In Summary

  • This article originally featured in Swinburne’s Venture magazine
Research into the negative effects of television has been lumped onto tablets.

Grandparents rarely try them, parents are getting the hang of them, teens are glued to them and young children are fascinated by them.

If you put an iPad or other tablet computer in front of most toddlers, they seem immediately comfortable manipulating its touch-screen controls. However, many parents worry that tablets add to the negative effects on their child’s development of too much screen time.

Dr Jordy Kaufman, senior research fellow at Swinburne, watched his son use a tablet computer and decided to explore the concerns in greater detail. He started by noting an important distinction between the effect of television viewing and the use of tablets.

“Research into the negative effects of television has been lumped onto tablets,” he says. “Being on a touch-screen device is more interactive. It’s not right to assume that sitting in front of the TV has the same effects on children as using tablets.”

Dr Kaufman is founder and director of the BabyLab at Swinburne, which is one of Australia’s first research facilities to specialise in child cognitive brain research and social development from birth. He moved from the UK to Australia after completing his PhD in developmental psychology at Duke University in the US and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of London in developmental cognitive neuroscience.

Google comes on board

Dr Kaufman’s research has attracted attention around the world, and last year he received a Google Faculty Research Award to advance the work in collaboration with fellow Swinburne academics Dr Mark Finn, Dr Anthony Bartel and Peter Ciszewski. “It was a great boost, we were one of two Australian teams to receive a grant,” Dr Kaufman says.

Dr Kaufman’s research team includes two PhD students, honour students and undergraduate volunteers, working with volunteer parents and children from across Melbourne. “We usually get around 15 children in a week from about four months to over six years of age. We’ve had 40 to 50 children take part in the touch-screen research,” Dr Kaufman says.

This research looks at attentiveness, impulsivity, learning and emotional effects of a touch-screen environment with children aged four to seven. Experiments contrast the attention spans and problem-solving capabilities of children using traditional toys with their experiences using a tablet.

“We give them creative activities such as drawing and block building,” Dr Kaufman says. “So far, there has been no difference between touch-screen and real-world activities when it comes to slow-paced creative activities. We are not finding any difference in their skills whether they are using a tablet or a toy. If you are careful with the applications you choose, we haven’t found any negative effects on attention span.”

Parents have voiced concern that the virtual screen environment might take away from the physical world. To test this, Dr Kaufman’s team give children a difficult problem-solving task. “First we use real objects, and then we get the children to practise the same task using an application on an iPad. Both groups of kids improve dramatically on both the iPad and using the real object.”

The babies listen to sounds and see pictures, and we look at what the brain does when you show them something different.

Love at first byte

Dr Kaufman said many parents found asking their child to stop playing a touch screen caused tantrums and tears. “We are just beginning to look at emotional findings,” he says. “We want to determine if these responses are related to it being a touch screen or if they are about stopping them from doing something they are enjoying.”

Another area of research includes video communication, through programs such as Skype. Postgraduate student Joanne Tarasuik, who is a part-time researcher on the touch-screen work, is undertaking her PhD on the video research. Testing methods include separating children from their parents and providing the child with a video link to the parent. “When there is a video link, the children don’t act like they are alone and are happy to explore,” Dr Kaufman says. “We will also look at video versus audio and parents versus strangers over video.”

Baby brain development

Brain activity in babies has been a developing area of research for Dr Kaufman since 2009. “The babies listen to sounds and see pictures, and we look at what the brain does when you show them something different,” he says.

“Other work with young infants is about understanding how babies’ brains help keep objects in mind. It’s not always necessarily out of sight, out of mind. Babies remember what was hidden and where it was hidden.”

This research has led to working with infants with a high hereditary risk of autism. The team received $85,000 from the Bennelong Foundation towards this research, which studies babies who have an older sibling with autism.

“We measure brain activity and social gaze behaviours to determine if these measures predict a later outcome of autism,” Dr Kaufman says. “Studies have found that it can be more effective if autism is detected early and can be very helpful with babies.”

Kids and tablets

Laura Matthews, aged seven, and her sister Claire, aged four, are two enthusiastic volunteers at Dr Kaufman’s BabyLab. Their mother Leanne Matthews explains how they got involved. “I saw an ad on Facebook about helping people with their PhD work,” she says. “Claire did three separate tests in the baby brainwave work.” Laura has participated in the touch-screen and video communication research.

“The touch-screen research was interesting – this was the first time she had one in front of her. I have generally tried to steer them away from those devices,” Mrs Matthews says. “She did well, and ended up showing me what to do. The only thing I noticed was that she occasionally paused when using the iPads because the colours weren’t as vivid.”

During the video research, Mrs Matthews and Laura were in separate rooms communicating over a webcam. “She was waving at the camera and showing me what she was doing,” Mrs Matthews says. “It was the same as if I was in the room.”

Parents wanting more information or who are interested in being part of the BabyLab research can visit the Baby Lab website or the Swinburne Baby Lab Facebook page