Infant Sensory Seeking: Why Some Kids Watch TV More than Others
Mon, April 19, 2021

Infant Sensory Seeking: Why Some Kids Watch TV More than Others


Most children nowadays are plugged into devices, like smartphones, TVs, and tablets. It can be a part of a healthy childhood but too much screen time can also be a bad thing. But how come some kids enjoy watching TV more than others? New findings from the University of East Anglia found that it could be due to children’s temperament.

The researchers share that the brain responses of 10-month old infants are predictors of whether they would enjoy watching fast-paced television shows six months later. It is an important finding as there has been an ongoing debate about the health effects of screen time on children.

The sensory environment of babies

The sensory environment of babies and young children is cluttered and complex, but one of the first developmental milestones in infants is to pay attention to something. Even before they begin asking questions, kids differ greatly in how driven they are in engaging with new sounds or sights and in exploring their surroundings, lead researcher Dr. Teodora Gliga explained via South Health and Lasting Wealth.

Their team wanted to know why babies appear to be so different in the manner they seek out new visual sensory stimulation, like some are attracted to moving images on TV, bright colors, and shiny objects. There are already existing theories regarding this before their study. One theory (processing speed hypothesis) suggests that some babies are simply faster at processing information that’s why they search for new stimulation more frequently than others. Another theory (optimal stimulation hypothesis) is that less sensitive babies also seek less visual stimulation. For their recent study, though, they support a third theory (information prioritization hypothesis). It explains that babies have a preference for novelty that makes some seek more varied visual stimulation.

Gliga and the team used electroencephalography (EEG) brain imaging method to study the brain activity of 48 healthy, full-term ten-month-old babies (24 females). As the babies watched a 40-second video from the movie Fantasia on repeat, the electrical activity on their brain was also being monitored.



Result of the EEG brain imaging test

The result shows that babies’ brain waves responded to random interruptions in the movie in the form of black and white checkerboard stimuli that suddenly flashed on their screen. EEG responses further reveal that babies learned the content of the Disney movie as they watched it on repeat.

The researchers expected that as the video became less novel to the babies, they would give less attention to it and begin to notice the checkerboard more. However, the result was different. Some of the infants did respond to the black and white checkerboard earlier than others while they continue to learn the 40-second clip, signifying that they already had enough of the old information. On the other hand, some babies remained engaged with the clip even if there was not much they could learn from it.

Sensory behavior

The researchers also asked the parents and carers of the babies to answer a questionnaire about the sensory behavior of their baby. Some questions include whether they believe their baby enjoyed watching a brightly-colored fast-paced TV shows. A follow-up questionnaire was given to the parents six months later, containing the same questions.

Co-author Elena Serena Piccardi said discovery and exploration are important for children’s cognitive development and learning. However, different kids may benefit from the different environment for their learning. The present study will help us understand how individualized environments can nurture kids’ learning and support achievement for their full potential.



Screen time and children

Last year, UK children aged between three and four watch TV for an average of 12.7 hours per week while kids 5-7 years old watch 11.1 hours per week based on a Statista survey of 2,343 respondents in the United Kingdom.

In the US, around one-third of parents of young children regularly allow their kids to watch videos on YouTube. Some 34% of US parents with kids age 11 or younger say they let their child or children watch videos on YouTube regularly, 47% said on occasion, while 19% said they never let their child watch YouTube videos, reports Pew Research Center.

For children ages six to 14 in New Zealand, Australia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand, it found that 58% of them multiscreen in 2018. Of those APAC kids who multiscreen, 57% use a tablet and a laptop at the same time, 42% use a smartphone and a laptop, and 32% use a tablet and a TV. Although the television set doesn’t factor as much in children’s multiscreen viewing, it remains their second-favorite device behind smartphones. A laptop is their least favorite device, according to Kidscreen.

Although these surveys were for children in the UK, US, and Asia-Pacific, the trend also likely applies globally.

Screen time has its good side as it can be educational and entertaining. It can open up new worlds for children and allow them to travel the globe virtually, gain exposure to ideas they may not see in their community, and learn about different cultures. But it is also worthwhile for parents to limit screen time so that it remains a positive experience.

What’s recommended?

For parents, it may be tempting to put their toddler in front of a TV, especially if the shows are created just for kids but the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend doing so. They believe these early years are crucial for infant development and they only allow screen time for babies up to 18 months old in the form of video chat with family and friends.

For 18 months to 24 months old, some screen time is allowed with a caregiver or a parent. For preschoolers, they are allowed to watch one hour a day of educational programs together with their parent or caregiver, who can help them explain what they are seeing.

No two children are alike. Every one of them is an individual and they differ intellectually, emotionally, socially, and physically. Every child should be understood by parents in their individuality. The present study highlights the importance of an individualized environment to promote kids’ cognitive development.