Can Screen Time Be Good for Toddlers? New Study Says Digital Devices May Strengthen Attention

No need to feel guilty about screen time for your toddler.

By: Amanda Mushro
Caucasian boy playing with cell phone


Caucasian boy playing with cell phone

Photo by: JGI/Jamie Grill

JGI/Jamie Grill

If handing your tablet or phone to your toddler causes pangs of mom guilt, there’s good news! Not only can screen time buy you a few free minutes of peace and quiet, but some researchers feel it can actually be beneficial for your toddler.

According to a new study completed by researchers at the University of Bath, toddlers who have daily touchscreen use are faster at finding targets during visual searches than toddlers with no or low touchscreen use. So, while it may seem like your toddler is just staring at a screen or playing a simple game, they could be developing their attention skills, which will help them later in life.

“The use of smartphones and tablets by babies and toddlers has accelerated rapidly in recent years,” said professor Tim Smith, who led the study. “The first few years of life are critical for children to develop the ability to focus their attention on relevant information and ignore distraction, early skills that are known to be important for later academic achievement.”

For the study, researchers followed 12-month-old toddlers who had different levels of touchscreen use every day. Over the course of two and half years, researchers checked in on those toddlers and studied them when they were 18 months and 3.5 years old by using an attention assessment program.

As part of the study, the toddlers took part in computer tasks where they were trained to search for a red apple among a number of blue apples, which was considered an “easy task.” They were also instructed to find red apples among blue apples and red apple slices, which was considered a “difficult task.” As the toddlers played, an eye tracker monitored their gaze and visually rewarded them when they found the red apple. So, even though the children could not verbalize what they were doing, they were still being rewarded.

What they found was that at both 18 months and 3.5 years, the high touchscreen users found red apples faster than the low users. Researchers say the next steps of the study would be to see how this greater attention will translate into the toddler’s education, and to find ways of understanding how to “maximizes benefits and minimizes any negative consequences” of screen time for toddlers.

Smith added that while parents are concerned that screen time for toddlers can be a bad thing, he believes this study shows the benefits of screen time for your little ones. “There has been growing concern that toddler touchscreen use may negatively impact their developing attention, but this fear is not based on empirical evidence,” he said.

Of course, we don’t want to just put our little ones in front of screens all day long, but for the times when they need a moment and we need a moment, it could benefit both you and your toddler.

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