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The Truth About Your Child’s Touch Screen Use

The Impact of Touch Screens on Fine Motor Skill Development.

If you’re a parent and have questions about the effects of touch screens on fine motor skills, you’re likely to turn to Google, searching a phrase like, “do touch screens affect fine motor skills?” Interestingly, the very first result will highlight an article that says touch screens have a negative effect on fine motor skills. The second search result states that touch screens could improve your toddlers fine motor skills! For a parent looking for answers, this can be pretty confusing.

Is Technology ‘Good’ for Children?

At SET Technology, we think the way children physically interact with touch screens needs some improvement. We’re not saying tablets are terrible and have no place in a child’s life. In fact, we think the opposite! Tablets are an amazing medium for self-expression, creativity and learning. If your child needs practice with finger isolation or hand-eye coordination, touch screens are a great resource. But the repetitive swiping on a tablet does little for fine motor skills and dexterity compared to writing, drawing, coloring or other forms of hands-on play.

*Key Takeaway: Touch screens are great…for some things.

Improving Fine Motor Skills WITH Tablets? Not Likely.

Kids often begin scrolling on a touch screen device at a very early age.

Unfortunately, many blogs are citing a study that states scrolling on tablets will help toddlers reach fine motor milestones (stacking blocks) earlier[i]. This is very misleading. The study states that there is a significant correlation between scrolling a screen and stacking blocks. But what does this really mean? According to this study, they are 97% certain of a correlation between scrolling and block stacking. However, the correlation value is classified as ‘Very Weak.’ So, the blogs and articles that say scrolling a tablet helps children achieve fine motor milestones earlier are misusing the research. What the research is really portraying is they are 97% certain of a very weak correlation between touch screen use and fine motor skills development.

*Key Takeaway: Scrolling a touch screen has a ‘very weak’ effect on fine motor development.

Hands-On Play Vs. Tablet Time

Coloring, drawing and cutting encourages lots of coordination, dexterity and hand muscle development.

As you continue your search to discover the effects of screen time on fine motor development, you may also have read articles stating that there is a negative effect on fine motor skills. One study[ii] in particular had two groups of children perform a 24-week fine motor program. One group completed their fine motor training with a tablet, and one group completed fine motor training through manual play. At the end of 24 weeks, the manual play (non-touch screen) group showed significantly improved fine motor precision as well as dexterity.

*Key Takeaway: Manual Play is better than touch screens for fine motor skills.

Good Handwriting, Good Grades.

Another study compared 113 children’s fine motor proficiency and screen time over a 3-year period from age 4-7[iii]. The children who spent more time on screens had poorer fine motor proficiency than the children who spent less time on screens. And, the fine motor issues children experienced remained prevalent throughout the 3-year period of the study. Another study examined the relationship between handwriting skill and academic success[iv]. They found that 1st and 2nd grade children who excelled in handwriting were more likely to have better grades.

*Key Takeaway: Less Screen Time=Better Fine Motor Skills and improved school performance.

What Do We Think?

So, do touch screens negatively affect fine motor skills? We think they do; the research studies point to this conclusion. The fact is that repetitive swiping is just not the same as holding a crayon, squeezing play-dough or manipulating objects. When holding a writing utensil like a pencil, crayon or marker, the small muscles in our hand are active and engaged. That engagement means our fine motor muscles are getting lots of practice and development! That practice just doesn’t happen by swiping on a touch screen device.

*Key Takeaway: Children’s hands have to be exposed to hands-on play in order to develop and strengthen them.

Technology is Here to Stay.

Tablets have become a frequently used tool in the classroom.

Touch screen devices have become common in households all over the world. In fact:

  • 98% of all family households have a smartphone.

  • 78% of all households have a tablet.

  • Even 42% of children 8 years and under have their very own tablet!

  • 70% of K-2 school districts are purchasing tablets for classrooms.

The direction we are headed certainly points to the use of touch screen devices as a medium for learning. Besides tablets, a majority of classrooms include smart-boards and other devices that are enabled by touch.

*Key Takeaway: Technology is here to stay.

Combining Handwriting with Technology!

Using a stylus or tablet pen allows children to practice their handwriting grip and train fine motor skills during screen time.

Although these touch screen devices might not be beneficial for fine motor skills, our society is driven by technology. The interactive nature of these devices makes them a great learning tool at home and in school. However, important life skills like handwriting must continue to be a priority. For the child just beginning to learn how to write, it is important that they use a writing tool or stylus if they are going to learn and engage through touch screen devices. After all, our most powerful ideas begin in handwriting.

*Key Takeaway: Use a stylus to make screen time beneficial for fine motor development and handwriting!


[i] Bedford, R., Urabain, I. R., Cheung, C. H., Karmiloff-Smith, A., & Smith, T. J. (2016). Toddlers’ Fine Motor Milestone Achievement Is Associated with Early Touchscreen Scrolling. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01108.

[ii] Lin, L., Cherng, R., & Chen, Y. (2017). Effect of Touch Screen Tablet Use on Fine Motor Development of Young Children. Physical & Occupational Therapy In Pediatrics, 37(5), 457-467. doi:10.1080/01942638.2016.1255290.

[iii] Geneviève Cadoret, Nathalie Bigras, Lise Lemay, Joanne Lehrer & Julie Lemire (2018) Relationship between screen-time and motor proficiency in children: a longitudinal study, Early Child Development and Care, 188:2, 231-239, DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2016.1211123.

[iv] Mccarroll, H., & Fletcher, T. (2017). Does handwriting instruction have a place in the instructional day? The relationship between handwriting quality and academic success. Cogent Education, 4(1). doi:10.1080/2331186x.2017.1386427

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