Babies’ TV Exposure May Affect Their Sensory Processing Ability

babies tv time

According to data from Drexel’s College of Medicine, babies and toddlers exposed to television or video viewing may be more likely to exhibit atypical sensory behaviors such as being disengaged and disinterested in activities, seeking more intense stimulation in an environment, or being overwhelmed by sensations such as loud sounds or bright lights.

Children exposed to more TV by their second birthday were more likely to develop atypical sensory processing behaviors such as “sensation seeking” and “sensation avoiding,” as well as “low registration” — being less sensitive or slower to respond to stimuli such as their name being called — by 33 months old.

Sensory processing abilities reflect the body’s ability to respond efficiently and appropriately to information and stimuli received by its sensory systems, such as what the toddler hears, sees, feels, and tastes.

Sensory Processing Scales

The researchers gathered data from the National Children’s Study of 1,471 children (50% male) from 2011 to 2014 on television or DVD viewing by babies and toddlers at 12, 18, and 24 months. Sensory processing outcomes were assessed at 33 months using the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile (ITSP), a questionnaire completed by parents/caregivers, designed to give insights on how children process what they see, hear and smell, etc.

ITSP subscales look at children’s patterns of low registration, sensation seeking (excessively touching or smelling objects), sensory sensitivity (overly upset or irritated by lights and noise), and sensation avoiding (actively trying to control their environment to avoid things like having their teeth brushed).

Children are classified as “typical,” “high,” or “low” based on how frequently they exhibit different sensory-related activities. Scores were judged “typical” if they were within one standard deviation of the ITSP norm average.

Key Findings

Screen exposure was measured at 12 months based on caregiver responses to the question: “Does your child watch TV and/or DVDs? (yes/no),” and at 18 and 24 months based on caregiver responses to the question: “Over the past 30 days, on average, how many hours per day did your child watch TV and/or DVDs?”

The researchers controlled for age, whether the child was born prematurely, caregiver education, race/ethnicity, and other factors such as how frequently the child engages in play or walks with the caregiver.

The results showed:

  • At 12 months, any screen exposure compared to no screen viewing was associated with a 105% greater likelihood of exhibiting “high” sensory behaviors instead of “typical” sensory behaviors related to low registration at 33 months
  • At 18 months, each additional hour of daily screen time was associated with 23% increased odds of exhibiting “high” sensory behaviors related to later sensation avoiding and low registration.
  • At 24 months, each additional hour of daily screen time was associated with a 20% increased odds of “high” sensation seeking, sensory sensitivity, and sensation avoiding at 33 months.

The findings add to a growing list of concerning health and developmental outcomes associated with screen time in infants and toddlers, such as language delay, autism spectrum disorder, behavioral issues, sleep struggles, attention problems, and problem-solving delays.

“This association could have important implications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, as atypical sensory processing is much more prevalent in these populations,”

said lead author Karen Heffler, MD, an associate professor of Psychiatry in Drexel’s College of Medicine.

Atypical Sensory Processing

Atypical sensory processing is closely connected with repetitive behavior, such as that found in autism spectrum disorder. Future research may look into whether early childhood screen use contributes to the sensory brain hyperconnectivity reported in autism spectrum disorders, such as heightened brain reactions to sensory stimuli.

“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,”

said Heffler.

Screen use is discouraged by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for babies aged 18 to 24 months. The AAP considers live video chat to be acceptable because the engagement may be beneficial. For children aged 2 to 5, the AAP recommends limiting digital media use to no more than one hour each day.

“Parent training and education are key to minimizing, or hopefully even avoiding, screen time in children younger than two years,”

said senior author David Bennett, Ph.D., a professor of Psychiatry in Drexel’s College of Medicine.

Toddler Screen Time Rising

Despite the evidence, many toddlers are viewing screens increasingly frequently. According to a 2019 study letter published in JAMA Pediatrics, children aged 2 and under in the United States averaged three hours and three minutes of screen viewing per day in 2014, up from one hour and 19 minutes in 1997. According to a July 2015 study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Behavior, some parents blame screen use on weariness and a lack of cheap options.

Although the current study only looked at television or DVD viewing rather than material viewed on smartphones or tablets, it does provide some of the first data associating early-life digital media exposure to later abnormal sensory processing across numerous activities.

Future research, according to the authors, is needed to better understand the mechanisms behind the link between early-life screen usage and abnormal sensory processing.

  1. Heffler KF, Acharya B, Subedi K, Bennett DS. Early-Life Digital Media Experiences and Development of Atypical Sensory Processing. JAMA Pediatr. Published online January 08, 2024. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.5923