Toddlers who use touchscreens show attention differences, but is that bad?

I guess the title has triggered you? Well, it did trigger me as much debate has been about the possible negative consequences, would this now also be the case? I hate to say it, but the researchers behind this longitudinal study can’t say it yet. Still, they already have some interesting findings!

From the press release:

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.

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.”

Abstract of the study:

During toddlerhood, a peak period of neurocognitive development, increased exposure to sensory stimulation through touch screen use, may influence developing attentional control.1 While TV’s rapidly changing, noncontingent flow of sensory information has been hypothesized to lead to difficulties voluntarily focusing attention,2 video gaming’s contingent and cognitively demanding sensory environments may improve visual processing and attention.3 Toddler touch screen use involves both exogenous attention, driven by salient audio-visual features, and endogenous/voluntary control, eg, video selection and app use.4,5

The current study compared high– and low–touch screen users on a gaze-contingent visual search paradigm,6 assessing exogenous, saliency-based attention (single-feature trials), and endogenous attention control (conjunction trials).


Individuals aged 12 months were recruited from October 2015 to March 2016 (as part of the TABLET project5) and followed up longitudinally at 18 months and 3.5 years. Parents gave informed written consent, and the Birkbeck, University of London institutional review board approved this study. Before each visit, parents were asked, “On a typical day, how long does your child spend using a touchscreen device (tablet, smartphone or touchscreen laptop)?” Participants were recruited as high users and low users based on median use of 10 minutes per day reported in a previous survey sample.5 At 18 months and 3.5 years, user groups were reassigned using the within-sample median (15 minutes per day). At recruitment, groups were matched on developmental level (Mullen Scales of Early Learning), age, sex, background TV (parent-reported minutes per day), and mother’s education.

The visual search task was administered at 18 months and 3.5 years (Tobii TX300 eye tracker with 120-Hz tracking, 60-cm distance, 5-point calibration). Arrays were presented (single feature [target red apple among blue apples; set sizes 5 and 9] or conjunction [target red apple among blue apples and slices of red apples; set sizes 5, 9, and 13; only set sizes matched across conditions were analyzed, ie, 5 and 9) for 4 seconds or until the target was fixated. Trials were presented continuously, grouped into blocks: (1) 3 single feature, fixed order; (2) 1 single feature, 9 conjunction, randomized; and (3) 4 single feature, 9 conjunction, randomized. values were 2-sided and were significant at less than .05. SPSS version (SPSS Inc) was used. Analysis began November 2018 and ended in November 2019.


Of 56 infants recruited, 49 were followed up longitudinally at 18 months and 46 were followed up at 3.5 years. Data quality and accuracy did not differ significantly across groups. Linear generalized estimating equations for saccadic reaction time (SRT) (Figure) were run with an unstructured correlation matrix (deviation from preregistered 3.5-year analysis of variance; to include missing data and treat group as a time-varying predictor (some children changed user groups over time; usage correlations: 12 to 18 months, Spearman rs = 0.78; 18 months to 3.5 years, Spearman rs = 0.33; 12 months to 3.5 years, Spearman rs = 0.31).

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