Toddlers who frequently use touchscreens are faster at finding visual targets

baby touchscreens

Toddlers who frequently use touchscreens use are faster to find targets during visual searches, according to new research.

The researchers say these findings are important for the growing debate around the impact of screen time on toddlers’ development.

The study recruited 56 12-month-old infants who had different levels of using touchscreens. The researchers followed up on 49 of these infants at 18 months, and 46 of them at 3.5 years.

Find-the-apples task

At the 18-month and 3.5-year visits, the toddlers took part in a computer task that trained them to search for a red apple on the screen.

The red apple was placed among either blue apples (easy), or blue apples and red apple slices (difficult). An eye tracker monitored their gaze, and visually rewarded the child when they found the red apple. This method allowed them to perform the task even though they were too young to verbally describe what they were doing.

“The use of smartphones and tablets by babies and toddlers has accelerated rapidly in recent years,” said lead researcher Tim Smith, of Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development. “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,” he added, “that toddler touchscreen use may negatively impact their developing attention, but this fear is not based on empirical evidence.”

Toddlers with touchscreens faster at task

And what did the results show? “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,” said co-investigator Rachael Bedford. There was no difference between the user groups when the apple was harder to find.

The researchers cannot definitively prove that using touchscreens is what caused the differences in attention. Perhaps children who are generally more attracted to bright, colourful features seek out touchscreen devices more than those who are not.

Finding the apples faster doesn’t necessarily mean better. “What we need to know next is whether this attention difference is advantageous or detrimental to their everyday life,” Prof. Bedford said. “It is important we understand how to use this modern technology in a way that maximizes benefits and minimizes any negative consequences.”

Study: Saliency-driven visual search performance in toddlers with low – vs high- touch screen use
Authors: Ana Maria Portugal, Rachael Bedford, Celeste H. M. Cheung, et al.
Published in: Journal of the American Medical Association-Pediatrics
Publication date: September 8, 2020
DOI: https://10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.2344
Photo: by Alexander Dummer via Unsplash

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