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expert reaction to study of toddlers using different tablet content and responses to attention prompts

A study published in JAMA Network Open looks at toddlers’ responses to attention prompts when offered content on a tablet vs equivalent toys.


Dr Salim Hashmi, Lecturer in Education, King’s College London said:

“Parents are understandably worried about the impact of screentime on their child’s development. This research makes a bold conclusion, but there are nuances that are important to keep in mind – in particular that only in 1 of the 3 tablet conditions did the researchers see a lower response to joint attention.

“It’s ultimately not surprising that an app-based farm game was more engaging than a “farm toy”, but it is hard to create a good equivalence between physical toys and digital games in research. However, a better comparison might have been to also include an object-based game.

“We can’t yet say whether there are any long-term negative effects on joint attention and social emotional development, as these weren’t investigated in the research. Parents should try their best to strike a balance between physical and digital play to ensure that their child has equal opportunities to engage with both whilst also playing in ways that they enjoy.”


Prof Paul Howard-Jones, Professor of Neuroscience and Education in the School of Education at the University of Bristol, said:

“As the researchers tell us, it’s a proof-of-concept study with data collected at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, plus we don’t have much detail of what the toddlers were doing when they were using media in the home. But even so, the study demonstrates how touch screen technology can potentially interfere with adults and children sharing attention to something together – so-called “joint attention”. Sharing attention provides a “platform” for learning from others. If we don’t notice what others are talking about we can’t learn from them about those things.

“It also appears potentially concerning that the researchers found that, when using a tablet, children’s ability to attend jointly with an adult appeared diminished depending on how much they had been using media at home. Does this mean some early types of technology use can undermine children’s ability to learn in other, more social ways? Possibly – we know of many other ways that a child’s development can be impacted by their early experiences.  But children’s attention might also be influenced by a sense of novelty amongst those with less experience of a tablet, or by knowledge of how to use the tablet amongst those with more experience. At the very least, the study demonstrates the need for us find out more about how technology may impact on young children’s development.”


Prof Alastair Sutcliffe, Professor of General Paediatrics, University College London (UCL), said:

“In this study of toddlers, they were observed carefully in a lab setting with a parent and researcher. They were offered real toys or screen ‘virtual’ equivalents. The team observed that the important measure of interaction called joint attention was reduced in relation to the real toy offered (a toy farm animal). Further work needs to be done in this arena measuring forced preferential looking, by eye gaze etc. to further confirm this effect is real.”



‘Mobile Media Content Exposure and Toddlers’ Responses to Attention Prompts and Behavioral Requests’ by Sara Jane Webb et al. was published in JAMA Network Open at 16:00 UK time on Wednesday 10th July.

DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2024.18492



Declared interests

Dr Salim Hashmi: Dr Hashmi received funding from Mattel to produce a review on the benefits of playing with trains for young children as well as funding from Mattel for research on playing with dolls and tablet games.

Prof Paul Howard-Jones: No conflicts with journalists

Prof Alastair Sutcliffe: No conflicts



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