The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that children under 18 months only have screen time if they’re video chatting with an adult. Up to 2-years-old, only small amounts of educational programming – also with an adult – should be utilized. Even up to age five, the organization recommends keeping it to no more than an hour each weekday. Some consequences of overloading on screen time may include sleep problems, issues with mood, and not enough outdoor or exercise time. A new study finds it could also impact a child’s sensory processes.
Researchers from Drexel University recently sought to answer the question of whether early life screen time could lead to atypical sensory processing, which can be difficult for children and families, and which are issues commonly found in kids on the autism spectrum.
To investigate, the team looked at TV and DVD exposure in kids aged 12 to 24 months who were involved in the National Children’s Study between 2011 and 2014. This larger study looks at how a child’s environment influences their health and development. For the Drexel study, researchers included data on 1,471 kids – evenly split between boys and girls – and tested their sensory processing at 33 months.
These processes included low registration, or lower sensitivity and slower response to stimuli; sensation seeking, or excessive sensory stimulation with certain objects; sensory sensitivity, or being overwhelmed by certain sensory experiences; and sensation avoiding, or trying to avoid certain sensory sensations.
The findings, published in JAMA Pediatrics, showed that even after accounting for possible contributing factors, these were all impacted by screen time. Any screen time at 12 months was linked with a 105% higher risk of low registration at 33 months, compared with no screen time. Each extra hour of daily screen time at 18 months was linked with a 23% higher risk of low registration and sensation avoiding behaviors, while at 24 months, that extra hour was linked with a 20% higher risk of atypical sensation seeking, sensory sensitivity, and sensation avoiding behaviors.
Dr. Karen Heffler, lead author and associate professor of psychiatry at Drexel, says, “This association could have important implications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, as atypical sensory processing is much more prevalent in these populations. Repetitive behavior, such as that seen in autism spectrum disorder, is highly correlated with atypical sensory processing. Future work may determine whether early life screen time could fuel the sensory brain hyperconnectivity seen in autism spectrum disorders, such as heightened brain responses to sensory stimulation.”
The authors say further research could also see whether minimizing screen time in young life may help lower the likelihood of these behaviors. They also add that parent training and education are important in ensuring very young children have minimal – or no – screen time.