A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Winter 2024 | Number 1, Volume 38

Two studies explore possible effects of screen time on ASD or sensory problems in children

While some research suggests that there may be an association between greater use of screens and the development of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), a new meta-analysis reports no clear connection between the two. However, a second study suggests that early exposure to television or videos may be associated with an increase in atypical sensory behaviors.

In the first study, a meta-analysis by researchers in Israel and the United Kingdom, Yaakov Ophir and colleagues analyzed data from 46 studies with a total of 562,131 participants. The researchers did detect a small association between screen time and ASD, particularly in studies focusing on general screen use by children under 12 years of age. However, they say, “When accounting for publication bias [a form of bias that leads to more published studies supporting a hypothesis than disproving it], the findings were no longer statistically significant.”

The researchers also say their study could not rule out the possibility that any association between screen time and ASD works in the opposite direction—that is, that children with ASD may gravitate to screen time because they find screen activities less challenging than social interactions. They also cite research indicating that social media, educational television programs, and some video games can have positive effects for individuals with ASD.

The researchers conclude that “the findings of this systematic review and meta-analysis suggest that the proclaimed association between screen use and ASD is not sufficiently supported in the existing literature.”

In the second study, Karen Frankel Heffler and colleagues analyzed data collected between 2011 and 2014 on TV or DVD exposure of 1,471 toddlers at 12, 18, and 24 months of age. When the children were 33 months of age, the researchers used the Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile (ITSP), an assessment completed by parents or caregivers, to identify children with typical sensory processing as well as those with low registration (reduced sensitivity to stimuli), sensation-seeking behavior, sensory sensitivity, and/or sensation-avoiding behavior.

They report, “In this cohort study, early-life television or video exposure was associated with atypical sensory processing in low registration, sensation seeking, sensory sensitivity, and sensation avoiding domains of the ITSP, after controlling for perinatal and demographic variables.”

However, they note, effects differed depending on the ages at which children were exposed. They conclude, “Further research is needed to understand why early media exposure is associated with specific sensory-related behaviors, including those seen in autism spectrum disorder, and if minimizing screen media at a young age can improve subsequent sensory-related outcomes.”


Citations

“Screen time and autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” Yaakov Ophir, Hananel Rosenberg, Refael Tikochinski, Shani Dalyot, and Yuliya Lipshits-Braziler, JAMA Network Open, December 8, 2023 (free online). Address: Yaakov Ophir, Department of Education, Ariel University, 3 Kiryat Hamada St., Ariel 4070000, Israel, [email protected].

—and—

“Screen time may not be tied to autism spectrum disorder,” Lori Solomon, Medical Xpress, December 18, 2023.

—and—

“Early-life digital media experiences and development of atypical sensory processing,” Karen Frankel Heffler, Binod Acharya, Keshab Subedi, and David S. Bennett, JAMA Pediatrics, January 8, 2024 (online). Address: Karen Frankel Heffler, Department of Psychiatry, Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19129.

—and—

“Exposure to TV may affect babies’ and toddlers’ ability to process the world around them, new study suggests,” news release, Drexel University, January 8, 2024.