Early touchscreen use may help fine motor skills in toddlers, study finds

Early touchscreen use may help with fine motor skills.
Early touchscreen use may help with fine motor skills. Photo: blackred

If you're feeling guilty about giving your little one the iPad so you can have a few moments' peace/do the laundry/catch up on some work - here's some welcome news. A new study has found that toddlers' fine motor skills are associated with early touchscreen use – as long as they've actively scrolling and not just watching a video.

The research, published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that actively scrolling the screen correlated with increased fine motor control in toddlers.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAPs) recommends zero screen time before the age of two years, anecdotal reports and research evidence indicates that children are increasingly using screens prior to 24 months.

One recent study, for example, found that 58 per cent of 5-24-month-old infants, had used a touchscreen. 

While there are popular fears about the negative impact of screen use on toddlers' developmental milestones, as the study authors note, there is a lack of research assessing this concern.

To address this, as part of the UK Toddler Attention Behaviours and Learning with Touchscreens (TABLET) project, 715 parents of 6-36-month-olds responded to an online survey questioning whether their toddlers used touchscreens, when they first started using them, how often they use them and how long they use them for.

Families were also asked questions pertaining to their child's development, such as the age they first stacked blocks (to assess their fine motor skills), the age they sat without support and walked independently (their gross motor skills) and the age they began using two-word sentences (to determine their language development).

Analysis of the findings confirmed that the majority of toddlers have daily exposure to touchscreens. While 51.22 per cent of children used touchscreens every day at the age of  6 -11 months, this increased to 92.05 per cent by the time children were 19-36 months.

"Within our sample," the authors note, "touchscreen devices are a common part of a toddler's media environment and everyday sensory/cognitive stimulation."

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The researchers found no link between using touchscreens and either development of language or gross motor skills such as walking. They did, however, find an association between touchscreen use and children's fine motor skills.

"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," said study author Dr. Tim Smith, in a statement.

Given, of course, that correlation does not equal causation, it is unclear whether touchscreen use enhances fine motor skills, or if children with fine-motor skills are simply more likely to use these screens earlier. More research is needed in order to understand the link in more detail.

Based on their findings, the authors argue that the recommendation for zero screen time for children under two years is "out of line with the reality of the current home media environment of most toddlers and difficult to enforce by parents who themselves are conducting more of their lives through such devices."

The AAP announced last year that the guidelines are currently under review.

"Technology moves faster than science can study it, so we are perpetually behind in our advice and our recommendations," said AAP chair of the committee into children's media use, Ari Brown, at the time.

For now, the researchers from the TABLET project highlight that their evidence –that children who scroll touchscreen devices earlier may develop fine motor control earlier – "is the first indication of how our current generation are adapting to their new media environment and setting the foundation for a life spent interacting with such devices."