Study Reveals Link Between Screen Time in Infants and Later Sensory Challenges, According to Drexel University Researchers

PHILADELPHIA, PA – Allowing young children access to screens, such as televisions and other electronic devices, could potentially lead to sensory challenges later in childhood, according to a new study conducted by Drexel University in Pennsylvania. The study, titled “Early-Life Digital Media Experiences and Development of Atypical Sensory Processing,” was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics on January 8th.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Karen Heffler, explained that the research found an association between increased screen time during the first two years of life and high sensory-related behaviors in children. The study analyzed data from 1,471 babies and toddlers at 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months of age, using information from the National Children’s Study.

The study identified several types of atypical sensory behaviors, including sensory seeking, sensory avoiding, sensory sensitivity, and low registration. For example, a child who is sensory seeking may be attracted to spinning or shining objects, while a child with low registration may avoid eye contact and not respond promptly to familiar voices.

The study also revealed that the specific atypical behaviors varied depending on when the children were exposed to screens. Exposure to screen time at 12 months was linked to a 105% greater likelihood of exhibiting high sensory behaviors, while each additional hour of daily screen time at 18 months was associated with a 23% increased likelihood of high sensory behaviors, as well as later sensation avoiding and low registration.

Autism is typically not diagnosed until a child reaches 2 years of age, and Heffler emphasized that there was little prior understanding of potential risk factors for atypical sensory processing. The study adds to the evidence that screen time for very young children should be limited, aligning with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to avoid screen time altogether for children under 2 years old.

While the study did not establish a specific healthy amount of daily screen time for children, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against any media use for children younger than 2 years old and recommends a maximum of two hours per day for children ages 2 and older. Dr. Zeyad Baker, a pediatric physician, stated that the least amount of screen time is ideal for children, but acknowledged the challenges of moderating screen time during activities like online homework.

This new study contributes to the understanding of the potential effects of screen time on sensory processing in young children, providing important information for clinicians who encounter patients with sensory issues. It highlights the importance of reducing screen time in favor of social interaction and play, which has been associated with a reduction in autism-related symptoms.

Overall, the study emphasizes the need for parents and clinicians to be aware of the potential risks of excessive screen time in the early years of a child’s life and to prioritize healthy alternatives that promote sensory development and overall well-being.