The Impact of Early Screen Time on Infants and Toddlers

Lola MagazineKiddos, Lola Shreveport, Michelle Yetman, PHD.

The impact of screen time on infants and toddlers is a topic of growing concern among researchers and healthcare professionals. Excessive screen time during critical developmental stages can have various negative effects on children’s physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional development. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in screen time across all age groups in the United States, a trend with potential consequences for mental health. While excessive television watching, social media scrolling, and video gaming can impact both children and adults, the effects may be particularly pronounced in infants and toddlers.

Recent studies have linked screen use in infants and toddlers to an increased risk of autism. A study from Japan revealed that longer screen time at age 1 was associated with a higher likelihood of an autism diagnosis by age 3, particularly among boys. While more research needs to be done to fully understand this connection, it is important that we monitor the impact technology can have on a young child’s development. In this study, the lead researcher, Dr. Nagahide Takahashi of Nagoya University, explained children who were genetically at increased risk for autism tended to have higher screen time. It is important to remember that a correlation, which means two things co-occurring together, does not mean causation. It is possible that being intensely drawn to screens may be an early sign of autism, rather than a cause, as children with autism are often more attracted to objects rather than people.

Screen use during infancy and early childhood has been associated with negative developmental outcomes, highlighting the importance of promoting alternative activities that support healthy development. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages screen time for babies under 18-24 months, advocating for time limitations on digital media use for children aged 2 to 5 years. Excessive screen time during critical early developmental stages can have various negative effects on children’s physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional development, including:

Delayed Language Development: Excessive screen time has been linked to delayed language development in infants and toddlers. This delay can manifest as a reduced vocabulary, difficulties in articulation, and challenges in understanding language.

Impaired Social Skills: Screen time can hinder the development of social skills in young children. Excessive exposure to screens may limit opportunities for face-to-face interaction, which is crucial for learning social cues, developing empathy, and forming interpersonal relationships.

Disrupted Sleep Patterns: The use of screens, particularly before bedtime, can disrupt sleep patterns in infants and toddlers. The blue light emitted by screens can interfere with the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles, leading to difficulties in falling asleep and staying asleep.

Decreased Physical Activity: Excessive screen time is associated with a sedentary lifestyle in young children, which can contribute to health issues such as obesity and poor cardiovascular health. When children spend more time in front of screens, they are less likely to engage in physical activities that are essential for their physical development and overall well-being.

Attention and Behavioral Problems: Prolonged exposure to screens has been linked to attention and behavioral problems in infants and toddlers. Screen time can overstimulate young children’s brains, making it difficult for them to focus on other activities and leading to issues such as impulsivity and hyperactivity.

Increased Risk of Screen Addiction: Early exposure to screens may increase the risk of developing screen addiction or problematic screen use later in life. Infants and toddlers who are introduced to screens at a young age may develop unhealthy screen habits that persist into childhood and adolescence.

In a groundbreaking study, researchers at Drexel’s College of Medicine have unearthed compelling evidence suggesting that exposing babies and toddlers to television or video viewing may negatively affect their sensory processing skills. The findings, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, shed light on the potential consequences of screen time on young children’s ability to engage with the world around them. The study, based on data gathered from the National Children’s Study involving 1,471 children nationwide between 2011 and 2014, reveals a concerning link between early screen exposure and atypical sensory behaviors. Children exposed to greater TV viewing by their second birthday were more likely to exhibit behaviors categorized as “sensation seeking” and “sensation avoiding” by 33 months old. Additionally, these children displayed “low registration,” indicating reduced sensitivity or delayed responses to stimuli.

The researchers employed the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile (ITSP) to assess sensory processing outcomes at 33 months. The ITSP, completed by parents or caregivers, provided insights into how children process sensory information, encompassing what they see, hear, touch, and taste.

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

The study’s lead author, Dr. Karen Heffler, emphasizes the potential implications for conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Atypical sensory processing is prevalent in these populations, and the study suggests that early-life screen time might contribute to sensory brain hyperconnectivity seen in ASD.

Given the above findings, it is important to inform parents on the importance of minimizing screen time for children under two years. While that tablet or iPhone may entertain your 1-year-old in the short term, no parent would want to intentionally hurt their child’s long term development. Future research is needed to delve into the mechanisms linking early-life screen time to developmental difficulties. In the meantime, parents may wish to remember the activities of their childhood, such as playing with blocks, going for a walk and exploring the real world while interacting with other people.

Michelle M. Yetman, Phd

Clinical Psychologist

Associate Professor, School Of Allied Health Professions Children’s Center

LSU Health Shreveport