Toddlers and Tablets: The effects of touchscreen device usage on cognitive development in children

Written by: Neha Ogale

The Times Are A-Changing

In the last decade or so, smartphones and tablets have gone from rare luxury devices to essential components of everyday life. Used both interactively and autonomously, these handy smart devices have evolved to serve many purposes, varying from GPS navigation to games and interactive educational games, and even as an apparatus to occupy children’s attention. However, for all its entertainment value and capacity to enrich, many argue that the excessive amount of screen time consumed by children is causing more harm than most would care to acknowledge.

As of 2017, 66 percent of U.S. households own some type of tablet. This means that entire families have access to these devices. However, the proliferation of tablet ownership has been met with an onslaught of criticism: Many fear that tablets have become brainwashing devices that are no longer used as tools, but as digital pacifiers used to quiet petulant children. We can all picture a common scenario: An overwhelmed parent in a crowded restaurant – sensing a massive oncoming temper tantrum from their toddler – reaches into a bag and pulls out an iPad, instantly hypnotizing the kid. Chaos is evaded, and the restaurant keeps its peace.

Though critics of childhood tablet usage may come off as luddites, some of their concerns may be valid. Technology shapes the brain through a phenomenon called neuroplasticity, which is the nervous system’s ability to change in response to experience. Considering that 75 percent of brain development occurs in the first six years of life, questioning the role of tablets in children’s lives is not so bizarre.

The goal of this article is to examine how tablet usage impacts the cognitive aspect of childhood development. Specifically, we will explore the effects of tablets on spatial and verbal reasoning skills.

Education vs. Entertainment: Tapping your way into trouble?

Concern about media’s impact on child development is not new. For decades, researchers have warned that watching TV for more than two hours a day can adversely affect children’s behavior, achievement, and health. Toddlers, in particular, are susceptible. According to the Urban Childhood Institute, the first infant-directed videos and television programs began to appear in the late 90s. Most shows were marketed as educational but many parents used the TV as a babysitter to distract and pacify their children. As a result, infant and toddler exposure to television increased dramatically, with around two-thirds of mothers with three-year-olds reporting that their child watched two hours or more per day. With this increased exposure to TV, researchers studied its impact on toddlers and found a link to behavior problems and to long-term effects on social development, classroom engagement, and academic achievement.

But this is not the whole story. Not all screen time has been found to hinder children’s brain development, particularly when the question turns to what and how children watch rather than just saturation. Research has also shown that co-viewing educational TV shows with a parent can have a positive impact on children’s executive function – this comprises decision making skills, attention, impulse control, and higher-order thinking.

The same benefits can be applied to using educational apps on tablets. The brain responds to stimuli, and children’s brains are especially receptive to them. Tablets, as well as other touchscreen devices, inundate users with a host of visual and auditory signals. Therefore, we should distinguish between passive viewing where a child simply stares at a screen, and active engagement where, for example, a child might use an interactive educational app with other children. Engaging with apps and peers is a useful mechanism of socialization. It gives children the opportunity to learn practical skills like reading and math, as well as social skills like cooperation and conflict resolution.

Another important point to note is that interacting with tablets is largely intuitive. Children as young as one or two years old are learning to swipe and tap at screens before developing fine motor control. These are the skills necessary to grasp a pencil or play an instrument, and typically do not begin developing until early childhood. While educational apps may positively impact expressive language and numeracy, tablets cannot replace children’s need for imagination and unstructured play. Further, research suggests that overuse impedes the sensorimotor and visual skills needed to learn and apply math and science.

In education, tablets have recently gained popularity as e-readers for their convenience of transport. Instead of having to lug stacks of books around everywhere, users have entire on-demand libraries stored on a device weighing under five pounds. Despite the ease of use, reading on tablets may bring about its share of difficulties. A study conducted by the University of Leicester found that students who gleaned information from books understood what they read better than those who read material from tablets.

The difference between reading traditional text versus tablets was limited to comprehension; it does not affect retention. While students who read from traditional text understood the information better than their tablet-reading counterparts, those who read from tablets retained just as much information as those who read from books. However, the study also suggested that reading solely and frequently from tablets may impede children’s ability to understand complex language in later years.

So far, we have discussed the effects of only educational tablet use on development. Moderate and active usage poses cognitive benefits, while overuse threatens impairment. But in a world of easily accessible hollow entertainment like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, we must also address noneducational tablet use and how it affects brain development.

Unlike educational apps, using tablets to play noneducational games doesn’t foster cognitive development – in fact, it seems to do the opposite. A study conducted by Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York revealed that children ages 0-3 who played noneducational games on tablets had lower verbal scores on developmental tests. Another study found that children who played noneducational games also scored lower in measures of receptive and expressive language compared to children who played educational games. Despite the results, many parents believe that their children would gain some sort of educational benefits solely by using smart phones and tablets.

A common theme in the current research on early and excessive tablet usage – regardless of the type of content – is its correlation with impaired language development. Correlation does not imply causation. But in a time where even professional adults misuse “your/you’re”, children need all the help they can get as early as possible. Struggling to understand language beyond simple sentences and Internet slang is potentially problematic in the name of education. Many high school English curricula teach classic works that often use complex language; students are tested on their understanding of these works and on their ability to discuss what they read intelligently. After all, it’s not easy to talk about or write an essay on something you know nothing about.

Standardized testing is another pressing problem to consider. With the recent redesign of the SAT, 800 of the 1600 possible points are allotted for the verbal reasoning section. This section tests students on sentence completion and reading comprehension, the latter of which can feature a range of topics encompassing natural history, memoir, and 19th century drama – often in succession. Failure to adapt to each type of passage is worrisome, because each section is timed and there are multiple choice questions to be answered after each reading. The SAT predicts college performance and influences admissions decisions, so the importance of earning a good score is paramount.

In higher education, students are often required to read material that is largely theoretical. Government, Political Science, and Economics are just some examples of classes that would require students to read analytical and abstract texts. Furthermore, classes are often flipped classroom style and therefore self-taught, so it is up to the students to be diligent with their reading. College is already an academic challenge; if students lack the cognitive ability to understand what they read, they no doubt face four exceptionally difficult years.

Despite the criticisms, tablets have the potential to be a useful supplement to education. However, icons on screens cannot replace human interaction and imagination. Human interaction is vital during early childhood development and helps to create strong emotional and social bonds between parents and children. While our smart devices may promote learning, we should bear in mind that human interaction is positively correlated with child growth and development. As the technology is still relatively new, the full extent of the effects of tablet usage on childhood development is still unknown. There is simply not enough empirical and statistically significant evidence yet from which to draw definitive conclusions; behavioral scientists face an ocean of uncertainties that they must navigate. After all, the brain is a complex machine, and every answer we find yields many more questions.

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