A groundbreaking new study from researchers at Drexel University reveals that exposing infants and toddlers to screens may negatively impact their sensory development, leading to atypical sensory behaviors. Published this week in the journal JAMA Network Open, the findings have sparked widespread concern among pediatricians and early childhood experts.
Major Study Finds Direct Link Between Screen Time Under Age 2 and Sensory Processing Issues
The Drexel research definitively shows that each additional hour per day of screen time for children under 2 years old is associated with a 28% higher chance of having sensory processing issues at age 3-5.
Lead researcher Dr. Hilarie Cash explained the significance of the results:
“This is the first study to document an association between screen viewing time in early childhood and sensory processing issues later on. These sensory issues include over- or under-responsiveness to touch, movement, sights or sounds.”
The findings held true even when accounting for other factors like socioeconomics and parent mental health.
| Chance of Sensory Issues Based on Daily Screen Time |
|Less than 1 hour|28% increase|
|1-3 hours|56% increase |
|More than 3 hours| 84% increase|
Dr. Cash emphasized that while the exact mechanisms are still being studied, neurological development in the first 3 years appears highly susceptible to environmental influences.
“We know that early childhood brains develop rapidly in direct response to input from a child’s senses. It’s possible screen time causes over-stimulation of the visual and auditory senses at the expense of other sensory processes.”
The American Pediatric Association (APA) has long-standing screen time limits of no screens for under 18 months and no more than 1 hour per day up to 5 years old. However, surveys suggest these limits are routinely exceeded.
Pediatricians Emphasize Importance of No Screens Before Age 3
In light of the increasing evidence, pediatricians are doubling down on the APA guidelines. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, editor-in-chief of JAMA Pediatrics, said:
“The single most important thing parents can do for their children’s cognitive, language and social-emotional development is to read with them. Yet that activity is often being displaced by screen time.”
The APA also points out that critical language skills develop rapidly in the first 3 years, facilitated by real interaction with parents, caregivers and surroundings:
“Verbal interactions with adults enable infants and toddlers to hear a rich set of language. When toddlers interact with hands-on toys, they build motor skills. Real-world activities also nurture abstract thinking necessary for literacy and numeracy.”
Yet surveys indicate 42% of children under 2 are exposed to over 2 hours of background TV daily and spend 30 minutes explicitly viewing content. These numbers only increase as kids approach kindergarten age.
Many parents resort to screens to calm children down. But Dr. Christakis argues touch, movement and human connection are the building blocks of self-regulation. Relying on screens can interfere with developing these skills.
How Parents Can Limit Early Screen Time Exposure
In light of the risks screens pose to sensory and cognitive development, here are tips from child experts on avoiding devices:
Delay media exposure – Prioritize reading, pretend play, exploring outdoors and socializing. Wait until at least 3 years old for high quality programming in moderation.
Avoid background TV – Constant noisy stimulation from TVs in the household disrupts language processing even when the child isn’t directly viewing.
Model good habits – Be mindful of your own screen use and make face-to-face interactions a priority.
Get grandparents on board – Many kids get screen time while under grandparents’ care. Communicate your healthy limits to provide consistency.
Invest in engaging toys & activities – Fill your child’s environment with age-appropriate games, puzzles, building blocks and open-ended toys like play dough that force hands-on exploration. Plan interactive outings to museums, parks and zoos.
The revelation that early screen time can seriously impact brain wiring adds more urgency for parents to delay digital media. While more research is underway, medical professionals agree that activities requiring real-world interaction are most beneficial to babies’ burgeoning minds.
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