Touchscreens may increase your toddler’s attention span, finds new study

Parents don’t really think much about it when their young kids play with their phones and tablets – it’s become the norm for most parents around the world to keep the kids distracted with screen time when they need to make dinner or get other chores done around the house. However, this has fuelled a growing concern that this may have a negative effect on our children’s development, especially their ability to focus their attention on relevant information and ignore distraction. These are early skills that are known to be important for later academic achievement.

But an interesting new study, published in the American medical journal, Pediatrics, has found that toddlers with high daily touchscreen use are faster to find targets that stand out compared to toddlers with no or low touchscreen use.

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

In the study, researchers from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology in the UK, recruited 12-month old kids who had different levels of touchscreen use. Following them over a period of two-and-a-half years, the toddlers were brought into the lab to take part in a computer task at the age of 18-months and again at the age of three-and-a-half years.

In the tests, the toddlers were asked to first find a red apple between a number of blue apples, and then, in a more difficult search, to find the blue apples and red apple slices.

An eye tracker was used to monitor their gaze and they were visually rewarded when they found the required apples. This allowed them to perform the task even though they were too little to actually describe what they were doing.

“We found that at both 18 months and 3.5 years, the high touchscreen users were faster than the low screen users to find the red apple when it stood out amongst the blue apples,” said Dr Bedford. “There was no difference between the groups when the apple was harder to find.”

She reported that the next step will be to find out whether this attention difference is to their advantage or detrimental to their everyday life. “It’s important that we understand how to use this modern technology in any way that maximises benefits and minimises any negative consequences.”

Dr Ana Maria Portugal, the main researcher on the project pointed out that they were unable to conclude 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.”

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