Tim J. Smith, Ph.D., & Irati R. Saez de Urabain, Ph.D., guest contributors
Should you let your toddler use an iPad?
This is a question that has probably crossed the mind of many recent parents given the sudden increase in touchscreen devices (such as tablets, smartphones and touchscreen laptops) in our lives. According to a recent survey, family ownership of touchscreens has increased from 7% in 2011 to 71% in 2014 (OfCom, 2014).
The enthusiasm with which children use these devices is evident to any parent, but so far developmental science has been slow to investigate in a detailed manner the relationship between tablet use and cognitive development. Much of the current response to this issue by news organizations or charities is either scaremongering (New York Times) or recommendations for parents to highly moderate use and be very selective of content (National Association for the Education of Young Children) or to avoid exposure to screen-based media completely before 2 years of age (American Academy of Pediatrics). However, these responses are not informed by any scientific evidence about the impact of touchscreen use on toddler development.
Why might touchscreens influence cognitive development?
Touchscreens offer an intuitive interface which enable toddlers to gain intense contingent sensory stimulation during a peak period of neural development and at an age when the relatively immature motor and linguistic systems have previously limited cognitive stimulation. For example, infants are able to tap and swipe a screen before they have fully developed fine motor control (Cristia & Seidl, 2015). The variety, frequency and complexity of the contingent responses the child can get from touchscreen devices also far exceeds anything a traditional physical toy can provide and may generate heightened levels of cognitive activity. The combination of rewarding interaction with varied sensory and cognitive stimulation could potentially have both positive and negative impacts on cognitive development.
What research has already been done into the impact of touchscreen usage?
Given that the Apple iPad was only introduced five years ago, touchscreens have been a relatively recent introduction into the media environment of children. In older children, actively playing video games has been shown to predict enhanced visual processing, attention and motor control (Green & Bavelier, 2008) whilst passive viewing of television has been related to a decrease in language ability (although this effect disappears when the socioeconomic status of the family is taken into account; Schmidt et al, 2009). The same is likely to be the case with touchscreens. Passive video viewing on a tablet may lead to less cognitive stimulation than an “app” developed according to educational and developmentally-informed principles of learning (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015) or one that fosters collaborative use or sharing with a peer or parent. However, empirical evidence of these relationships is currently lacking.
The Leverhulme Trust-funded TABLET (Toddler Attentional Behaviours and Learning with Touchscreens) project is the first scientific study to investigate how 6 month to 3 year old infants are using touchscreen devices and how this use (or lack of use) is influencing their cognitive, brain and social development. The project is taking place both on-line, via short questionnaires and at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (otherwise known as the ‘Babylab’) at Birkbeck, University of London, a pioneering research centre that uses cutting-edge neuroscientific methods to investigate infant development. Parents can contribute to the research by filling in a short (20 minute) questionnaire about their child’s development, media use and sleeping habits here:
So, should you give your toddler an iPad? The jury is still out. But in a world where touchscreens are becoming ever more ubiquitous, the need for scientifically informed policy is critical.
Cristia A, Seidl A (2015) Parental Reports on Touch Screen Use in Early Childhood. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0128338. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128338
Green, C.S. & Bavelier, D. (2008). Exercising your brain: A review of human brain plasticity and training induced learning. Psychology and Aging, 23(4), 692-701
Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting Education in “Educational” Apps Lessons From the Science of Learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(1), 3-34.
Schmidt, M.E., and Anderson, D.A. (2007). The impact of television on cogni- tive development and educational achievement. In Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research, N.O. Pecora, J.P. Murray, and E. Wartella, eds. (Mah- wah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates).