In a world where technology has become inescapable, people are often exposed to screens from a very young age. Now, a new study has warned that when babies and toddlers watch television or videos, they could be more likely to exhibit atypical sensory behaviours.
The new study, led by researchers from Drexel University, suggests that children who are exposed to greater TV viewing by the time they turn two years old are more likely to develop atypical sensory processing behaviours. These behaviours include being disengaged and disinterested in activities, seeking more intense stimulation in an environment, or being overwhelmed by sensations like loud sounds or bright lights, by 33 months of age, the university's press statement explains.
Sensory processing skills refer to the body's ability to appropriately engage with the information and stimuli received by its sensory systems, such as what the toddler hears, sees, touches, and tastes.
For this study, the team used 2011-2014 data on television or DVD-watching by babies and toddlers at 12- 18- and 24-months from the National Children's Study of 1,471 children. For the analysis, they used a questionnaire Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile (ITSP), a questionnaire completed by parents/caregivers.
The findings, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, showed that at 12 months, toddlers who were exposed to screens exposure showed a 105% greater likelihood of exhibiting "high" sensory behaviours instead of "typical" sensory behaviours related to low registration—being slower to respond to stimuli—at 33 months compared to those who weren’t exposed to screens.
Furthermore, at 18 months, each additional hour of daily screen time linked to 23% increased chances of exhibiting "high" sensory behaviours related to later sensation avoiding—avoiding situations where certain sounds or visuals feel overwhelming—and low registration, the statement elaborated.
At 24 months, each additional hour of daily screen time was associated with a 20% increased odds of "high" sensation seeking, sensory sensitivity, and sensation avoiding at 33 months.
The findings add to the growing list of health concerns linked to screen time in infants and toddlers which include language delay, behavioural issues, sleep struggles and attention problems. For instance, in August 2023, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that screen exposure at an early age could lead to developmental delays in communication and problem-solving.
“Considering this link between high screen time and a growing list of developmental and behavioural problems, it may be beneficial for toddlers exhibiting these symptoms to undergo a period of screen time reduction, along with sensory processing practices delivered by occupational therapists," lead author Karen Heffler of the new study said in the statement.