It’s not uncommon for parents to pop on the TV to keep their toddlers busy. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screen time, except for video chatting, for kids under 18 months. From 18 to 24 months, the AAP recommends introducing a maximum of an hour of screen time, and only if it’s high-quality educational media that’s viewed with the guidance of a caretaker.
A new study adds support to these recommendations by finding that time spent watching TV or DVDs as a toddler is linked to later sensory processing issues, or trouble efficiently and appropriately processing what they see, hear, taste, smell, and touch.
For the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers compared 1,471 U.S. kids’ exposure to TV or DVDs at 12-, 18-, and 24-months to their sensory processing at 33 months, as measured by a questionnaire completed by their caregivers. Based on this questionnaire, the researchers graded each child’s sensory profile as typical, high, or low in four domains: low registration, sensation seeking, sensory sensitivity, and sensation avoiding.
Any time spent watching TV or DVDs at 12 months is linked to a 105% increased likelihood of being in the high category for low registration at 33 months, they found. Low registration means being less sensitive or slower to respond to sensory stimuli, such as being slower to respond when their name is called.
They also found that each additional hour of watching TV or DVDs per day at 18 months is linked to a 23% greater odds of being in the high categories for low registration and sensation avoiding at 33 months. Examples of sensation avoiding include trying to get away from loud noises and resisting wearing clothes with scratchy tags or eating certain food textures.
Each additional hour of watching TV or DVDs at 24 months is linked to a 20% higher odds of being in the high categories for sensation seeking, sensory sensitivity, and sensation avoiding at 33 months. Sensory sensitivity could mean that a child gets overly upset by lights, textures, or noises. A child with high sensation seeking behaviors may, for example, repetitively spin objects while staring at them or seek out physical contact or loud noises.
The findings of the study “could have important implications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, as atypical sensory processing is much more prevalent in these populations,” lead author Karen Heffler, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry in Drexel’s College of Medicine, said in a press release.
“Repetitive behavior, such as that seen in autism spectrum disorder, is highly correlated with atypical sensory processing,” Heffler said. “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.”
Previous research has found that screen time during toddlerhood is linked to conditions such as language delay, autism, behavioral issues, sleep struggles, attention problems, and problem-solving delays.
In autistic children, atypical sensory processing is linked to irritability, hyperactivity, eating and sleeping problems, and social issues. In kids with ADHD, it’s linked to executive dysfunction, anxiety, and lower quality of life.
“Considering this link between high screen time and a growing list of developmental and behavioral 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,” Heffler said.
Experts aren’t sure what could explain the relationship between screen time as toddlers and atypical sensory processing. However, they do know that more time spent staring at screens means less time playing and interacting with others, which could impact development in relation to sensory processing. Additionally, the sensory input from watching TV could change how sensory processing develops in toddlers.
Limitations of the study include that the researchers didn’t ask about what type of DVD or TV programs the children were watching at 18 and 24 months. So, they don’t know if they were watching high-quality educational programs, which the AAP says are okay if accompanied by caretaker interaction at this age. The study also didn’t account for screen time other than watching TV and DVDs.
However, the study is still important given that so many parents don’t follow the AAP screen recommendations for toddlers. According to 2014 data, kids aged 2 and under in the U.S. averaged just over three hours of screen time per day.
And at the end of the day, the takeaway is simple and supported by not only the new study but loads of previous research: Parents should limit toddlers’ screen time, and ideally not give them any at all.