Screen Time in Young Children Linked to Abnormal Sensory Processing Interview with:
Karen F. Heffler, MD

Researcher, Autism Spectrum Disorder
Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry
Drexel University College of Medicine
Philadelphia, PA What is the background for this study?

Atypical sensory processing is common in neurodevelopmental disorders, affecting approximately 60% of children with ADHD and up to 90% of children with autism. Sensory symptoms are associated with hyperactivity, restricted/repetitive behavior, irritability, behavioral problems, and emotional dysregulation. Sensory-related meltdowns and symptoms can be very disruptive to family-life, interfere with family participation in community events and are associated with increased caregiver stress.

Prior to this study there was little understanding of potential risk factors for atypical sensory processing.

The researchers used data from the National Children’s Study to determine the association between early-life screen time and sensory processing outcomes among toddlers. What are the main findings?

Response:  This study finds an association between greater screen time in the first 2 years of life and “high” sensory related behaviors in areas including sensory seeking (e.g., attracted to spinning or shiny objects, plays with food, licks/smells objects); sensory avoiding (e.g., resists new foods, resists being held, escapes noisy environments); sensory sensitivity (e.g., easily startles, cries when in contact with rough or cold surfaces, melts down with schedule changes); and low registration (e.g., avoids eye contact, poor or slow response to name being called or to familiar voices).

This study adds atypical sensory processing to the list of other developmental outcomes, including autism, ADHD, language delay, brain differences and behavioral problems associated with early-life screen exposure. Were any of the sensory processing changes possibly beneficial to the individual, ie improved hand-eye coordination, enhanced visual field perception, reaction times etc?

Response:  The current study did not look specifically at sensory processing findings that are likely to be of benefit to the individual. What recommendations do you have for future research as a results of this study?

Response: Further research is suggested to determine if reducing screen time in young children who are high screen viewers and have challenging sensory-related symptoms, is associated with improvements in those symptoms. Likewise, research is needed to see if limiting screen exposure in young children is associated with children developing fewer sensory processing problems.

Potentially, research could also determine if early-life screen time is a contributing factor to the sensory hyper-connectivity and audiovisually oriented attention mechanisms found in some children with autism. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: This study gives further evidence that screen time for the youngest children should be avoided.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen viewing (with the exception of video chatting with relatives) for children from birth to at least age 18-24 months of age.

For young children who are experiencing symptoms associated with atypical sensory processing, clinicians may wish to inquire about the children’s screen viewing habits.  If the infant or toddler has a history of TV/video viewing for several hours/day or the TV is frequently on in the background, clinicians and parents may consider a trial of turning off the screens and using the time instead for social interaction and play. There is emerging evidence that markedly reducing screen time and increasing socially-engaging activities in young children with autism, for example, is associated with reduction of autism-related symptoms including the sensory-related symptoms of restricted/repetitive behavior.


Heffler KFAcharya BSubedi KBennett 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

The information on is provided for educational purposes only, and is in no way intended to diagnose, cure, or treat any medical or other condition.

Some links may be sponsored. Products are not endorsed.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health and ask your doctor any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. In addition to all other limitations and disclaimers in this agreement, service provider and its third party providers disclaim any liability or loss in connection with the content provided on this website.



Last Updated on January 8, 2024 by Marie Benz MD FAAD