Touchscreens May Boost Motor Skills in Toddlers

Summary: According to a new study, the use of touchscreens by toddlers is linked to an increase in fine motor control.

Source: Frontiers.

Does your toddler use a touchscreen tablet? A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology has shown that early touchscreen use, and in particular actively scrolling the screen, correlates with increased fine motor control in toddlers.

Smartphones and tablets are now commonplace at work and in the home. If you are reading this on your morning commute on public transport, it is likely to be on a touchscreen device, while surrounded by people who are completely absorbed by their own touchscreens.

There has been a dramatic increase in the ownership and use of tablets and smartphones in recent years. In the UK, family ownership of touchscreen devices increased from 7% in 2011 to 71% in 2014. It is therefore not surprising that children are using touchscreens from a very early age, but is this a good thing or not?

The effects of using touchscreens on young children are a concern for some parents and policymakers. Popular opinion holds that using touchscreens at an early age is likely to delay the cognitive development of children. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children should not be exposed to any screens, including touchscreens, before the age of two, and similar agencies in other countries have adopted these guidelines.

However, we don’t yet know if these fears are justified, as it turns out that when it comes to touchscreens, they aren’t backed by hard data. The current guidelines are arguably more of a knee-jerk reaction to a new technology than an informed health strategy.

Scientists have not yet extensively studied the relationship between childhood development and using touchscreens, because the technology is still so new and the children that have used it from early childhood are still very young.

Despite the guidelines, in reality many toddlers use touchscreens from a very early age. Dr Tim J Smith of Birbeck, University of London, realized that there is a need for more solid data and with the help of his collaborators at King’s College, set up an online survey for UK parents to answer questions about their children’s touchscreen use.

This included questions about whether the toddlers used touchscreens, when they first used one, and how often and how long they use them. The survey also included specific questions to assess the development of the children, such as the age that they first stacked blocks, which indicates fine motor skills, or the age they first used two-word sentences, which indicates language development.

Image shows a little girl playing with a tablet.
Younger use of touchscreens by toddlers correlates with increased fine motor control. Neurosciencenews image is adapted from the Frontiers press release.

In total, 715 families responded and the study confirmed that using touchscreens is extremely common in UK toddlers. “The study showed that the majority of toddlers have daily exposure to touchscreen devices, increasing from 51.22% at 6–11 months to 92.05% at 19–36 months,” explained Dr Smith.

They found no significant associations between using touchscreens and either walking or language development. However, “in toddlers aged 19–36 months, we found that the age that parents reported their child first actively scrolling a touchscreen was positively associated with the age that they were first able to stack blocks, a measure of fine motor control.”

It is not yet known if this correlation indicates that using touchscreens can enhance fine motor skills, or if children with fine motor skills are more likely to use touchscreens earlier, and so further work is required to determine the nature of this relationship more precisely. However, it is clear that the current generation of toddlers is adapting rapidly to this new technology and these children look set to use these devices throughout their lives.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Conn Hastings – Frontiers
Image Source: This image is adapted from the Frontiers press release.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Toddlers’ Fine Motor Milestone Achievement Is Associated with Early Touchscreen Scrolling” by Rachael Bedford, Irati R. Saez de Urabain, Celeste H. M. Cheung, Annette Karmiloff-Smith and Tim J. Smith in Frontiers in Psychology. Published online August 2 2016 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01108

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Frontiers. “Touchscreens May Boost Motor Skills in Toddlers.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 13 September 2016.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Frontiers. (2016, September 13). Touchscreens May Boost Motor Skills in Toddlers. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved September 13, 2016 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Frontiers. “Touchscreens May Boost Motor Skills in Toddlers.” (accessed September 13, 2016).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Toddlers’ Fine Motor Milestone Achievement Is Associated with Early Touchscreen Scrolling

Touchscreen technologies provide an intuitive and attractive source of sensory/cognitive stimulation for young children. Despite fears that usage may have a negative impact on toddlers’ cognitive development, empirical evidence is lacking. The current study presents results from the UK Toddler Attentional Behaviours and LEarning with Touchscreens (TABLET) project, examining the association between toddlers’ touchscreen use and the attainment of developmental milestones. Data were gathered in an online survey of 715 parents of 6- to 36-month-olds to address two research questions: (1) How does touchscreen use change from 6 to 36 months? (2) In toddlers (19–36 months, i.e., above the median age, n = 366), how does retrospectively reported age of first touchscreen usage relate to gross motor (i.e., walking), fine motor (i.e., stacking blocks), and language (i.e., producing two-word utterances) milestones? In our sample, the proportion of children using touchscreens, as well as the average daily usage time, increased with age (youngest quartile, 6–11 months: 51.22% users, 8.53 min per day; oldest quartile, 26–36 months: 92.05% users, average use of 43.95 min per day). In toddlers, aged 19–36 months, age of first touchscreen use was significantly associated with fine motor (stacking blocks), p = 0.03, after controlling for covariates age, sex, mother’s education (a proxy for socioeconomic status) as well as age of early fine motor milestone achievement (pincer grip). This effect was only present for active scrolling of the touchscreen p = 0.04, not for video watching. No significant relationships were found between touchscreen use and either gross motor or language milestones. Touchscreen use increases rapidly over the first 3 years of life. In the current study, we find no evidence to support a negative association between the age of first touchscreen usage and developmental milestones. Indeed, earlier touchscreen use, specifically scrolling of the screen, was associated with earlier fine motor achievement. Future longitudinal studies are required to elucidate the temporal order and mechanisms of this association, and to examine the impact of touchscreen use on other, more fine-grained, measures of behavioral, cognitive, and neural development.

“Toddlers’ Fine Motor Milestone Achievement Is Associated with Early Touchscreen Scrolling” by Rachael Bedford, Irati R. Saez de Urabain, Celeste H. M. Cheung, Annette Karmiloff-Smith and Tim J. Smith in Frontiers in Psychology. Published online August 2 2016 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01108

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