Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith investigates the increasing use of touchscreen technology by children.
Children’s touchscreen use is increasing at a phenomenal rate, with a recent survey finding that UK family ownership has grown within a mere three years from 7% in 2011 to a massive 71% in 2014 (Ofcom, 2014).
Critics are horrified by such numbers, calling the use of touchscreens a “developmental catastrophe” and arguing that “giving iPads to babies is tantamount to child abuse” (House, 2015). Most of these scaremonger reactions are based on emotion rather than serious scientific research. There may be some negative effects which we need to research but, since touchscreen technology is literally taking over British homes, why not also explore some of the positive outcomes?
How do touchscreen devices differ from other toys? Why are children so captivated by them, even those with ADHD (Stevens & Muslow, 2006)? To understand, we need to differentiate children’s passive versus active participation, i.e., focus on the difference between the child’s passive watching of films on TV (or also on touchscreens) from the child’s active interaction with touchscreen devices when playing games, and note also whether the use is social (children sharing the experience with a peer or parent or playing alone (Barr, Zack, Garcia and Muentener, 2008; Mendelsen et al, 2010).
When touchscreens are used actively, the child is in control, generating dynamic, contingent, audiovisual sensory stimulation. The variety, frequency and complexity of the contingent responses from touchscreen devices outstrips anything that static books or many traditional toys can provide. Moreover, the multi-touch interface allows an intuitive way of interacting with the device: witness how rapidly toddlers learn to use the screen, before they have fully developed their fine motor control (Cristia & Seidl, 2015).
This combination of increased levels of cognitive activity, rewarding interaction, with varied sensory and cognitive stimulation, is likely to have positive impacts on attention, memory, fine motor control and other cognitive abilities. This is not a plea to replace books and toys with touchscreen devices. But it is a plea to recognise, alongside the importance of books and toys, some of the potentially positive socio-cognitive influences that touchscreen devices may yield.
iPads didn’t even exist a few years ago. Yet the enthusiasm with which children use these devices is obvious. Developmental science has been slow to investigate the complex relationships between tablet use and early cognitive development.
In older children, scientists have already demonstrated that actively playing video games yields enhanced visual processing as well as better attention and motor control (Foster & Watkins, 2010; Green & Bavelier, 2008), while passive TV viewing is associated with decreases in language ability (Allen & Schoffield, 2010).
At Birkbeck, we’ve embarked on a project for very young children – TABLET (Toddler Attentional Behaviours and Learning with Touchscreens) – to document the role that touchscreen devices play in family life and cognitive development, as well as parental concerns about digital technology.
To learn more about the TABLET project (funded by Leverhulme Trust): www.bbk.ac.uk/tablet_project. The aim of TABLET is to provide a scientifically-valid evidence base for parents and scientists to understand how our youngest generation is developing in their media-filled environment, and to inform future policymaking with science rather than emotion.