A new study published this week in JAMA Pediatrics found that increased screen time exposure at ages 2-3 is associated with atypical sensory processing behaviors later in childhood. This adds to growing evidence that excessive media use can negatively impact child development.
Excessive Screen Time Linked to Sensory Issues
The study analyzed data from over 500 children and found that those who had 1-4 hours of daily screen time at ages 2-3 were significantly more likely to experience sensory modulation issues at age 5-6 compared to those with under an hour per day. Sensory modulation refers to the brain’s ability to regulate its response to sensory stimuli from the environment.
Children with sensory modulation disorders can have unusual over-reactions or under-reactions to things like noises, lights, textures, or touch. This can impact their ability to play, behave, and interact appropriately.
The lead researcher, Dr. Micah Mazurek from the University of Virginia, said:
“The more time toddlers and young children spent engaged with screens on a daily basis, the more likely they were to experience sensory processing problems at age 5 or 6. These issues reflect differences in the way children’s brains process information from their environments.”
Calls to Limit Screen Time for Young Kids
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding digital media exposure for children under 18 months, except for video chatting. For ages 2-5, media use should be limited to just 1 hour per day of high-quality programming.
However, surveys show average screen time far exceeds these guidelines. The study found that 37% of 2-3 year olds use over 2 hours per day.
In light of the troubling link to sensory issues, experts are calling for tighter limits on screen exposure in early childhood. Dr. Mazurek commented:
“Setting boundaries early with consistent rules about screen time can help develop good digital media habits for later on. Media is only getting more ubiquitous, so this problem is likely only going to grow over time if we don’t curb excessive usage.”
Other professionals emphasized the importance of replacing screens with interactive play and communication with caregivers to support healthy development.
Screen Exposure Also Linked to Behavioral Issues
This research builds on previous studies showing associations between early childhood media use and conditions like ADHD, sleep problems, and obesity. Links to emotional and behavioral disorders have also been demonstrated.
For example, a 2021 study found the risk of developing significant conduct problems by age 5 was doubled in kids with over 2 hours of screen time per day at age 3. These effects persisted even when accounting for confounding factors.
The researchers theorize excessive stimulation from screens during critical windows of brain development may underlie many of these issues. Rapidly changing visuals and sounds can overload still-maturing sensory processing systems.
Calls for Public Health Campaigns
In light of accumulating evidence of potential harm, experts are arguing screen time should become a major public health focus. Some are likening it to previous successful campaigns to reduce tobacco and lead exposure.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital, commented:
“We need a nationwide effort to raise awareness about managing screen habits, like we once did with smoking. Pediatricians should routinely counsel new parents on avoiding excessive screen exposure from the earliest months of life.”
Advocates say interventions should target not just parents but also schools, as children’s technology use often ramps up dramatically at this age. Others recommend policy changes like warning labels on devices and apps indicating risks of overuse.
What This Means for Parents
For concerned parents, this study makes clear the importance of restricting media – especially in those first few years when brains are rapidly developing. Experts suggest:
- Avoiding any screen use for children under 18-24 months old
- Capping daily screentime at 1 hour for ages 2-5
- Co-viewing and discussing content with kids
- Promoting interactive activities like reading out loud and playing together
Setting these habits early will lead to healthier media consumption as children grow older. Parents should also pay attention for any signs of sensory overreactions in response to stimuli, and discuss any concerns with their pediatrician.
While more research is still needed, warnings about excessive screentime in toddlerhood will likely continue mounting. This study provides the clearest evidence yet of potential long-term impacts on sensory processing. Heeding recommendations to limit media use can help ensure healthy development.
Summary of Key Study Findings
|Daily Screen Time (Ages 2-3)
|% With Sensory Differences (Age 5-6)
|< 1 hour
|> 4 hours
AAP Recommended Screentime Limits by Age
|< 18 months
|Avoid (except video chatting)
|> 5 years
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