Toddlers using tablets

BY YUN LIN | JUNE 25, 2015 5:00 AM

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When most people watch videos of babies, they’re looking for something adorable to spend five minutes on. Most people aren’t Juan Hourcade, a University of Iowa associate professor of computer science, and they probably aren’t conducting a scientific study.

Hourcade recently conducted a study analyzing how babies use and interact with tablets and apps.

He and his team analyzed more than 200 videos of babies using tablets and discovered something interesting.

“By age 1, about half of the children have moderate ability to use tablets,” Hourcade said. “And by age 2, about 90 percent of children show moderate ability to use tablets.”

Hourcade said that by year 1, most children start to use their index fingers for pointing at things; this makes interacting with tablets easier.

In fact, the study could be a starting point to switch from using television to tablets for children’s early education, he said.

“Many television shows try to interact with children by using a lot of tricks because they want to get responses from children,” he said.

Hourcade also said he hopes that the study results will influence the design of interactive educational apps in future.

“Children react well with tablets, so they can offer opportunities for more educational approaches,” he said. “I think we can take these results seriously, and they could help us design apps with an educational impact on children.”

Technology has done more than change the way we think about education, it has also altered the way scientific research is conducted.

Hourcade and his team found the videos for the study by delving into YouTube.

Using YouTube in a scientific study might sound odd, but Hourcade said the benefits were large.

By searching through the website, the researchers were able to find and analyze the children much quicker than using traditional study methods.

“YouTube is very convenient for us to collect and analyze data, which helps us do research quickly and get information about a variety of children easily,” he said.

Currently, it’s unclear if using tablets or phones benefits a child’s development or not. Lin Gao, a visiting scholar of internal medicine at King’s College London, said the field of study is too new to tell for sure.

“I think there is no answer for how tablets or phones are affecting children’s intelligence now, but with the development of technology, we will see,” Gao said.

Shengli Tang, a visiting scholar of medical research at the University of Chicago, said he thinks tablets could be helpful for children’s development but also said it depends on monitoring from parents. 

“If children are exposed to tablets and phones for a long time, that could make them addicted to video games,” he said.

Hourcade agrees that tablet use by young children has its benefits, depending on the context.

“I don’t see anything harmful, as long as the tablets have not been used as babysitters and children have enough social interaction with other people,” he said.

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