Since 2015, screen use among young children has increased significantly. In addition, this increase has become more evident especially since the COVID-19 quarantines. Acknowledging this trend, researchers from Birbeck University in London are conducting research to uncover what effect screen use can have on toddlers’ brain development. So, is the use of phone or tablet screens in children as harmful as it seems? Contrary to what is known, what if there are benefits…
Screen Use and Parental Concerns in Children
Researchers have found that young children with a lot of screen use have a harder time avoiding distractions when trying to complete a task in front of a screen, compared to younger children who use less screens. However, it has also been determined that children who spend more time in front of the screen have faster reaction times in recognizing flashy objects appearing on the tablet.
According to researcher Dr Ana Portugal, mobile touchscreen media is an integral part of family life. However, although there is no empirical evidence to support that families can experience any fear or deception in this regard, parents are very concerned about this issue. Therefore, the researchers decided to conduct a study to investigate the associations between touchscreen use and cognitive development in early life.
Studies on Screen Use in Children and Their Results
The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, followed 40 children aged 12 months to 3.5 years to evaluate the impact of touchscreen use on the developing toddler brain. The parents of the children participating in this study reported the time spent by the children on the touch screens, and the children were classified as heavy users and low users according to the time they spent in front of the screen.
In each of the three research studies (12 months, 18 months and 3.5 years) children were shown images on a computer screen and eye movements were followed in response to stimuli appearing on the screen. Researchers; They determined whether the child responded to stimuli automatically or voluntarily, depending on the speed and frequency of what the children were looking at. They also monitored whether the children reacted to external or internal factors.
Results showed that children using high-level touchscreens had faster reflexes to respond to distracting stimuli. However, they voluntarily controlled less where they looked and what they looked at. In summary, it cannot be said that the use of touch screens causes motivation and distraction, because children with certain attention profiles may be more interested in touch screens.
What Do These Research Results Mean?
The results show that young children with high touchscreen usage may be more distracted than those who use less. However, the researchers suggest that parents need not worry about these consequences. Because the study doesn’t show that touchscreens cause direct distraction, it just shows that there is some sort of link between touchscreen use and distraction at high hours.
Why Is Distraction Detected in Research Not As Bad As It Seems?
Many people describe a distracted child as: A child who cannot focus on a task and is easily distracted by an interesting stimulating factor. While this may seem like a challenge when trying to keep kids focused on schoolwork or trying to keep a young child still enough to put on their shoes, it’s not all that bad.
The underlying idea that supports this not to be considered bad is the following: As life around us involves more and more screen use, the ability to recognize new stimuli on the screen can be beneficial. For example, microsurgery is often performed using a computer screen and robotic instruments. While the surgeon is focusing on the microsurgery area, it can be very risky and harmful if something happening in the corner of the screen is not immediately noticed.
The study authors also provide the example of an air traffic controller. Being able to quickly turn attention to the events on the screen is not only beneficial but vital to the role. According to the study, a child’s temperament may be a key factor in getting a child closer to the screen.
How Can Children Be Helped to Focus on the Work Required?
While distraction has potential benefits as research has proven, there are many situations in life that require young children to focus at least for a while. This is necessary for a parent working from home to complete a meeting they attend online, or to allow the child to sit while having their hair cut for the time it takes to complete the process. Or they need to focus for a while to make their parents comfortable while shopping. The way to get kids to focus as much as they need to avoid distractions, however, is the old-school and fairly simple way everyone knows.
Consultant Psychologist Dr Stacey Haynes is a researcher specializing in working with children and families, and her tips for parents to help toddlers focus are worth considering. His recommendations are as follows;
• Giving small children lego-style or interlocking little mechanisms can help them stay focused while keeping them where they are;
• Children are especially interested in shaping with crayons and play dough. Coloring books and pencils can be a very effective approach in this regard.
• By setting a timer, a game can be designed so that it stays constant for the time set with it. In this way, they both have a pleasant time and focus on this game for a long time.
• Break areas should be designed where he can take a break from the work or action he focuses on and spend a comfortable time. Because no one can sit in the same place forever.
• Children always want someone to accompany their work. Parents sitting next to their children while their children focus on a task allows them to focus on that task for longer.
The Future of Research on Children’s Screen Use
The researchers note that this touchscreen research is just the beginning, and parents should understand that the science of touchscreen use is still in the early days. And since there are many more questions to be addressed on this subject, it cannot be said whether these research results are positive or negative.
Researchers intend to continue to study this topic to assess the positive or negative consequences of touchscreen use and any causal effects because a causal relationship has not yet been proven and, in reality, a child’s development is much more complex. So there’s more to it than touchscreens, and it includes many factors.
In summary, the conclusions drawn from this research can be listed as follows;
• Young children who frequently use touch screens may be more distracted.
• Distraction has both benefits and disadvantages.
• Children can be encouraged to focus with simple techniques.
University of Birbeck’ Studies
Writer: Ozlem Guvenc Agaoglu