Toddlers Who Use Touchscreens Show Attention Differences

Summary: Toddlers who frequently use touchscreen technology may have an edge over their peers who are not routinely exposed to the technology when it comes to visual search abilities.

Source: University of Bath

Toddlers with high daily touchscreen use are faster to find targets that stood out during visual search compared to toddlers with no or low touchscreen use – according to new research.

The research team, co-led by Dr Rachael Bedford of the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology, say the findings are important for the growing debate around the impact of screen time on toddlers and their development.

Lead researcher 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 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.”

To provide such evidence, Professor Smith’s TABLET Project, at Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, recruited 12-month-old infants who had different levels of touchscreen usage.

The study followed them over the next 2.5 years, bringing them into the lab at 18 months and 3.5 years. At the 18-month and 3.5-year visits, toddlers took part in a computer task in which they were trained to search for a red apple amongst a varying number of either blue apples (easy search), or blue apples and red apple slices (difficult search). An eye tracker monitored their gaze and visually rewarded the child when they found the red apple, allowing them to perform the task even though they were too young to verbally describe what they were doing.

This shows a toddler with a tablet
The research from the TABLET Project looked at the impact of infants’ screen time. Image is credited to University of Bath.

Co-investigator Dr Bedford commented: “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. 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.”

Dr Ana Maria Portugal, main researcher on the project points out “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.”

Funding: This research was funded by Leverhulme Trust, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and Wellcome Trust.

About this genetics research article

University of Bath
Andy Dunne – University of Bath
Image Source:
The image is credited to University of Bath.

Original Research: Open access
“Saliency-Driven Visual Search Performance in Toddlers With Low– vs High–Touch Screen Use” by Ana Maria Portugal, PhD; Rachael Bedford, PhD; Celeste H. M. Cheung, PhD; Teodora Gliga, PhD; Tim J. Smith, PhD. JAMA Pediatrics.


Saliency-Driven Visual Search Performance in Toddlers With Low– vs High–Touch Screen Use

During toddlerhood, a peak period of neurocognitive development, increased exposure to sensory stimulation through touch screen use, may influence developing attentional control. While TV’s rapidly changing, noncontingent flow of sensory information has been hypothesized to lead to difficulties voluntarily focusing attention, video gaming’s contingent and cognitively demanding sensory environments may improve visual processing and attention. Toddler touch screen use involves both exogenous attention, driven by salient audio-visual features, and endogenous/voluntary control, eg, video selection and app use.

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