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Touchscreens and Toddlers

Pediatricians and child development experts have often warned that toddlers and touchscreens are not a good combination. A few months ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics set new guidelines for parents, recommending that they limit screen time to one hour per day for children two to five years of age. Now, researchers at Georgetown University are finding that there may be some benefits to using touchscreens, but only if there is meaningful interaction between parent and child.

Fifty 15-month-old infants and their mothers participated in a study described in The Role of Interactional Quality in Learning from Touch Screens during Infancy: Context Matters. Mothers were given a 3D object and a static image of the object presented on a touchscreen. The parent had five minutes to teach their infant that a button on the real toy works in the same way as a virtual button on the touchscreen.

Transfer of learning between 2D images and 3D images is difficult for young children, but this study offers hope for families of the digital age. Overall, 64% of infants learned how to make the button work, transferring knowledge from the 3D object to the 2D depiction, or vice versa. Infants who engaged in high-quality interactions with their mothers, characterized by emotional responsiveness and maternal guidance, were 19 times more likely to succeed.

Experts point out that the number of children with access to touchscreen devices is likely to grow. This research suggests that in order to make touchscreens effective learning tools, parents need to be engaged and responsive while their children use them.

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