Can touch screens increase fine motor skills in toddlers?


toddlers and tablets

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Know a toddler who uses a touch screen tablet? A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology has shown that early touch screen use — particularly, actively scrolling the screen — correlates with increased fine motor control in toddlers.

Smartphones and tablets are now commonplace at work and in many homes. Indeed, there has been a dramatic increase in the ownership and use of tablets and smartphones in recent years, so it's not surprising that children are using touch screens from a very early age.

Some parents and policymakers are concerned about the effects using touch screens may have on young children. Popular opinion holds that it may delay cognitive development in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics seems to agree. It advises that children should not be exposed to any screens, including touch screens, before the age of two, and similar agencies in other countries have adopted similar guidelines.

A team of researchers in London decided to take a closer look at whether these guidelines are a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to a new technology rather than an informed health strategy. After all, scientists have not yet extensively studied the relationship between childhood development and the use of touch screens, because the technology is still new and the children who have used it from early childhood are still very young.

Dr. Tim J Smith of Birbeck, University of London, along with a group of collaborators at King's College, set up an online survey for parents in the United Kingdom to answer questions about their children's touch screen use in an effort to gather more solid data.

The survey asked whether toddlers used touch screens, when they first used one and how often and for how long they use them. It also included specific questions to assess the development of the children, such as the age 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 touch screens is extremely common in U.K. toddlers. "The study showed that the majority of toddlers have daily exposure to touch screen devices, increasing from 51.22% at 6-11 months to 92.05% at 19-36 months," explained Dr. Smith.

They found no significant associations between using touch screens and either walking or language development. However, "in toddlers aged 19-36 months, we found that the age that parents reported their child first actively scrolling a touch screen was positively associated with the age that they were first able to stack blocks, a measure of fine motor control."

It is not yet known if this correlation indicates that using touch screens can enhance fine motor skills, or if children with fine motor skills are more likely to use touch screens earlier, and so further work is required to determine the nature of this relationship more precisely. However, it is clear that the current generation of toddlers is adapting rapidly to this new technology.