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Kids' screen time directly linked to autism and ADHD disorders

A recent study from Drexel University reveals alarming new insights into the effects of screen time on toddlers. 

The research suggests that babies and toddlers exposed to television or video viewing may exhibit atypical sensory behaviors and have difficulty processing the world around them.

Atypical sensory behaviors include being disengaged, seeking more intense stimulation, or being overwhelmed by sensory inputs such as loud sounds or bright lights.

Screen time impact on children under age two

Findings indicated that these children were more likely to develop behaviors such as “sensation seeking,” “sensation avoiding,” and “low registration” (less sensitive or slower to stimuli) by 33 months old.

Karen Heffler, MD, an associate professor of Psychiatry at Drexel and the lead author of the study, emphasizes the potential implications of these findings for conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, where atypical sensory processing is more common.

“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 Dr. Heffler. 

“Repetitive behavior, such as that seen in autism spectrum disorder, is highly correlated with atypical sensory processing. 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,” Dr. Heffler concluded.

How the study was conducted

The research focused on children who had greater exposure to TV viewing by their second birthday.

Sensory processing skills, crucial for efficient and appropriate response to sensory stimuli (like hearing, seeing, touching, tasting), were assessed using the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile (ITSP).

The ITSP subscales assess children’s sensory behavior patterns, including low registration, sensation seeking (like excessive touching or smelling objects), sensory sensitivity (such as irritation from lights and noise), and sensation avoiding (actively controlling their environment to avoid experiences like teeth brushing).

Based on the frequency of these sensory-related behaviors, children receive a score in the “typical,” “high,” or “low” categories. A score falls into the “typical” category if it lies within one standard deviation of the ITSP norm’s average.

What the research team learned

The research team analyzed 2011-2014 data from the National Children’s Study involving 1,471 children (50% male) nationwide.

Screen exposure measurements at different age milestones (12, 18, and 24 months) were based on caregiver responses.

The findings were quite revealing:

  1. At 12 months, any screen exposure was linked to a 105% greater likelihood of “high” sensory behaviors related to low registration at 33 months.
  2. At 18 months, each additional hour of daily screen time increased the odds of “high” sensory behaviors related to sensation avoiding and low registration by 23%.
  3. By 24 months, each additional hour of screen time was associated with a 20% increased odds of “high” sensation seeking, sensory sensitivity, and sensation avoiding behaviors at 33 months.

The study accounted for various factors like age, premature birth, caregiver education, and race/ethnicity, as well as the child’s engagement in activities like play or walking with the caregiver.

These findings add to a concerning list of health and developmental outcomes linked to screen time, including language delay, autism spectrum disorder, behavioral issues, sleep struggles, attention problems, and problem-solving delays.

In children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ADHD, atypical sensory processing can lead to irritability, hyperactivity, eating and sleeping issues, social problems, trouble with executive function, anxiety, and a lower quality of life.

Screen time and developmental concerns

The study adds to a growing list of developmental and behavioral issues linked to screen time in infants and toddlers.

These include language delays, autism spectrum disorder, behavioral problems, sleep disturbances, attention issues, and delays in problem-solving skills.

“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 Dr. Heffler.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises against screen time for toddlers under 18-24 months, with limited digital media use for those aged 2 to 5 years.

“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, PhD, a professor of Psychiatry in Drexel’s College of Medicine.”

Further research is needed

Many toddlers frequently view screens, despite the evidence against it. In the United States, children aged 2 and under watched screens for an average of 3 hours and 3 minutes a day in 2014, an increase from 1 hour and 19 minutes per day in 1997, a 2019 research letter in JAMA Pediatrics reports.

A July 2015 study in the Journal of Nutrition and Behavior found that some parents turn to screen time due to exhaustion and a lack of affordable alternatives.

The study focused on television or DVD watching, not including media viewed on smartphones or tablets. The authors call for more research to understand the mechanisms behind the association between early-life screen time and atypical sensory processing.

In summary, the study reveals that early screen exposure, including television and video viewing, in babies and toddlers may lead to atypical sensory behaviors.

Children exposed to screens by their second birthday showed increased tendencies towards sensation seeking, sensation avoiding, and low registration (delayed response to stimuli) by 33 months.

These findings align with growing concerns about the developmental and behavioral impacts of screen time in young children, emphasizing the need for reduced screen exposure and parent education to mitigate potential developmental risks.

More about atypical sensory behavior

As mentioned above, atypical sensory behavior refers to unusual ways individuals perceive and respond to sensory information.

This phenomenon is particularly relevant in the context of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It can also be present in other populations, such as ADHD and anxiety disorders.

Hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity

Atypical sensory behaviors often manifest as either hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli. Individuals with hypersensitivity may find certain textures, sounds, lights, or smells overwhelming and distressing.

For example, the hum of fluorescent lighting or the feel of certain fabrics against the skin can cause significant discomfort or anxiety.

Conversely, individuals with hyposensitivity might seek out intense sensory experiences. They may enjoy deep pressure, loud noises, or bright lights. This seeking behavior can be a way to stimulate an under-responsive sensory system.

Role of children’s screen time

As shown in the study discussed above, screen time can significantly impact individuals with atypical sensory behaviors, which are often associated with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The effects of screen time on these individuals vary and depend on several factors, including the type and amount of screen use, the individual’s specific sensory sensitivities, and their overall context and lifestyle.

While screen time can offer certain benefits to individuals with atypical sensory behaviors, it’s crucial to manage it carefully to avoid potential negative impacts. A balanced approach, tailored to the individual’s sensory needs and overall developmental goals, is key.

Impact on daily life

The impact of atypical sensory behavior can be profound. It can affect daily functioning, social interactions, and overall quality of life.

For instance, a child with hypersensitivity to sound may struggle in a noisy classroom, impacting their learning and social engagement.

Strategies and support

Understanding and accommodating these sensory needs is crucial. Strategies can include creating sensory-friendly environments, using sensory aids like noise-canceling headphones, and tailored therapy approaches.

Occupational therapists often play a key role in helping individuals manage their sensory experiences, using techniques like sensory integration therapy.

Recognizing and respecting atypical sensory behavior is vital for fostering inclusive and supportive environments for all individuals, especially those with neurodevelopmental differences.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.


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