Toddler tech time: How early screen use can set back infant senses

Research suggests potential risks of digital media for young children, urging caution to help with sensory development

Increased screen time in toddlers is linked to higher chances of sensory processing differences, including sensitivity and avoidance, according to a new study. Getty Images
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Screen time in early childhood may have significant negative effects on sensory development, latest research has suggested.

A connection was established between digital media exposure in early life and unusual sensory processing in toddlers.

This study, led by Prof Karen Frankel Heffler and her team, analysed data from the National Children’s Study, focusing on children enrolled at birth whose caregivers reported their digital media exposure and sensory processing.

Prof Heffler told The National the link established between greater screen time in the first two years of life and "high" sensory-related behaviour was noticed in areas including sensory seeking, whereby infants were attracted to spinning or shiny objects.

Sensory seeking involved playing with food and tasting or smelling objects.

Also detected was sensory avoiding, where the toddlers resisted new foods, being held and shunned noisy environments; sensory sensitivity, when youngsters were easily startled, cried when in contact with rough or cold surfaces or expressed their displeasure with schedule changes; and low registration – avoiding eye contact and poor or slow response when their name was called.

“Atypical sensory processing can be a significant challenge for children and families," Prof Heffler said. "Understanding its risk factors is crucial.”

The study's main objective was to determine the association between early-life digital media exposure and sensory processing outcomes among toddlers.

The researchers observed screen exposure at 12 months was associated with twofold increased chances of being in the high category of low registration, a sensory processing pattern.

Greater screen exposure at 18 months was linked to increased chances of high sensation avoidance, and at 24 months, it was associated with increased risk of high sensation seeking and sensory sensitivity.

The authors proposed several possible explanations for the link between screen time and unusual sensory development. These included "screen time displacing and interfering with meaningful play, and social interactions which may be important in the development of typical sensory processing and overall daily function", Prof Heffler said.

"The programming viewed by an infant during screen time may be poorly understood in terms of content but the light, colour, visual motion and sound experienced ... could have a direct impact on early brain development.

"Studies in neuroplasticity [how the brain responds to experiences] show that altering sensory exposures produce changes in brain connectivity that subsequently impact behaviour."

Binod Acharya, co-author of the study, said: “These findings suggest digital media exposure might be a potential risk factor for the development of atypical sensory profiles."

The study highlights the need for further research to understand the relationship between screen time and specific sensory-related developmental and behavioural outcomes.

The study's conclusions emphasise the relevance of these findings in the context of increasing digital media exposure in early life.

The researchers advocate more public awareness and adherence to guidelines recommending minimal screen viewing in children younger than 18 months.

“Our findings add a new dimension to understanding the impact of early screen time on children's development,” Prof Heffler said.

“While our study does not establish causality, it raises important questions about the role of digital media in children's sensory development.”

The study, titled Early-Life Digital Media Experiences and Development of Atypical Sensory Processing, was published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Updated: January 08, 2024, 4:00 PM