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Cognitive scientist calls for guidelines on toddlers' screen time

03-Aug-16
Article By: Sue Learner, Editor

A cognitive scientist is calling for parents and nurseries to be given guidelines on how long they should allow children to be on interactive electronic screens such as tablets and touchscreen phones.

Dr Tim Smith of Birkbeck, University of London, is currently carrying out the TABLET (Toddler Attentional Behaviours and Learning with Touchscreens) project into the impact of touchscreen devices on children’s developmental milestones.

He and his researchers are studying the screen habits of a thousand families in the UK. They found there was on average four devices per family, with just over a fifth of children aged 26-36 months using a device. Daily usage for children from six months to three years ranged from 0 to as much as five hours a day.

So far, Dr Smith, who runs the Babylab, Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, has found “no crucial difference between usage and non-usage of touchscreens with children’s developmental milestones such as walking”.

Children exposed to touchscreens stacked blocks earlier

He did find that “children who were exposed to touchscreens at an early age learnt to stack blocks earlier than children who were exposed to tablets later”.

His research has also shown that tablet use does not have the strong association with a person’s socio-economic status that television does. However his concern is that currently touchscreen devices are still a relatively new phenomenon and the long-term effects of using them will only be revealed in years to come.

Due to this, he is keen for the UK to have its own guidelines. Currently the UK, Australia and Canada follow advice from The American Association of Paediatrics (AAP).

One of his worries is that one of the dangers of screen time is that it can displace face to face communication between both adults and children and also children and their peers.

'We need to start lobbying for guidelines'

Speaking at the Pre-School Learning Alliance’s annual conference, he said: “The big issue is that there are no guidelines in the UK. We need to start lobbying for guidelines.”

“Children adapt to the environment they are in. Back in 2007, iPhones were produced with multi-touch interfaces. In 2010, iPads, which were the first successful tablet computers, were released onto the market.

“Prior to this children only had access to computers but it takes a while for children to develop their fine motor skills and without fine motor skills it is very hard to use keyboards and mouses.

“Touchscreens take this difficulty away and have very quickly become a significant part of children’s sensory environment.”

Touchscreen devices have become the 'norm'

It is remarkable how in the space of less than ten years, touchscreen devices have become the norm in the majority of households in the UK. Tablets are now outselling laptops and Ofcom revealed that in 2014, 11 per cent of three to four-year-olds in the UK owned a tablet.

Yet it is an area where parents and childcare workers are having to operate pretty much blind as these are unchartered waters for everybody.

In 1999, the AAP advised having a blanket ban for screens on any child under two. This even included a TV on in the background. This was changed to ‘discouragement’ in 2015 and ‘in moderation’ in 2016.

Public Health England in its ‘Change for Life’ advert in 2013 said screen time stops children moving and being physical.

Dr Smith said: “Most existing empirical evidence comes from TV and this says that excessive screen-time on TV is bad for you and has linked it with a range of developmental problems such as delayed language and health problems, anti-social behaviour and sleep difficulties.

“However these problems can be moderated by parenting styles, type of TV content and whether the child is co-viewing with a parent. So the TV is just a symptom of the home environment such as poor nutrition.

“There is also empirical evidence about video games which has found that a lot of game play can cause problems with sleep, anti-social behaviour and memory problems.

“Violent videogames have been associated with anti-social behaviour. However videogames can also help with cognitive behaviour and enhanced visual processing and help motor control.”

Less communication

He points out that studies have shown that parents vocalise less with children who are playing with electronic toys than if they are playing with traditional toys.

He also highlights the addictive quality of touchscreens saying that in South Korea there are centres for people suffering from internet addiction. “It stimulates the same pathways as sugar so moderation of use is important,” he said.

However Dr Smith is keen to emphasise that there are also “interactive shared benefits” from touchscreens and they can “become a virtual wonderful, creative space and a potential source of education”.

New technology has always caused fear

The introduction of new technology has always caused fear, even as far back as the printing press with Johann Gutenberg who started the Printing Revolution saying the first book would lead to the destruction of humanity.

Certainly the issue of whether children should use tablets in nurseries has stirred up debate in the childcare sector with some nursery providers such as Asquith Day Nurseries investing heavily in ICT equipment and others such as Tom Shea, director of the Child First nursery chain, worrying that they encourage sedentary behaviour and prevent interaction.

Dr Smith hopes the TABLET (Toddler Attentional Behaviours and Learning with Touchscreens) project will help inform future guidelines on appropriate use of touchscreen devices as with one in 10 three and four-year-olds owning a tablet and many nurseries investing in them, advice for parents and childcare workers is desperately needed.

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