August 23, 2017 Carol Miller

What is the Impact of Tablets On Cognitive Development and Speech Delays?


This is the 3rd article in the series “The Impact of Technology on Childhood Development.” You can read the first two articles here: 1st article and the 2nd article

It’s a little after 5:30 and we’re rushing around the house preparing dinner, finishing up a load a laundry and picking up the older kids from soccer practice.


My boss has texted me several times, and my iPhone is beeping away on the counter with the incoming text messages. My three-year-old is playing with Lego’s in the family room as I slice vegetables for dinner.


My other half just arrived home with the older kids from soccer practice, and all assemble around the dinner table.

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I look over at the motley crew at the table, and all are engaged with their smartphones, iPads, and tablets. My 3-year-old has joined them and is playing a video game on the tablet his grandparents bought him for Christmas.


If you have been following this series, in the 2nd article we talked about how we are dealing with cognitive and speech delays with our son.


We used to think that it wrap his little fingers around the family iPad or a smartphone, scrolling through icons to get to a particularly entertaining video or “educational” game.


We were the ‘hip’ parents like most of our friends.


Our kids at young ages could manage technology, and ideally, this would grow as he did. We were convinced that the early introduction to technology a few months post his birth would surely give him a leg up on the other kids in his classes.


Then we began to see the impact on his development and speech that was setting him back, not days or months but years.


The rise in screen time means there is less and less time for the quality time that develops cognitive and physical abilities.


The issue is iPads, tablets and smartphones are exceptionally appealing to children and adults. Due to the versatility, tablets are a great way for kids to draw, do puzzles and be entertained on the move.


Combined with the active and aggressive marketing of technology and app developers the measure of success is the numbers of hours per day people are glued to their iPad, tablet, or smartphone.


The result is you have an expensive toy that’s difficult to remove from a child. Like many parents, they are worried about their sons’ obsession with screens.


Many experts are raising the same concerns; early data is showing that the use of tablets, iPads and Android devices such as mobile phones could be changing children’s brains adversely.


The adverse effect of technology introduced at young ages has a profound effect on their eyesight, attention, fine and gross motor control skills and language proficiency.


This appears to impact the under 5-age group severely. This is the age where brain development is profound.


According to the Director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Dr. Dimitri Christakis ““simulating conventional toys through apps doesn’t help kids with the crucial life skills that come from physically engaging in a three-dimensional world.”


Apps that duplicate blocks or playing Legos are not replacements for making something in three dimensions or real life experiences such as building a fort, knocking it over and building it again.


Madden 2017 does not replicate the gross motor skills required to run down a football field to catch a football and never will.



Kids need to have practical experiences that mimic real life and how the real world works. The risk of creating a false universe is high, and this will lead to great delusion and disappointment later in life.


Presently there is not enough scientific data, although more studies are underway on the educational benefits of tablets or iPads for toddlers. The current research suggests that educational apps may enhance the learning experience of slightly older children (5-7+). Until more studies are completed, the jury is still out.


The TABLET Study underway at the London-based, Birkbeck University’s Babylab measures the brain’s electrical activity to comprehend the impact of real and virtual objects trigger different brain responses and how that relates to subsequent learning in children.


The TABLET study is the first ever scientific study researching how children aged six months to three years are using touchscreen devices and the influences tablets have on their cognitive, brain and social development.


The purpose of the study is to attempt to understand how quickly babies can focus attention and block out distractions when working on a particular task.


One of the test babies and toddlers watch an object appearing at the center of the screen and then a second object near the edge of the screen while connected to an EEG that records their brain waves. To look at the second object, the child needs to disengage from the central one, which requires self-control.


These tests measure a child’s executive function skills.

Executive function is self-regulation skills that require three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control.


Self-control enables us to set priorities and resists impulsive actions. These functions are highly interrelated, and the successful application requires them to operate in coordination.


Children aren’t born with these skills; they are born with the potential to develop them.


Providing the support that children need to build these skills at home and in other settings they experience regularly is one of societies and parents most important tasks.


Executive function skills are a key predictor of success in later life.


The TABLET Study purpose is to determine if there is a direct link between a child’s ability to focus and the reward learning found in many apps



It is possible that tablets, iPads, and smartphones are used for a lot of reward learning, and external stimulus drives kids.


The use of tablets, iPads, and smartphones may result in impairment in executive function because self-control or the ability to focus.


Many researchers believe that there is an effect on language and motor development from the use of tablets, iPads, and smartphones by young children.


The hypothesis is that there could be displacement going on, tablets, iPads and smartphone use give lots of visual and audio stimulation, but they lack the real-time social interaction and feedback that helps develop language skills.


IPads, tablets, and smartphones may make children nimble-fingered with some fine motor skill control from swiping an interactive screen from an iPad, tablet or smartphone. As a result, they may have less motivation to get up and explore the world around them which leads to gross motor skill development.

Technology app developers and companies are throwing their marketing weight at the market to drive rapid adoption as parents fear missing out.

They are slapping marketing phrases that include words such as, “educational” and “e-learning” on apps to drive consumer adoption frequently without any scientific basis to justify the claim.


Technology companies state that the apps are educational without any supporting data; parents are busier than ever and have the first-hand experience of the impact of a digital babysitter that can buy them a few minutes of personal time.


Apple iTunes and Google Play each presently has over 700 apps for kids, including ones that claim to foster and improve hand-eye coordination and concentration skills in babies or teach fine motor skills to infants from age 0 to 3 years old.


Mike Levine, CEO, Joan Ganz Cooney Center in New York, analyzed hundreds of children’s literacy apps in a series of reports says,


“The app marketplace is a digital Wild West.”


He went on to state, “most of the apps labeled as educational provide no research-based advice or guidance…” Less than 10% of the apps the Cooney Center reviewed lacked any scientific evidence of efficacy based on the product descriptions in the app store.

Unintentionally, some interactive “enhancements” to stories (such as animations, sounds and features that let kids tap and swipe) might be decreasing the overall educational value. While enhancements such as background animation might appear to be engaging children, they could, in fact, be distracting them from the educational content and potential benefit.

Leiden University in the Netherlands tested this hypothesis using interactive books. If a book contained a narrative that was not relevant to the animated motion on the screen, kids eyes were diverted to the motion rather than listening to and absorbing and comprehending the story.

Animation tied to the storyline can be beneficial, especially with children who struggle with language and reading comprehension.


It is well documented that toddlers learn better from real world experiences than from equivalent two-dimensional representations on interactive screen.


Studies have shown that when dealing with visual-spatial problems, such as finding hidden objects or solving puzzles, toddlers under the age of 2½ years old perform better and learn more easily when a problem is presented in real life rather than on an interactive screen. This holds true even if apps are found to have educational value.


Conventional thinking and studies have demonstrated that before the age of 2 ½, kids do not have the cognitive ability to transfer information from a flat, two-dimensional interactive screen to a three-dimensional model. They lack the capacity to generalize from a flat interactive model to the three-dimensional real world.


The brain development of kids from age 0 to 2 ½ are developing the capacity to determine what to ignore and what to pay attention and focus on around them. 

These are critical brain development months where executive function skills are formed.


Preschool children need to interact with actual physical objects to develop their parietal cortex, which controls visual-spatial processing and helps develop math and science skills in later life.


To address this, some app developers are introducing companion toys that can be manipulated by little hands alongside the apps.


The jury is still out on what if any benefit there is from touching interactive screens of iPads, tablets, and smartphones and the connection between the eyes, fingers, and brain versus the passive viewing from reading a book for example lacks.


Researchers want to know if any benefits result from manipulating a digital object on the screen that enhances the learning process and makes it easier to transfer knowledge into the real world.


Regardless of your personal feelings towards tablets and smartphones, these devices are here to stay. The question becomes one of how do we get the most out this technology?


Researchers can make an educated hypothesis on the type of interactions and under what circumstances; they are best utilized based on over 100 years of research on how children learn.


IPads, tablets, and smartphones can make an impact on lower-income households. In many low-income families, parents have less access to educational resources, such as tutoring and music lessons or extra hours of social interaction. Spending more time with digital media and interactive screens may make a difference in children’s educational opportunities.


Assuming that the content is high quality and educational, tablets and smartphones can have a significant impact.


A study from Stanford University found that, by 18 months, toddlers from economically disadvantaged families are already several months behind their economically advantaged peers on language development.


With the right content, interactive screens digital devices can help bridge the gap.


So instead of criticizing iPads, tablets, and smartphone, maybe we should be demanding better apps built on solid clinical research. For toddlers between three and five years of age, it’s entirely possible that a well-designed app may help improve vocabulary and basic math skills.


Given that all pediatricians, child development, and education specialists agree that, for toddlers under 2 and half years of age, there is no substitute for human interaction.


Why not develop apps that act as intermediaries between infant and parent?


With so much focus on what our kids are doing, it’s easy for parents to forget about our own screen use and the example that we are setting.


Let’s be honest, tech is designed to suck you in, and digital products and social media are there to promote maximum engagement.

It makes it hard to turn off the smartphone and engage with others, and this follows the daily routine of most families.

The extent to which parents are utilizing their smartphones in ways that disrupt and interrupt the interaction with the child has the potential for a far bigger impact.

Think about this, if you are on the floor playing with your child and checking your smartphone every few minutes, what message are you sending your child?How parents play with and talk to their kids is a very powerful predictor of how their children will develop.

Studies have demonstrated that mothers who use tablets, iPads or smartphones while interacting with their child start 20% fewer verbal and 39% fewer nonverbal interactions with their children.

Another study looked at mealtime; 55 caregivers eating with one child or more, phones became a source of significant tension in the family.

Parents are looking at their smartphones checking email or social media while the kids would be making repeated attempts to get their parents attention. This has a clear and direct impact on a child’s language skill development.

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Babies and toddlers are hard-wired to look at parents’ faces to try to understand their world.


If a parent’s faces are blank, without emotions and unresponsive, as they often are when absorbed in reading an email on a smartphone, it can be extremely disconcerting for a child.


Developmental psychologist Ed Tronick developed the “still face experiment,” in the 1970s. In this experiment, a mother is asked to interact with her child in a normal way, then to interact again putting on a blank facial expression and not giving their child any visual social feedback.


The result of this experiment illustrated that a child becomes increasingly distressed as they try to capture their mom’s attention.


As parents, you don’t have to be emotionally present all the time, but balance is a must. Parents need to be both responsive and sensitive to their child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions of emotional needs.


On the other hand, researchers and psychologist have expressed concerns that the overall concern about a kids’ use of tablets, iPads or smartphones is born out of a misguided ideology that “parents should always be interacting” with their children.


This is based on a somewhat fantasized, very white, very upper-middle-class ideology of helicopter parents who believe that if you’re failing to expose your child to 35,000 vocabulary words, you are neglecting them.


There is some value in allowing your child of the appropriate age some screen time.

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Just because a child isn’t actively learning from screen time doesn’t mean there’s no value to it.


If screen time gives parents time to get a shower in, prepare and cook dinner or simply take a much-needed break and get some ‘me time’ and reset from their child. If this makes a parent happier, which then lets them be more available to their child the rest of the time, then they should do this.


There is a benefit, and it’s something parents should be very honest with themselves about and not feel guilty. It’s a break that parents highly likely need, a much needed mental health break.


A question that every parent should be asking is a tablet, iPad, Android or mobile phone a healthy thing for his or her child?


So what should parents do?


Does the TV effect apply to iPads, tablets, and smartphones? Presently this is an unknown. There is not enough scientific data available.


Many pediatricians believe that tablets, iPads, and smartphones should fall under the same guidelines at TV time.


One of the main advantages of tablets, iPads, and smartphones is that they can become a focus for conversations between parents and children.


Shared experiences are possible so imagine curling up with your child in your lap to enjoy an interactive video story eBook that you can read together, or work on interactive math worksheets together or watch manners and hygiene videos together.


In other words, tablets and iPad, or smartphones may not be all bad if they generate “talk time,” rather than replace it.


As with anything else, moderation and common sense are key. The value of some screen time is that tablets, iPads, and smartphones can add to parent-child time, not take away from it.


If parents are busy, the best option may simply be to turn the tablet, iPad or smartphone off, rather than letting kids use them unattended.


No one expects parents to be with their child 24/7.


When we were little, parents would put toys to play with on the floor and tell us to play. Giving kids some time to explore on their own is good for them, and kids do not have to have external or parental stimulation every second of the day.


Few technologies have invaded our lives and of our children as insidious as a smartphone, iPad or tablet.


While tablets, iPads, and smartphones can be helpful in the short term, it’s critical for toddlers and kids to be able to develop internal mechanisms of executive function and self-regulation; to expand their education, fine and gross motor skills along with social skills and manners.


Kids need to be learning without eternal and continual rewards and be able to sit patiently without constant digital stimulation.

How we utilize, this technology is what is important.


Bear in mind that many apps are stimulus-driven, with exciting audio-visual rewards for completing game levels or tasks. Psychologists call this the “I did it!” response, which triggers the reward pathway in the brain.


This makes tablets and smartphones great pacifiers, particularly on long plane journeys and in restaurants, when used in moderation.


There are websites available that focus on educational activities, reading comprehension, interactive vocabulary and math that meet the standardized test standards that parents can take advantage of at modest fees that can be utilized on a tablet, iPad or smartphone.


Go ahead and allow your child to use a tablet, iPad or smartphone to further their education. Just be in the here and now with them.


Ask them questions about what they are doing, what they learned.


Most of all make this an interactive family time.