Guest Post: Screen time and toddlers: What is transfer deficit?

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we've all been using screens more, and overall, that's OK. Screen time is less about the hours than the content. Screens can connect and educate, and keep us all safe indoors. However, research shows that for our youngest children, under age three, we need to be more careful and deliberate with devices.

A study out of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2015 illustrates the limitations of digital learning with toddlers. The researchers showed 2.5 and year olds how to assemble a 3D three-piece puzzle on either a magnetic board, or a 2D touchscreen. The children were divided into two groups, one with a live demonstrator who showed how to complete the puzzle on the touch screen, and the other who showed the toddlers how to complete the puzzle using the magnetic board. Even with having live instruction, the toddlers who had the demonstration on a screen were less efficient and took more time trying to maneuvering the puzzle pieces. (Moser et. al, 2015) This study was repeated with 4-6 year olds, who did not struggle the same to complete the puzzle as the toddlers. (Huber et al., 2016)

This concept is called the transfer deficit. Research has consistently found that infants and toddlers learn more with face-to-face interactions than 2D media. Studies before the one cited earlier has found a similar loss of learning termed a "video deficit." Professor Rachel Barr, who was involved in the 2015 study, describes this deficit in a journal article stating, "children learn less from television than they do from live demonstrations until they are at least 3 years old." (Barr, 2010) Researchers like Barr theorize that there are "age-related constraints on memory flexibility," which inhibits our youngest from learning through screens. There are ways to improve learning with this age group, such as adding visual and auditory clues, and having a parent close. But, to put it directly, children under age 3 simply learn differently and should have limited screen time.

To be clear, this post is not intended to shame or increase any stress we're all feeling being locked down with children. But it is to help us adjust our expectations. While it is certainly better for parents to try to use educational and interactive apps for their young children than simply videos, they should not think that just because a child completed a puzzle on an app, they can do so in real life. Learning does not translate directly into practice for younger children. Screens are not the best substitutes for learning at any age, but in particular for our youngest learners.

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead is the author of the forthcoming book Becoming a Digital Parent (Routledge, 2021) and founder of Digital Respons-Ability, the Utah state sponsored provider of digital citizenship education. Contact them today at to arrange a free digital parenting class or student training. Check out their website at for other free resources and videos.

 Sources cited

Barr R. (2010). Transfer of learning between 2D and 3D sources during infancy: Informing theory and practice. Developmental review : DR, 30(2), 128–154.

Moser, Alecia & Zimmermann, Laura & Dickerson, Kelly & Grenell, Amanda & Barr, Rachel & Gerhardstein, Peter. (2015). They can interact, but can they learn? Toddlers' transfer learning from touchscreens and television. Journal of experimental child psychology. 137. 137-155. 10.1016/j.jecp.2015.04.002.

Huber B., Tarasuik J., Antoniou M. N., Garrett C., Bowe S. J., Kaufman J., et al. (2016). Young children's transfer of learning from a touchscreen device. Comput. Human Behav. 56, 56–64. 10.1016/j.chb.2015.11.010

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Wednesday, 07 December 2022

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