Unsettling research relates early screen usage to abnormal sensory processing in children

Unsettling findings from a recent study that was published in JAMA Pediatrics link children’s difficulties with sensory processing and early screen time. This groundbreaking study raises the possibility that early exposure to digital media may have a lasting impact on children’s perceptions of and reactions to their environment.

Due to the introduction of numerous digital gadgets in recent years, young children are being exposed to screens at a younger age. This is a major change from previous generations, and experts and medical professionals are concerned about how it can affect a child’s development.

In order for the brain to produce proper reactions, it must integrate sensory input such as sight, sound, and touch. This process is known as sensory processing, and it is essential. For daily living and wellbeing, proper sensory processing is essential. There are worries that this process could be negatively impacted by excessive screen use.

Furthermore, research on neuroplasticity—the brain’s capacity to create and rearrange synaptic connections, particularly in response to experience or learning—shows that modifications in sensory experiences may result in adjustments to the connectivity of the brain. These alterations may have an impact on behavior and might result in maladaptive actions.

Lead author Karen Heffler, an associate professor of psychiatry at Drexel’s College of Medicine, and her colleagues used data from the National Children’s Study, which assessed how environmental factors affected children’s development and health in the US, to look into these worries.

Enrolled at birth, study participants were monitored from 2011 to 2014. In order to conduct the current analysis, the researchers concentrated on young children whose caregivers had finished the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile, a validated instrument for evaluating young children’s sensory processing. As a result, 1,471 kids made up the sample, with a nearly equal distribution of genders.

Based on a well-established model of sensory processing, the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile assesses how children react to sensory stimuli in their surroundings and classifies their responses into four main types. These patterns include sensation avoiding, sensory sensitivity low registration (not perceiving sensory stimuli), and sensation seeking.

Using information from caregivers, researchers calculated screen time at three critical developmental stages: twelve, eighteen, and twenty-four months of age. A simple yes-or-no question about whether the children watched TV or DVDs was posed to the caregivers when the children were 12 months old. By the time the kids were 18 and 24 months old, the questions were getting more specific. Over the previous 30 days, caregivers were asked to estimate the average number of hours per day that their child spent viewing TV and/or DVDs.

Multinomial regression analyses were used to examine the data, correcting for a number of variables such as caregiver education, household income, child age, and preterm delivery. The objective was to disentangle the connection between screen time and the results of sensory processing.

The results showed a few startling correlations. For example, compared to children who did not watch television or videos, those who did at 12 months old had twice the chance of falling into the high category for low registration. As the kids became older, more screen time at 18 months was associated with more often occurring low registration and sensation avoiding—a pattern in which kids actively seek to reduce their exposure to sensory stimuli. Higher screen time was associated at 24 months with increased occurrences of sensation seeking, sensory sensitivity, and sensation avoidance behaviors.

“This association could have important implications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, as atypical sensory processing is much more prevalent in these populations,” Heffler stated in a news release. “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.”

For infants less than 18 to 24 months, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against screen time—with the possible exception of live video conversations, which may facilitate engagement. It is advised that kids between the ages of two and five spend no more than an hour a day on screens. Despite these recommendations, a 2019 study letter published in JAMA Pediatrics showed an alarming trend: as of 2014, American toddlers under the age of two were spending an average of three hours and three minutes a day in front of a screen—a considerable rise from the average of one hour and nineteen minutes in 1997.

“Parent training and education are key to minimizing, or hopefully even avoiding, screen time in children younger than two years,” senior author David Bennett, a psychiatry professor at Drexel’s College of Medicine, stated.

The new study does, however, have certain drawbacks. Its observational character, which can show correlations but not prove causation, is one of its main limitations. As a result, even while there is a link between screen time and problems with sensory processing, we are unable to prove that one causes the other. Furthermore, biases may be introduced by relying solely on caregiver reports to quantify screen exposure and sensory processing. The perceptions and memories of caregivers may have an impact on the data’s accuracy.

Due to the fact that the study only included kids whose parents had finished the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile, there is also a chance of selection bias. Additionally, the caregiver reports used to assess screen time consisted only of one item, which may have left out important details about the complexity and subtleties of children’s screen time. Further investigation is required to enhance our comprehension of the mechanisms behind the correlation between early screen usage in life and abnormal sensory processing.

“This study is unique in prospectively finding early-life digital media exposure to be associated with later atypical sensory processing across multiple sensory domains. These findings are particularly important, as behavioral and developmental problems which can be challenging for young children and their families are significantly associated with children’s sensory profiles,” the researchers said.