An alarming study links screen time in early childhood to atypical sensory processing
New research published in JAMA Pediatrics A worrying relationship has been found between early exposure to screens and sensory processing challenges in children. The study, the first of its kind, suggests that overexposure to digital media in the formative years may affect how children perceive and respond to their surroundings.
In recent years, with the advent of various digital devices, young children are increasingly exposed to screens at an early age. This is a major shift from previous generations and has raised concerns among researchers and healthcare professionals about its potential impact on child development.
Sensory processing is crucial because it involves the integration of sensory information (such as sight, sound, and touch) by the brain to form appropriate responses. Proper sensory processing is vital to daily functioning and well-being. There are concerns that excessive screen time may negatively impact this process.
Moreover, studies on neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience—suggest that changes in sensory experiences can lead to changes in brain connections. These changes may affect behavior, which may lead to maladaptive behaviors.
To investigate these concerns, lead author Karen Hefler (associate professor of psychiatry at Drexel College of Medicine) and colleagues used data from the National Children’s Study, which was designed to evaluate the effects of environmental factors on child health and development in the United States. States.
Participants in this study were enrolled at birth and observed between 2011 and 2014. For the current analysis, the researchers focused on children whose caregivers completed the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile, a validated tool for assessing sensory processing in young children. This resulted in a sample size of 1,471 children, with an almost equal distribution between genders.
The Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile measures how babies respond to sensory experiences in their environment, and categorizes their responses into four basic patterns based on a well-established model of sensory processing. These patterns include low registration (not noticing sensory stimuli), sensation seeking (actively seeking sensory stimuli), sensory sensitivity (easily irritated by sensory stimuli), and sensation avoidance (actively avoiding sensory stimuli).
The researchers measured screen exposure using caregiver-reported data at three key developmental stages: 12, 18, and 24 months of age. When the children were 12 months old, caregivers were asked a simple yes or no question about whether their children watched television or DVDs. As the children got older, at 18 and 24 months, the questions became more detailed. Caregivers were asked to estimate the average number of hours per day their child spent watching television and/or DVDs over the past 30 days.
They analyzed the data using multinomial regression analyses, adjusting for a range of factors including the child’s age, premature birth, family income, and caregiver education. The goal was to uncover the relationship between screen exposure and sensory processing outcomes.
The results revealed some surprising correlations. For example, children who watched television or videos at 12 months were twice as likely to fall into the high-low category as those who did not. As children got older, greater screen exposure at 18 months was associated with lower registration and sensory avoidance, a pattern in which children actively try to limit sensory exposure. By 24 months, greater screen time was associated with more frequent sensation seeking, sensory sensitivity, and sensation avoidance behaviors.
These findings are important because they add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that early exposure to screens can have effects on development. Sensory processing plays a critical role in children’s learning and daily functioning. Atypical sensory processing is notably prevalent in developmental disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. The study results suggest that excessive screen time may exacerbate or contribute to these sensory processing challenges.
“This association may have important implications for ADHD and autism, as atypical sensory processing is more prevalent in these populations,” Hefler said in a press release. “Repetitive behavior, such as that seen in autism spectrum disorder, is highly associated with atypical sensory processing. Future work may determine whether screen time early in life can fuel the sensory brain hyperconnectivity seen in autism spectrum disorders, such as brain responses Increased sensory stimulation.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against screen time for children younger than 18 to 24 months, except for live video chats, which may offer interactive benefits. For children ages 2 to 5, the recommendation is to limit screen time to no more than one hour per day. Despite these guidelines, a 2019 research letter was published in JAMA Pediatrics It revealed a startling trend: As of 2014, American children ages 2 and under averaged 3 hours and 3 minutes of screen time per day, a significant increase from the 1 hour and 19 minutes average in 1997.
“Parent training and education are key to reducing, or even avoiding, screen time in children younger than 2 years of age,” said lead author David Bennett, a professor of psychiatry at Drexel College of Medicine.
However, the new study has its limitations. One major drawback is their observational nature, which means they can indicate associations but not prove causation. This means that although there is a relationship between screen time and sensory processing issues, we cannot definitively say that one causes the other. In addition, reliance on caregiver reports regarding screen exposure and sensory processing measures may introduce biases. Caregivers’ perceptions and memories can influence the accuracy of the data.
Another limitation is the potential for selection bias, as the study included only children whose parents completed the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile. Furthermore, screen exposure assessments were based on single-item caregiver reports, which may not fully capture the depth and nuances of children’s screen exposure. Future research is necessary to deepen our understanding of the mechanisms driving the relationship between early life screen time and atypical sensory processing.
“This study is unique in finding that exposure to digital media early in life is associated with later atypical sensory processing across multiple sensory domains,” the researchers concluded. “These findings are particularly important, as behavioral and developmental issues can be challenging for young children.” Their families relate greatly to the sensory profiles of children.
The study, “Digital Media Experiences in Early Life and the Development of Atypical Sensory Processing,” was authored by Karen Frankel-Hefler, Binod Acharya, Keshab Subedi, and David S. Bennett.