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Birkbeck study finds link between early touchscreen use and increased fine motor control in toddlers

Co-authored research surveys 715 UK families

A Birkbeck co-authored study has shown that early touchscreen use, and in particular actively scrolling the screen, correlates with increased fine motor control in toddlers.

Published in Frontiers in Psychology, the study was carried out by Dr Tim Smith and colleagues in Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) and members of King’s College’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience.

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the ownership and use of tablets and smartphones. In the UK, family ownership of touchscreen devices increased from 7% in 2011 to 71% in 2014. The effects of using touchscreens on young children are a concern for some parents and policymakers.

Touchscreens offer an intuitive source of stimulation for young children and the team’s TABLET project ­– a scientific study of the early use of touchscreen devices – aims to understand the potential impact of these devices on children’s cognitive development.

Scientists have not yet extensively studied the relationship between childhood development and using touchscreens, however popular opinion holds that using touchscreens at an early age is likely to delay the cognitive development of children.

With this in mind, principal investigator Dr Smith and the team of researchers set up an online survey for UK parents to answer questions about their children's touchscreen use.

This included questions about whether the toddlers used touchscreens, when they first used one, and how often and how long they use them. The survey 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.

In total, 715 families responded and the study confirmed that using touchscreens is extremely common in UK toddlers.

Speaking in the Frontiers blog, Dr Smith said: "The study showed that the majority of toddlers have daily exposure to touchscreen devices, increasing from 51.22% at 6-11 months to 92.05% at 19-36 months.”

He said that the team found no significant associations between using touchscreens and either walking or language development, however added:

"In toddlers aged 19-36 months, we found that the age that parents reported their child first actively scrolling a touchscreen was positively associated with the age that they were first able to stack blocks, a measure of fine motor control."

Dr Rachael Bedford, the lead author from King’s College London explained that the direction of the effect is not yet known.

She said: “Infants with advanced fine motor skill may be more likely to actively scroll a touchscreen, or alternatively, exposure to touchscreen devices may encourage practice of finger and hand control. Future research is required to determine the nature of this relationship more precisely”.  

The study, Toddlers’ Fine Motor Milestone Achievement Is Associated with Early Touchscreen Scrolling, is available online in full.

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