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Do Touchscreens Make Toddlers More Distractible?

Toddler touchscreens

Key Takeaways

  • Toddlers who use touchscreens frequently may be more distractible.
  • Distractibility has both benefits and disadvantages.
  • Children can be encouraged to focus with simple techniques.

Since 2015, touchscreen use in toddlers has increased dramatically. The increase is even more pronounced since COVID-19 lockdowns. Acknowledging this trend, researchers from Birbeck University in London sought to uncover what impact this may be having on toddler brain development.

Researchers found that toddlers with high screen use had a harder time avoiding distractions while trying to complete a task on a screen compared to young kids with low screen usage. However, they also found that the kids used to more screen time had faster response times when it came to noticing flashy objects that showed up on the tablet.

Lead author Dr Ana Portugal says “Mobile touchscreen media is an integral part of family life, but it is also something that parents worry a lot about, even though there is a lack of empirical evidence to support any fears or hype. So, we decided to carry out a study to investigate the associations between touchscreen use early in life and cognitive development.”

What the Study Showed

The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports followed 40 children 12 months to 3.5 years to assess the impact of touchscreen use on the developing toddler brain.

Parents reported the amount of time children spent on touchscreens. Children were then classified as high users or low users based on being above or below the median time frame reported.

Dr Ana Portugal, PhD.

Mobile touchscreen media is an integral part of family life, but it is also something that parents worry a lot about, even though there is a lack of empirical evidence to support any fears or hype.

— Dr Ana Portugal, PhD.

At each of the three research reviews (12 months, 18 months, and 3.5 years of age) children were shown images on a computer screen. Their eye movements were tracked in response to stimuli that appeared on the screen.

Depending on the speed and frequency of what the children looked at, researchers could determine if they were responding automatically to stimuli or responding voluntarily in anticipation. They could also determine if children were reacting due to external factors or internal factors.

Results showed that children who were high users of touchscreen had faster reflexes to respond to distracting stimuli. However, they had less voluntary control over where they looked and what they looked at. 

“We cannot say that touchscreen use caused the differences in attention and distractibility as it could also be that children with certain attention profiles are more attracted to touchscreens.” Explains Portugal.

What This Means for You

The results indicate that toddlers who have high touchscreen use may be more distractible than those with lower use. However, the authors suggest that parents need not be concerned about these results.

The study does not show that touchscreens directly cause distractibility, it simply shows that there is some sort of link between high touchscreen use and distractibility.

Why Distractibility Isn’t as Bad as it Sounds

Many people envision a distractible child as one who cannot focus on a task and is easily side-tracked by the next interesting thing. Although this can be a challenge when you are trying to keep children focused on schoolwork or keep a toddler still enough to get their shoes on, it’s not all bad.

As life around us increasingly incorporates screen use, the ability to notice newly emerging stimuli on a screen might be beneficial. For example, microsurgery is often performed using a computer screen and robotic instruments. Whilst the surgeon is focused on the microsurgical site, an occurrence in the corner of the screen could be detrimental if not noticed quickly.

Study authors also provide the example of an air traffic controller. Where being able to shift attention quickly to occurrences on screen is not only beneficial but vital for the role.

How to Help Kids Focus When They Need To

Despite the potential benefits of distractibility, there are many situations in life that require toddlers to focus at least for a little while. Perhaps you need to get through a meeting at the bank, or simply have your child sit still long enough to have a haircut, or do some groceries.

Dr Stacey Haynes, Ed.D, LPC, ACS

Great ways to keep toddlers focused are really old-fashioned and simple.

— Dr Stacey Haynes, Ed.D, LPC, ACS

Counselling Psychologist Dr Stacey Haynes is specialized in working with children and families. She provides some tips for parents to help toddlers to focus.

 “Great ways to keep toddlers focused are really old-fashioned and simple.” Says Haynes.

She suggests the following:

  •  Fidgets - these can be small toys, Legos, twisty toys in their hands. Anything that allows them to stay where they are and have movement.
  • Teaching children to thumb wrestle - Moving only their hands to thumb wrestle with their own thumbs.
  • Giving them coloring items - Restaurants have handed out coloring pages for years for children.  
  • Practice sitting still - Use a timer at home and practice with your child sitting for longer periods of time.
  • Sit with them - Many children struggle to complete activities by themselves. Make sure you are working with them if they need to focus.
  • Give breaks - None of us can sit forever. Allowing a child to stand shake off the wiggles and sit back down will help them to sit for longer periods of time.

What's Next?

Researchers admit that this touchscreen research is only the beginning. “I would like parents and carers to understand that the science about touchscreen use is still in the early days,” explains Portugal. “We can't say whether the associations we found are conclusively positive or negative, as there are many more questions that need to be addressed.”

Researchers aim to continue looking at this topic to assess any positive or negative consequences of touch screen use, as well as any causal effect. Portugal says that “...a causal association is still to be demonstrated, and in reality, the development of a child is much more complex and involve many [more]  factors [than touchscreens alone].”

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Article Sources
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  1. Ofcom. Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report 2019. Published February 4, 2020.

  2. Portugal AM, Bedford R, Cheung CHM, Mason L, Smith TJ. Longitudinal touchscreen use across early development is associated with faster exogenous and reduced endogenous attention control. Sci Rep. 2021;11(1):2205. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-81775-7