Too Much Screen Time Might Harm Kids’ ‘Sensory Processing’

Exposing babies and toddlers to TV and other digital media could be linked to a heightened risk for dysfunction in what’s known as “sensory processing,” a new study warns.

Kids with “atypical sensory processing” are often hypersensitive to the touch, sound, taste or look of stimuli in their environment.

For example, kids might try to avoid the feel of certain clothing, the taste of certain foods or necessary activities like getting their hair washed.

Conversely, they might seek out sensations — twirling in place, staring at bright lights or ceiling fans — to the neglect of other activities.

Sensory processing issues are highly correlated with other psychiatric conditions, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism. About 60% of kids with ADHD have issues with sensory processing, as do about 70% of kids with autism, said researchers at Drexel University in West Reading, Pa.

They looked at data on nearly 1,500 young children tracked from 2011 to 2023. According to the study, those who’d been exposed to TVs and DVDs in the first three years of life were much more likely to have symptoms of atypical sensory processing, compared with those whose parents delayed such exposures.

The study could not prove cause-and-effect. However, the Drexel team theorize that kids’ screen time could reduce “meaningful play and social interactions, which may have significant implications for the development of typical sensory processing and overall level of daily function.”

The study was led by Dr. Karen Heffler, an associate professor or psychiatry at Drexel, and was published Jan. 8 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Atypical sensory processing can seriously disrupt the quality of life and development of affected children. “Those with sensory sensitivity and sensation avoidance may be so overwhelmed by the environment that they have greater difficulty learning from the people around them,” Heffler’s team explained.

Caregivers are impacted as well, as a child’s sensory processing issues interfere “with family members’ participation in work, family and leisure activities,” the team added.

Could high levels of early life screen time contribute to atypical sensory processing?

To find out, the Drexel team looked at data on 1,471 kids enrolled at birth (between 2011 and 2014) in the U.S. National Children’s Study. As part of the study, parents were asked about kids’ levels of exposure to digital media at the ages of 12 months, 18 months and 24 months.

The media in this study was limited to TV and DVD watching. However, the researchers believe their findings may have relevance for other forms of digital media.

At 18 months of age, about 11% of parents said their child watched no television or DVDs, around 48% said they watched about an hour of such media per day, 18% said their child watched two hours per day, and just over 8% said their child watched three to five hours daily.

The researchers also used a standard parent questionnaire to assess sensory processing in children at the age of 33 months.

Heffler’s team found that kids who watched any amount of television or videos daily at 12 months of age were twice as likely to have issues with “low registration” (failing to respond appropriately to stimuli in their environment), compared to kids who hadn’t had such early exposures.

At 18 months, kids who had greater exposures to screens were at higher risk for low registration, as well as behaviors around sensation avoidance.

At 24 months, more time spent looking at screens was linked to a higher odds for sensation-seeking, sensory sensitivity and sensation-avoiding, the research showed.

What’s going on? Heffler’s team pointed to prior brain-imaging research that showed neurological changes among children with high exposures to screens, and among those with atypical sensory processing issues.

Based on the new findings, the study authors wonder if early life exposures to digital media might also play a role in brain changes observed in kids with autism.

“To the extent that high screen time may increase the risk for ASD [autism] symptoms, the current findings raise the possibility that screen time may do so by impacting sensory development,” Heffler’s group wrote.

In any case, there was one silver lining to the findings: Parents can control the amount of time babies and toddlers spend staring at screens.

“Parent training and education are key to minimizing, or hopefully even avoiding, screen time in children younger than 2 years,” senior study author David Bennett, a professor of psychiatry at Drexel, said in a university news release.

“We advocate for greater adherence to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations to avoid screen viewing in children younger than 18 to 24 months,” Heffler and colleagues wrote in the study.

More information

Find out more about sensory processing disorder at the American Academy of Family Physicians.

SOURCE: JAMA Pediatrics, Jan. 8, 2024; Drexel University, news release, Jan. 8, 2024