The Effects of Screen Time on Babies and Toddlers

Parenting can sometimes feel overwhelming, and screens can seem like a cheat code, providing a brief respite from the demands of caring for a child. However, while screen time may offer a momentary break, it is important to recognize the potential drawbacks and risks associated with its use. Screens can lure kids away from physical activity and imaginative play, potentially hindering the development of critical skills like emotional self-regulation. Moreover, recent research suggests that screen time for babies and toddlers can also lead to atypical sensory-processing behaviors, which many parents may not have considered.

A study found that children who spent more time watching TV or other videos before the age of 2 were more likely to develop atypical sensory-processing behaviors by the age of 3. These behaviors include “sensation seeking” and “sensation avoiding,” where a child either seeks out intense sensory stimulation or becomes averse to it, as well as “low registration,” which refers to a lower sensitivity or slower response to stimuli. These behaviors provide insights into a child’s sensory-processing skills, indicating their body’s ability to interpret sensory input and generate an appropriate response.

The study utilized data collected from the US National Children’s Study (NCS), a large-scale cohort study focused on investigating environmental influences on child health and development. Although the NCS was canceled prematurely in 2014, data from approximately 5,000 children had already been gathered. This included information on the screen exposure of babies and toddlers at ages 12, 18, and 24 months, as well as completion of the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile (ITSP), a questionnaire that assesses sensory-processing skills in young children.

The study examined responses from caregivers of 1,471 children between 2011 and 2014. For 1-year-olds, any screen time during their first year was associated with a 105 percent higher likelihood of later displaying high sensory behaviors related to low registration at the age of 33 months. Additionally, for 18-month-olds, each additional hour of screen time per day was linked to a 23 percent higher chance of exhibiting high sensory behaviors by the age of 33 months. Among 2-year-olds, each extra hour of daily screen time was associated with a 20 percent higher likelihood of high sensation seeking, sensory sensitivity, and sensation avoiding within the following year.

The researchers controlled for various factors such as age, health history, caregiver education, and physical activity levels, indicating that screen time may play a significant role in the development of atypical sensory-processing behaviors. However, more research is needed to determine if a causal relationship exists. Nevertheless, given the links discovered in this study, it is important to recognize that atypical sensory-processing behaviors may join the growing list of health concerns associated with screen time for young children, including sleep disturbances, language delays, behavioral problems, and autism spectrum disorder.

The association between screen time and atypical sensory processing has implications for conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Atypical sensory processing is more prevalent in these populations and has been linked to repetitive behavior, as seen in ASD, as well as hyperactivity, irritability, social difficulties, anxiety, and impaired executive function in children with ADHD. The study’s authors suggest that reducing screen time and incorporating sensory-processing practices delivered by occupational therapists may be beneficial for toddlers exhibiting these symptoms.

To minimize or avoid screen time in children under two years old, parents should focus on receiving training and education in this matter. Drexel University psychiatrist David Bennett emphasizes the significance of parental involvement in reducing screen time. By implementing strategies to limit screen exposure and instead encourage healthy sensory experiences and development, parents can contribute to their child’s overall well-being.

While screens may offer a momentary break, it is essential for parents to be aware of the potential risks associated with excessive screen time for babies and toddlers. The development of atypical sensory-processing behaviors has been linked to screen use, and further research is needed to better understand the causal relationship. By taking proactive measures and reducing screen time while prioritizing sensory experiences, parents can support their child’s healthy development and mitigate potential developmental and behavioral issues.


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