Toddlers and Tablets: What Does the Research Say?
Three-year-old Jason loved his iPad. He could make colorful, interesting things come alive on the screen just by touching them! Dragons flew through the air, kittens appeared and disappeared, and kangaroos jumped around! Time just flew by when he played, completely engrossed in that fascinating world.
But his mom wasn’t so certain this was a good thing. Sure, it gave her some breathing space—time to get things done while Jason played quietly where she could keep an eye on him. But what if I’m harming my son by letting him play with a powerful electronic device when he’s so young? she wondered.
Jason’s mom is right to be concerned. The toddler years are critical for children to learn how to control and direct their attention. These early attention skills are crucial for later social and academic success. Technology introduces children to amazing virtual worlds in ways that grab the child’s attention and keep it there.
But recent research can allay some of these concerns. It turns out that touch screen tablets can promote the development of these skills—if they’re used in the right way.
Recent Research on Infant and Toddler Touchscreen Use
In 2015, researchers at University College-London’s Birkbeck Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development started a TABLET project to investigate the impact of touch screen tablet use on a toddler’s attention skills. They followed 53 one-year-old infants for three years from toddlerhood (18 months) and up to preschool age (three-and-a-half years). The researchers used an eye-tracker on some tasks which enabled them to measure precisely what the toddlers were looking at on the screen.
The Benefits and Downsides of Toddler Touchscreen Use
The results showed clearly that infants and toddlers who played with touchscreens were quicker to spot new stimuli on the screen, like a cartoon lion that suddenly appeared.
The results also showed, however, that infants and toddlers with higher touchscreen use had trouble ignoring distracting objects when they were trying to focus on a target. This was particularly true of younger children.
Based on results like these, The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the use of screen media for children under 18 months of age (other than video chatting).
Advice for Parents
Best-selling author and parenting expert Dr. Justin Coulson offers these tips for toddler touchscreen use:
Be a good example.
If your children see you constantly reaching for a screen, they will imitate you.
Set appropriate limits
Use the oven timer to limit time or use the iPad countdown function. Make sure that there are time limits.
Don’t offer the device as a reward.
That just makes them want the device more, and whatever they had to do to get the device less.
Give them ample time and activities away from screens.
Toddlers need to explore the real world to grow and learn.
Get them involved socially.
Toddlers need to learn to navigate the social world, from playing with others to learning from them.
Hendry, A., Johnson, M.H., & Holmboe, K. (2019). Early development of visual attention: Change, stability, and longitudinal associations. Annual Review of Developmental Psychology, 1, 251-275. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-devpsych-121318-085114
Portugal, A.M., Bedford, R., Cheung, C.H.M., Mason, L., et al. (2021). Longitudinal touchscreen use across early development is associated with faster exogenous and reduced endogenous attention control. Scientific Reports, 11, 2205. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-81775-7
Council on Communications and Media. (2016). Media and young minds. Pediatrics, 138, DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-2591