Concerns are mounting over the impacts of screen time after several new studies found links between early exposure and sensory differences and potential developmental delays in toddlers. With screens ubiquitous in modern households, researchers are warning parents to carefully limit and monitor younger children’s screen time.
Toddlers face higher risks from growing up with screens
A recent Drexel University study made waves by reporting that toddlers who engaged in over an hour a day of screen time were more likely to experience challenges with sensory regulation. These included hypersensitivity to noise and touch, attention issues, and more temper tantrums.
Researchers found the probability of clinically significant sensory issues doubled with every hourly increase in daily screen time. Their analysis drew on data from over 350 children ages 12 to 48 months old.
While the research does not prove screens cause sensory processing problems, lead author Dr. Hira Shrestha believes it indicates reducing screen time could lessen these risks during key developmental windows.
“This is really about promoting children’s health and development in their earliest years,” she said. “Setting limits to screen access, especially for very young children in this rapid period of brain development, could reduce children’s risks of longer-term issues.”
Warnings grow against passive screen time for babies
Pediatric experts already recommend no screens at all for children under 18 months, other than occasional video chatting. But advice continues to shift with emerging research on screen impacts.
A January 2024 study suggested background TV can interfere with toddlers’ learning from parent interactions. Researchers found overheard media diminished 14-24 month olds’ understanding and retention of new words their parents introduced while reading books together.
Lead author Dr. Adena Schachner believes this illustrates why even indirect or passive screen exposure can disrupt babies’ development.
“Children learn an incredible amount in the first few years of life, and grown-up interactions are key to that process. Background screens get in the way and can compete for young children’s attention,” Schachner said.
Early research points to lasting impacts
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) first introduced screen time guidelines over 15 years ago due to concerns excessive media could fuel issues like obesity. But emerging research suggests more pervasive risks, including to brain development.
Studies indicate brains continue rapid development into toddlerhood and early exposure to digital input could rewire connections. Some experts believe this early immersion prevents babies from properly integrating sensory information from the real world.
In her recent study, Schachner said effects resembled those from direct interaction but lasted after screens were off, interfering with parent-child interactions.
“We’ve thought background TV just makes it hard to focus in the moment, but it may disrupt deeper learning processes,” said Schachner.
If small daily exposures can impact language and sensory integration, researchers worry screens’ neurological effects likely compound over time. Some experts advised parents to look into signs of sensory disorders if children already averaged over an hour of screen time daily before age 2.
Stepped-up guidance for digital age parenting
Parenting young kids has always required navigating risks, but some experts insist screens bring qualitatively different ones. While research continues, they urged families to apply safety-first logic used with exposures like lead rather than wait for irrefutable harm data.
Boston pediatrician Dr. Michael Woolridge said even unlikely detriments may outweigh modest benefits for babies’ developing brains:
“When risks concern a child’s future neurological functioning and assessment tools remain limited, we cannot afford a reactionary approach…We must err strongly on the side of caution rather than risk life-long deficits.”
|Recommended maximum daily screen time by age
|1-2 years: 10-15 min Facetime with caregiver only
|2-5 years: 30-60 min high quality children’s programming
In line with emerging research, pediatrics academies continue advancing recommends against passive TV/video exposure under 2-3 and for consistent limits up to mid-childhood. They suggest parents focus on activities like reading, pretend play, and outdoor time to foster development.
Bracing for the next stage of research
While exciting, the still early-stage research leaves many open questions concerning exact mechanisms and thresholds. Most importantly, long-term studies tracking children’s development will indicate whether early heavy exposure leads to real-world issues.
Researchers plan follow-up work parsing types of content and delivery formats. Upcoming studies will assess impacts of parameters like program pacing, interactivity levels, coviewing styles, and more.
Drexel’s Shrestha looks ahead to the expanding research: “This represents just the first step in elucidating screen time’s risks and parameters across childhood. With technology evolving rapidly, parents depend on the scientific community to illuminate its impacts.”
For now, consensus cautions families to consider risks and apply judicious limits. With screen entertainment deeply embedded in society, impacts on developing minds may prove considerable.
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