr Ana Maria Portugal, also part of the TABLET Project, added: “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.”

Meanwhile, co-investigator Dr Rachael Bedford from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath said what the team wants to know next is how the 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?” she added.

Founded in 1998, the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birbeck is one of the world’s leading centres for studying the way in which babies and young children’s brains develop.

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