Televisión vs la Tierra1
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Social interaction may mitigate effects, according to a new study.

It's probably of little surprise that exposure to digital media can affect emotional processing. However, new research reveals it may also shape how children experience sensations.

A new study links heavy media use starting as young as age 1 with atypical sensory processing down the road. That means how kids take in stimuli through their sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch can reflect deficits or hypersensitivities.

What Is Sensory Processing?

Sensory processing allows seamless communication between brain and body. Our senses take in information — the colors of a flag, the buzz of a bee, the feel of a soft blanket, the smell of a flower, the sweetness of chocolate — and shuttle it to the brain for interpretation ("That's the American flag!" "Avoid the bee!" "I'm cozy." "That's a pretty flower." "I'm satisfied.")

When this input-computing pipeline malfunctions, sensory reactions become atypical. Children may wind up hypersensitive or hyposensitive to various stimuli. Those with hypersensitivities might be overwhelmed by sensations most tune out, like blinking lights or clothing tags. Conversely, hyposensitive kids crave sensory input, always touching, spinning, seeking thrills. They have high thresholds, barely registering signals like injuries and having slow responses to pain or discomfort.

While some sensory differences are typical in childhood, they appear to be most prevalent in certain neurodevelopmental disorders. About 60 percent of children with ADHD and 70-95 percent of those with autism spectrum disorder display atypical sensory behaviors.

The current findings, published in JAMA Pediatrics, add atypical sensory processing to the list of problems already linked to too much screen time, including delay language, slow thinking skills, disrupt behavior and sleep.

Impact of Screen Time on Sensory Processing in Toddlers

To determine if early TV and video exposure leads to atypical sensory processing, the research team analyzed data from 1,471 children in the National Institutes of Health's Children's Study. The children were born between 2011-2014, with equal numbers of males and females included.

Parents rated their children's sensory behaviors on a 5-point scale, judging how frequently kids exhibited reactions like noise-making or escape from loud environments — from almost always (1) to almost never (5). Lower scores indicated more prevalent sensory patterns. The team compared these ratings to screen exposure data collected when children were 12, 18 and 24 months old.

The results linked early and frequent media use with sensation avoidance, sensation seeking, and sensory sensitivity by age 1. For example, increased screen time correlated with avoiding loud spaces or constantly seeking visual stimulation. High media consumption was also associated with decreased likelihood of underreacting to stimuli.

While early and frequent exposure was associated with atypical sensory processing, the researchers could not definitively prove causality between media use and sensory abnormalities.

They hypothesize high early screen exposure may trigger brain changes similarly seen in autism spectrum disorder. These include overgrown sensory processing areas, heightened responses to stimuli, and wiring that impedes higher cognition.

"To the extent that high screen time may increase risk for ASD symptoms, the current findings raise the possibility that screen time may do so by impacting sensory development," the authors wrote.What Can Help?On a positive note, replacing screen time with social activities appeared to mitigate sensory development issues, according to the authors.

Previous studies have found that substituting screen time with social interaction can lessen autism spectrum disorder symptom. For example, research shows children engaging more with others improved communication and behavior.

Additionally, initial gains from decreasing media use may reverse if high screen habits resume, the study notes. Children had developmental advancements when reducing screen time, but started regressing if they eventually returned to prior high exposure.
Amie Dahnke is a freelance writer and editor residing in California. She has covered community journalism and health care news for nearly a decade, winning a California Newspaper Publishers Award for her work.