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Toddlers' attention spans may suffer from too much touchscreen use

Experts are unsure about how excessive time in front of screens will affect toddlers as they grow up

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Many parents worry about how screen time will affect their children’s development, and a new study is exploring how time spent on devices can impact toddlers’ attention spans. 

According to researchers from the University of Bath, toddlers who spend a lot of time in front of screens may be more easily distracted than those who have less daily screen time. 

“The use of smartphones and tablets by babies and toddlers has accelerated rapidly in recent years,” said researcher Tim Smith. “The first few years of life are critical for children to learn how to control their attention and ignore distraction, early skills that are known to be important for later academic achievement. There has been growing concern that toddler touchscreen use may negatively impact their developing attention but previously there was no empirical evidence to support this.” 

How does screen time affect attention span? 

To better understand how toddlers’ screen time could affect their developing attention spans, the researchers tracked 56 toddlers over nearly three years and evaluated their attention spans. The researchers measured the toddlers’ ability to ignore distracting images and how quickly they looked at moving images on a computer screen. When at home, the kids were free to use screens however their parents allowed. 

The researchers learned that the toddlers who had the highest amounts of screen time also struggled the most to focus. They had the most difficulties blocking out the distracting images that popped up during the tests, and they were more quickly drawn to any new images that appeared on the screen. The toddlers with the least amount of time spent with touchscreens were better able to maintain focus and ignore the distracting images that were shown. 

Despite this relationship between toddler screen time and attention spans, the researchers can’t say that one necessarily causes the other. They said there are a lot of factors that could influence infants’ behavior and focus skills during tests like this. 

“We are currently unable to conclude that the touchscreen use caused the differences in attention as it could also be that children who are more distractible may be more attracted to the attention-grabbing features of touchscreen devices than those who are not,” said researcher Dr. Ana Maria Portugal. 

In future studies, the researchers hope that they’ll be able to get to the bottom of this trend. While young kids can certainly develop stronger focus skills, more work in this area could better equip parents to instill healthy screen time habits with their kids. 

“What we need to know next is how this pattern of increased looking to distracting objects on screens relates to attention span in the real-world: is it a positive sign that the children have adapted to the multitasking demands of their complex everyday environment or does it relate to difficulties during tasks that require concentration?” 

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