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Touchscreens may improve motor skills in toddlers

Posted on 15/09/2016

A new study by researchers from King’s College London and Birkbeck, University of London, has found that toddlers who use touchscreens may show improved fine motor control abilities.
The use of touchscreens has increased rapidly in recent years, with statistics showing that in the UK alone, the number of touchscreen devices in the family home has increased from 7 per cent in 2011 to 71 per cent in 2014.
However, there is concern that using touchscreen devices could hinder, not help cognitive development in children. Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics advise that children should not be exposed to screens before the age of two, with other countries around the world also adopting similar guidelines.
Touchscreens offer an intuitive source of stimulation for young children and the TABLET project, led by Dr Tim Smith at Birkbeck, aims to understand the potential impact of these devices on children’s cognitive development.

In their recent study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers gathered data using an online survey from 715 families with children aged 6 to 36-month-olds. Parents were questioned on whether their toddlers used touchscreens, when they first used one, and how often and how long they use them for.
The team also included specific questions to assess the development of the children, such as the age that they first stacked blocks, which indicates fine motor skills, or the age they first used two-word sentences, which indicates language development.
The responses showed that the majority of babies and toddlers are exposed on a daily basis to touchscreens, with 51 per cent having access to a touchscreen at 6-11 months, and this number increased to 92 per cent at 19-36 months.
When it came to their effect on development, the team found no significant association, positive or negative, between touchscreen use and the toddlers' walking or language development. However they did find a positive association in toddlers aged 19-36 months between the age that they started actively scrolling a touchscreen and the age that they were first able to stack blocks. 
Dr Rachael Bedford from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said: ‘Our study shows an association between earlier scrolling on a touchscreen device and earlier milestones in motor skills. However, we cannot infer the direction of this effect - children with advanced fine motor skills may be more likely to actively scroll a touchscreen, or alternatively, exposure to touchscreen devices may encourage practice of finger and hand control.’
Dr Bedford added: ‘There are still pressing questions around how such exposure relates to long-term development and educational achievement, so further research is needed to examine the effects of touchscreens on behavioural, cognitive and neural development in children.’

Notes to editors

Paper reference: Bedford, R et al (2016) Toddlers’ Fine Motor Milestone Achievement Is Associated with Early Touchscreen Scrolling Frontiers in Psychology

For further media information please contact Jack Stonebridge, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London or 0207 848 5377.

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